Southern Discomfort

Bertram Wyatt-Brown

  • The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism by Eugene Genovese
    Harvard, 138 pp, £17.95, October 1994, ISBN 0 674 82527 6

Eugene Genovese is a Marxist historian with conservative affiliations who has had a greater impact on current interpretations of the Southern past than any other scholar with the possible exception of C. Vann Woodward. Perhaps he can also make sense of the right-wing garbage that nowadays fills American papers and airwaves (his devastating National Review article on The Bell Curve should be required reading).

Liberals can take comfort in the fact that, despite the advances conservatives have lately achieved, The Southern Tradition is by no means celebratory. In fact, Genovese’s tone is almost one of ideological despair, of a rage for order amid growing violence and seeming chaos. He lambasts the moral decay of Western civilisation, for which he blames an unrestrained, Rousseauian democracy, an unrealistic egalitarianism and, above all, a liberal bourgeois capitalism, insisting that ‘respect for the dignity of the individual, which Christians identify with the irreducible element of divinity in everyman, must be defended at all hazards.’ Yet it is a ‘cruel and degrading illusion’, Genovese continues, to pervert high-sounding doctrines ‘into an ignoble dream of personal liberation’. Even as he makes us wince for our personal and collective contributions to the current disorder, he seeks to inspire with his mythic conception of a conservative enlightenment, on the ground that myths, Southern ones included, serve a salutary moral function, binding people in stable communities. At the same time, he deplores the ideological incoherence of new-found friends on the right, who demand a return to the very same family values which the free market that they favour is helping to destroy. Iconoclastic, defiant and thoroughly engaging, this Jeremiah finds little ground for optimism. He warns allies and foes alike of future perils and seeks, probably in vain, a usable conservative tradition.

Genovese’s purpose is commendable enough: to recover for current intellectual use a Southern conservative tradition cleansed of the racism and economic materialism that once constituted much of its ideology. Only the values of a regulated liberty and sense of community, based on the family, are supposed to remain. To fashion such a purified ideology from largely Southern materials, he stitches together the writings of an unlikely set of predecessors: Edmund Burke, the eccentric Jeffersonians John Taylor of Caroline and John Randolph of Roanoke, Old School Presbyterian defenders of slavery, T.S. Eliot, Karl Marx, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, the Nashville Agrarians and their latterday apostles, Richard Weaver and Melvin Bradford. Liberals thus find themselves confronting a shrewd scholar who denies them the luxury of easy retort – he lashes out from both right and left to rough up the bourgeois middle. What can one do with a once-loyal Marxist who finds common ground with the pronouncements of Pat Buchanan, the neolithic challenger to George Bush’s renomination in 1992, and William Buckley, the acidulous Catholic pundit, while making us uncomfortable about longstanding liberal assumptions?

This brief volume is not an intellectual ‘life review’, to borrow a gerontological term, but a solemn reflection on the philosophical foundations that have preoccupied Genovese in nearly all his writings about the American South, slavery, and issues of class and politics. The Southern Tradition does not chronicle the author’s earlier studies and their public reception as did Woodward’s Thinking Back, but as a personal testament it is comparable to that elegant intellectual memoir, offering a means for better understanding the conservative cause to which Genovese is devoted and shedding light on those aspects of the past – the Southern past especially – that have been long neglected.

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