Eugene Genovese, eminent historian, dies at 82

September 30, 2012

Eugene D. Genovese, an eminent historian who challenged the traditional portrait of slavery in the antebellum South with the prize-winning book “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and whose early-life Marxist ties earned him death threats and an FBI dossier, died Sept. 26 in Atlanta. He was 82.

The death was announced by his family. No cause of death was reported.

Dr. Genovese wrote prolifically about slavery and was regarded as an influential — if iconoclastic — voice in the study of U.S. history. Edward L. Ayers, a historian and president of the University of Richmond, once described “Roll, Jordan, Roll” as “the best book ever written about American slavery.”

Yet before he became known as a preeminent scholar in his field, and before he made a public conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, Dr. Genovese was an avowed Marxist whose contentious views brought him nationwide recognition.

As a professor at Rutgers University, he was labeled a political agitator and firebrand antiwar activist for speaking at a 1965 teach-in organized by the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society.


Eugene D. Genovese takes part in the American Historical Association Council meeting in Washington, D.C. on April 7, 1973. (Charles Del Vecchio/The Washington Post)

“I do not fear or regret the impending Viet Cong victory in Vietnam,” Dr. Genovese said in his remarks at the rally. “I welcome it.”

Calls for his removal from the faculty came from around the country, notably from former vice president Richard M. Nixon. Dr. Genovese was threatened and eventually became the subject of an FBI investigation. But the president of Rutgers defended Dr. Genovese’s right to speak freely.

Dr. Genovese resigned two years later under pressure from veterans groups that claimed he wished death to U.S. troops abroad.

He said his comments about military-involvement in Vietnam were misconstrued. “It was a civil war, and we had no business in it,” he told the Newark Star-Ledger in 1996. “I wanted to see American kids home, not dead.”

Dr. Genovese first rose to prominence in academia after the publication of his 1965 book “The Political Economy of Slavery,” in which he wrote that slavery had stunted the economic growth of the South.

It was ultimately Dr. Genovese’s 1974 work, “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” that altered the study of slavery. The book received the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 1975 and remains a stalwart component of college classes.

Dr. Genovese’s assessment of slavery countered the traditional view, contending that the relationship between slave and master was paternalistic and founded on mutual dependence.

In a 1994 essay in the New Republic, Ayers wrote that Dr. Genovese had presented evidence that some slaves and slaveholders considered themselves part of one “family.”

Ayers wrote that Dr. Genovese “showed that it served the interests of both slave and slaveholder to live within such a fiction, that the illusion of family gave the slaves leverage and gave the slaveholders a rationale for a kind of power whose validity was being challenged by the outside world.”

Some critics said the book had a simplistic view of the role of slaves in society. In an otherwise positive review, the historian David Brion Davis wrote in the New York Times in 1974 that Dr. Genovese “is at his weakest . . . when he theorizes on the grand designs of history.”

Dr. Genovese served as chair of the history department at the University of Rochester before retiring in the 1980s. He also lectured at Princeton, Yale and Columbia universities.

In the 1990s, he underwent an intellectual transformation and abandoned his Marxist affiliations. He converted to Catholicism and became closely associated with the conservative movement. He endorsed Patrick J. Buchanan for president and opposed laws that protected gay rights.

In and out of academia, Dr. Genovese had an individualistic outlook on his work and his reputation.

“I never gave a damn what people thought of me,” he told the Star-Ledger in 1996. “And I still don’t.”

Eugene Dominick Genovese was born May 19, 1930, in Brooklyn and grew up in the working-class Bensonhurst neighborhood. He joined the Communist Party as a teenager. (He was later expelled from the party, he said, for “having zigged when I was supposed to zag.”)

He was a 1953 graduate of Brooklyn College and later received a master’s degree and doctorate from Columbia.

Two early marriages ended in divorce.

His third wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a noted historian to whom he was married for 37 years, died in 2007. There were no immediate survivors.

Dr. Genovese and his wife collaborated on several books about slavery. In 2009, he wrote about their life together in “Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage.”

They met on a blind date, and Dr. Genovese wrote in the book that although he was not instantly smitten, he warmed to her charms.

“When I arrived at five p.m., Betsey looked terrible,” Dr. Genovese wrote. “At six or so, she wasn’t all that bad. At seven she had become sort of nice-looking. By eight, sitting across a table at Restaurant le Maitre Jacques, she had blossomed into lovely. When I left her at one a.m., she was radiantly beautiful.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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