Plantation Power

Slavery in the New World: A Reader in Comparative History

edited by Laura Foner, edited by Eugene D. Genovese
Prentice Hall, 284 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Now that the Sixties have closed, it is fitting to salute Eugene Genovese and the salutary, disturbing, critical effect that he must have on the writing of American history—performing, indeed, for his own country the service which Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm did for Britain in the Fifties. The rise of very sophisticated, scholarly, and sensitive Marxist history has been a feature of the cultural life of both countries, making the historians of an older generation look curiously dusty and old-fashioned and bringing the English-speaking historians much closer to those of France and Italy. Not that I can accept in totality the analysis of Genovese any more than I can that of Hill and Hobsbawm: often there is a twist and slither in their arguments in order to achieve the hoped-for consistency with doctrine. But of that, later. Let us stress their virtues.

They are the heirs, the inheritors, of a vital change which began to take place in historical study at the turn of this century. For most of the nineteenth century historians were concerned either with annals or with biographies. They wrote multi-volume history of countries, reigns, wars, or people. They told stories splendidly, dramatically, and they pointed morals and taught lessons so that all who read them might be made wiser. History, narrative history, was, they thought, a high calling, none perhaps higher. About 1900, however, there was a shift. The development of what one might call “concept” history: the most obvious and best known example of this being Turner and his concept of the moving frontier as a factor in American history. The historian’s new aim was to discern the dynamic processes controlling social change. The proliferation of specialized fields of historical study, the growth of learned journals, the rapid expansion of graduate schools of history (again in some ways Turner was a pioneer) soon made “concept” history the dominant scholastic form of historical study. True, the old style annals and the old style biographies went on, but with less and less impact on the intellectual life of history and historians, particularly in the universities. The excitement lay in economic history, in the history of ideas, in the application of new ideas in anthropology and sociology to historical situations. Obviously this was an ideal seed-bed for Marxist historians.

Naturally, in this new analytical game, both slavery and the Civil War acted like powerful magnets, drawing shoals of historians into their orbits. The cautious pursued erudition, piling up the ammunition for the conceptualists. And new concepts flew thick and fast. Slavery was an archaic, unprofitable method of economic organization; slavery was patriarchal and less hideous than rampant capitalism; slavery bred a special mentality in the slaves which reduced social tension; slavery was a red herring disguising the real motives of the North. For fifty years or more some of the best historical minds in America have been concerned with what is, after all, its greatest social and historical problem.

True these historians have been a …

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