- 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.
Genovese’s own past is an unconventional one for a chiefly regional historian. Unlike many other historians of the American South, he was not born, reared and trained there. His ethnic roots are Italian, his predilections urban and Yankee, his political nurturing leftist. ‘I am a native New Yorker who was born and raised in New York City and who has spent all except the last eight of his 63 years as a resident of New York State.’ Throughout his colourful younger days, Genovese, though only briefly a card-carrying Communist, vigorously defended Lenin, Stalin and, at the start of America’s entry into the South-East Asian conflict, the Vietcong. These were not sentiments to broadcast in Pontoloc County, Mississippi. In 1966, when the anti-Communist uproar against him was at its fiercest, Genovese, then at Rutgers, went even farther north – to teach in Montreal, until his return to Rochester University in upper New York State. (He is currently teaching in Atlanta.) His first book, The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), could be read as an attack on Southern 19th-century ‘progress’, about which regional historians had long boasted. Genovese argued instead that a pre-capitalist order under slaveholder control prevented the rise of a powerful middle class, hobbled industrial growth and agricultural diversification, and benefited only a small élite at the expense of the poor whites and the slaves, a state of affairs that scarcely ended overnight with emancipation and defeat in the Civil War.
The seductive charms of the Southern approach had already attracted him even as he denounced Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam adventure. When, in 1965, the African-American Left assailed William Styron’s bestselling novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, as racist and perverted, Genovese carried on a spirited defence of the white author from Virginia and his right to make artistic excursions into history. His next book, The World the Slaveholders Made (1969), moved him further along the right-veering road, with a critique of the maverick George Fitzhugh’s pro-slavery diatribes. His foreword to American Negro Slavery by U.B. Phillips, founder of slave studies in the United States earlier this century, was a further sign of this swerve to the right. Genovese roundly deplored Phillips’s racism, yet, defying contemporary liberal rejection of his work, praised his insights into the hegemony of the South’s ‘small ruling class’ which had ‘ruled more completely than many other ruling classes in modern times’. These were not welcome ideas in the time of Malcolm X and Black Nationalism.
No less significant was Genovese’s prize-winning Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), a sophisticated, psychologically sensitive and comprehensive social history that remains a classic. Masters and slaves, he argued, struggled together, not always harmoniously, to create a reasonably liveable world of shared responsibilities and obligations: an interpretation that scarcely pleased the Left or the slaves’ descendants. Claiming that Genovese had perversely highlighted slaves’ complicity in their own wretchedness, critics denounced Roll, Jordan, Roll, along with Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross, which claimed that slavery was a rational, profitable, even materially beneficial institution not only for masters but for slaves as well. Roll, Jordan, Roll might not have won Genovese much gratitude from white conservatives in the South, but at least he had not assaulted their forebears as moral monsters.
With the exception of a provocative history of slave insurrections published in 1979, Genovese’s later work has focused less on slaves than on masters. Slaves once evoked their African heritage as a means to achieve a sense of cultural identity. So, too, Genovese has contended in recent years, pro-slavery apologists fashioned a separate identity for themselves in America, one based on a theologically grounded justification for day-to-day plantation management. According to his reading, the duties of a stern but rational paternalism acknowledged profit-making as only one of many factors in a master’s routine calculations. The regime even developed a consistent, rational and gifted cadre of intellectuals to create a regional movement ‘graced by some of the best minds in America’. But Genovese exaggerates. This was the era of the New England Renaissance, of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Hawthorne. No circle in the South could match that intellectual array. Nevertheless, along with Michael O’Brien, Genovese has successfully revived interest in Southern antebellum thinkers whose obscurity, they claim, is unmerited.
The Southern Tradition reaffirms his long-standing devotion to the pro-slavery thinkers but takes still greater delight in their Thirties successors, the Nashville Agrarians – Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Donald Davidson, to name the most prominent. Turning to more recent times, Genovese relies on the anti-modernist commentaries of Richard Weaver, a Southern sociologist in Chicago, and Melvin Bradford, a literary critic in Dallas, who both firmly believed in a morally superior South that contrasted with the heartlessness of bourgeois industrialisation. Yet Genovese’s exploration of conservative failings gives the present book a welcome balance. He acknowledges that his 20th-century conservative allies are inclined to pursue a free-market capitalism no less impersonal and savage than that of the New South boosters and Rotarians whom the Agrarians some fifty years ago thought were destroying traditional values and family loyalties. Genovese cites John Shelton Reed, the North Carolina sociologist, who laments: ‘It is no longer a matter of defending a “Southern way of life” against industrialism. Increasingly, that way of life is industrialism.’
Moreover, Genovese argues, if conservatives think that dismantling a national, centralised system will lessen burdens on the individual and the local community, they are grievously mistaken. It is more likely that the separate States will inherit the lost Federal power and prove no less oppressive than the national government. Capitalism, although astonishingly successful, is, he insists, ‘slowly committing suicide by its inability to sustain the social institutions and values, many of them pre-capitalist, that had made possible the social stability necessary for its economic sucess’. He means that ‘Thatcherism’ destroys as readily as it creates. Free-marketeering offers nothing but acquisition to replace less transient values. Oddly, the Marxist finds religion to be the source of all that is best in human aspiration, and since the South is the most actively devout section of the country, inspiration ought to come from there, an ideal that in this book remains a pious and unexamined hope. Last year’s mid-term elections suggest, however, that Genovese is no longer in a minority, nor the South the pariah it once was: his exposition of the tensions between conservative social ideals and actual practice makes The Southern Tradition a study far richer in meaning than liberal critics are likely to recognise.
It also explores with considerable persuasiveness the ambiguities of 19th-century constitutional theory. Genovese draws interesting portraits of an early 19th-century Northern Whig, Justice Joseph Story of Massachusetts, and John C. Calhoun, patron saint of the Southern conservative cause. Curiously, Story was more sceptical of democracy than the famous Southern reactionary, but both, Genovese notes approvingly, ‘placed considerations of public safety above the expansion of individual rights’. On matters of constitutional theory, however, Story and Calhoun considered themselves implacable adversaries who never learned to appreciate one another’s talents. Genovese concludes: ‘Educated Southerners, as self-proclaimed heirs to medieval chivalry, understood true nobility to rest on personal virtue, concluding that men, therefore, faced each other as equals.’
The last remark gives a clue about what is suspect in Genovese’s argument. Were Southern slaveholders really as high-minded as all that? If so, what proof does he offer? The slaveholders’ self-serving denunciations of the Dickensian horrors of the free market scarcely exonerated their own habits of rank injustice. Besides, the pro-slavery apologists were not alone in deploring the satanic mills of early industrialism. Southern critics of the American Thomas Gradgrinds and Josiah Bounderbys relied on the documentation of reformers and on public reports, not on their own investigations. Furthermore, Thoreau or Hawthorne could be as critical of the age of rail, steam and smokestack as any slaveholding theorist.
Genovese is anything but a racist. A quixotic approach has its liabilities, however. How can he propose a Southern conservative tradition purged of colour discrimination when racism was at the very heart of the heritage itself? The secessionist clergyman Benjamin Palmer, an old friend of pro-slavery James Henley Thornwell, Genovese’s favourite antebellum theologian, put the matter succinctly in 1860: ‘Must I pause to show how [slavery] has fashioned our modes of life, and determined all our habits of thought and feeling, and moulded the very type of our civilisation?’ Whether paternalists or hard-minded materialists, planters often acted with unthinking cruelty and frequently showed appalling indifference to the feelings of their ‘black families’, as they sometimes liked to call their property. Noblesse oblige softened but did not erase white arrogance. Whatever Southern masters or employers did for their hands was largely on the bosses’ terms. Moreover, attempts to give the African-Americans any significant autonomy – both when enslaved and when nominally free – met swift repression from ‘straight-out’ as well as paternalistic whites. Those who did protest racial injustice belonged not to a conservative but to a dissenting heritage. Protest was fashioned by Cassius Clay and James Birney of Kentucky, the brilliant fugitive slave leaders Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Mark Twain, Mississippi journalist Hodding Carter and Martin Luther King Jr, to name just a few from the last two centuries. These figures are not to be found in The Southern Tradition, but Southern they were.
Even if racism could be purged from the conservative cause as readily as Genovese trusts it can, he does not serve his own cause as effectively as he might. First, The Southern Tradition does not do justice to a Southern sense of honour. At the core of regional concepts of power and morality stands not only the Protestant ethic for which the region is famous but also a code covering whites of all ranks that established local, discrete hierarchies based on kinship, wealth and martial qualities. Also, the Southern élite subscribed to a standard of manners and duty that might be called a latterday Stoicism. Influenced in part by the classical tradition, gentlefolk of power and means felt obliged to treat dependants, slaves among them, as personal wards. Although Genovese finds the sources of Southern paternalism in the Bible, noblesse oblige can also be traced to the habits and expectations of the English gentry in a Stoic tradition that is missing from this account. The habits of a fatalistic response to disaster, and of coolness under fire, and a pessimistic outlook based on the transience of life and the innate untrustworthiness and corruption of mankind, were all part of the code of honour, even though with the partial Christianisation of the Southern masses in the early 19th century, such attitudes merged with the dictates of a Calvinism that Genovese finds appealing. The ethic of honour may have been an imperfect scheme for preserving social order, but it upheld most of those principles that Genovese most admires.
A second lapse is Genovese’s underestimation of Southern Catholic intellectuality. To be sure, he discusses the affinity of Southern conservative and Catholic concepts regarding the integrity of family ties, the inseparability of public morality and political affairs, and the necessity of freeing church and community from government regulation, even in the name of egalitarianism. But the special contribution of such Catholic writers as Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy is absent. Percy in particular was no less hostile than Genovese himself to social engineering, country-club greed, cultural tawdriness and hedonistic hippiedom.
Finally, he barely refers to any contemporary political issues, many of which are more moral than economic in character. He is of course not obliged to lay out a blueprint for conservative allegiance, but he should be more forthright about which parts of the Christian Coalition’s agenda he supports and how far libertarians like himself ought to go on behalf of censorship, school prayers and other measures that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell espouse. When the historian becomes a philosopher who finds little to admire in his own time, and even condemns broad moral tendencies centuries old, he risks becoming simply a Miniver Cheevy succumbing to a nostalgia for a patriarchal order that could never reach its impossible ideal. And when he finds a remedy for national immorality in ‘measured social repression’, one wants to know who will do the repressing and to what end.
Genovese longs for a Southern tradition purged of racist impurities. The goal itself may attract some, but one doubts if the triumphant partisans of a business-oriented conservatism will prove any more successful at creating the New Jerusalem than those liberals and socialists whom Genovese blames for our present troubles. He concludes with a quotation from Robert E. Lee, then retired from military life. In Stoic fashion, the Confederate general reminded a friend of the slow pace of Providence, the impatience of human desires, the preponderance of evil over men’s feeble means. To that sober message he added: ‘It is history that teaches us to hope.’ On that note, and perhaps little else, Genovese and his critics might heartily agree.