In response to:
The Historian as Populist from the May 12, 1988 issue
To the Editors:
Mr. [Michael] Kazin, in discussing the criticism of Gutman’s work by Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese [NYR, May 12], has not provided a full or careful assessment of their views on the history of slavery in the United States. His labeling of Genovese as a social historian and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese as an “economic historian” certainly betrays an unfamiliarity with the broad scope and systemic character of their work. But there are more serious problems. Kazin writes:
The Genoveses’ emphasis on “the world the slaveholders made” (which, at times, indulges in its own romanticism about the paternalistic impulses of planters and their “seigneurial” way of life) seemed to Gutman erroneous because it did not adequately explain what the slaves themselves had experienced.
Properly stated, the “emphasis” in the Genoveses’ work on slavery has been to show that neither masters nor slaves can be fully understood apart from each other. Kazin writes as if he has not read—certainly he has not read carefully—Eugene Genovese’s great book, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. In that eight hundred page book, Genovese explains how
southern paternalism, like every other paternalism, had little to do with Ole Massa’s ostensible benevolence, kindness, and good cheer. It grew out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation. It did encourage kindness and affection, but it simultaneously encouraged cruelty and hatred.
Is this romanticism? If not, what is Kazin talking about? On the question of the ” ‘seigneurial’ way of life” of Southern planters, Kazin might consult the introduction to the Wesleyan University Press edition of The World the Slaveholders Made (1988) in which Genovese notes,
I never remotely suggested that the Old South was “feudal” or “seigneurial”—I specifically rejected any such notion—yet to this day I am charged with having done so by critics who have refrained from quoting me since there is nothing to quote. Instead, they quote each other’s paraphrase of what I am supposed to have written.
Imprecision also enters in Kazin’s recapitulation of the Genoveses’ view of hegemony. Most readers of Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll or Fox-Genovese’s forthcoming study Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (University of North Carolina Press, 1988) will be hard pressed to find what Kazin says is the implication that “peasants, slaves, and factory hands…were somehow deficient for not having transcended the logic of capitalism and, through revolution, created a new order under their control.” Kazin is critical of “Gutman’s populist convictions [which] prevented him from developing a more sophisticated image of working-class communities, one alive to contradictions and frailties.” May we point out that such an image is precisely what the Genoveses have presented.
Lastly, Mr. Kazin praises editor Ira Berlin’s “excellent introduction to the present collection.” Perhaps Mr. Kazin could not be expected to know that Mr. Berlin’s introduction violated the normal canons of historical scholarship in recording only one view of a complex reality. Mr. Berlin did not consult the sources. Had he done so, he could not honestly have written as he did of Eugene D. Genovese’s appointment to the chairmanship of the History Department at the University of Rochester. In Mr. Berlin’s account, Genovese accepted the appointment from the hands of the administration and at the expense of progressive colleagues, notably Gutman, who had previously risked their own positions to get a simple professorial appointment for Mr. Genovese. Then, according to Mr. Berlin, “having gained power, Genovese was determined to use it.” And, according to Mr. Berlin, “Genovese’s methods soon alienated his allies, Gutman among them.”
Gutman, Mr. Berlin allows, “came to see himself in a personal contest with Genovese.” On what grounds, then, could Mr. Berlin possibly justify using Gutman and a few of his closest associates as the only source for his account of the events? Since, in his own opinion, Gutman interpreted his differences with Genovese as a personal contest, should not Mr. Berlin have consulted impartial sources who had been at Rochester at the time? Apparently it did not occur to him to consult Genovese or members of the Rochester administration and a broad range of faculty members. Should he not have asked to see the available documents? Such would have been normal historical methods. But Mr. Berlin did not.
Mr. Berlin took seriously Gutman’s personal animosity to Genovese since he credits it with having influenced much of Gutman’s subsequent work. In effect, he credits Gutman’s view that he, Gutman, was writing the history of the real lives and feelings of working people, especially black people, in direct opposition to Genovese’s preoccupation with abstract ideas and power. Presumably those who have read Roll, Jordan, Roll can recognize that distortion for themselves. Certainly, most people—serious historians and informed general readers alike—know that power has precisely to do with the lives and feelings of working people. Why, otherwise, would its abuses be the stuff of tragedy and injustice? But most people, including Mr. Kazin, cannot be expected to know what really happened at Rochester.
In uncritically accepting Gutman’s interpretation of his personal contest with Genovese, Mr. Berlin has endorsed Gutman’s personal view of Genovese. Worse, they have legitimized it as fact. So much for the lives of real people and the abuses of power.
University of Massachusetts
Clinton, New York
John Womack, Jr.
Michael Kazin replies:
In a short review of the work of Herbert Gutman, I could hardly offer “a full or careful assessment” of the work of two other distinguished scholars. But deep-seated academic hostilities, like other types of vendettas, have a way of outliving the original protagonists, and my two critical comments on the writings of the Genoveses seem to have been perceived as a salvo in an ongoing conflict I had no intention of joining.
So let me clarify my own views on the matter. First, I have great respect for the theoretical contributions of the historians Genovese. Together, this formidable couple has convinced many scholars to view the history of capitalism and of slavery through their finely ground lens of Gramscian Marxism. Moreover, as a nonspecialist, I consider Roll, Jordan, Roll to be the best book ever written on slavery in the United States—which is why I described its author as “the leading historian” of the subject.
However, in their contempt for “bourgeois” studies that, in their opinion, do not take the ideology of southern slaveholders seriously, the Genoveses do occasionally slip into an erudite form of idealization. For example, in the first edition of The World the Slaveholders Made, Eugene Genovese wrote that antebellum planters may have been prejudiced, unsystematic thinkers but
they did nonetheless stand for a world different from our own that is worthy of our sympathetic attention. The questions they asked are still with us; the inhumanity [of free market capitalism] they condemned must still be condemned; and the values for which they fought still have something to offer.
Both Genoveses expand on this theme in their collection of essays, The Fruits of Merchant Capital (1983). Elizabeth Fox-Genovese makes an analogy between the slave’s “respect” for his master’s power and the respect a Catholic layman accords his priest because of his “office and its magic.” Her husband writes that “as a class, the southern slaveholders had their own extraordinary virtues as well as vices” and comments that civil liberties in the slave states (for whites) “might have been the envy of the people of much of Europe, a degree of freedom unheard-of in the rest of the world.”
There is, of course, some truth to these observations. Slaveholders, like all historical actors, must be understood in the context of their own society as well as in comparative terms. But Herbert Gutman—who gave too little attention to the thought of ruling elites—was probably not wrong to claim that few slaves would have shared such a high opinion of their masters. And, as Frederick Douglass wrote (and Gutman quoted), “To understand, a man must stand under” (The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925).
About the details of what occurred at Rochester, Ira Berlin, a very capable researcher, will have to answer for himself.
November 24, 1988