We mourn the recent passing of Eugene Genovese, eminent historian, dauntless contrarian, and delightful curmudgeon. A native of Brooklyn who began his academic career as a Marxist (who was also expelled from the American Communist Party) he was best known for his extensive writings on the life and social institutions of the American antebellum South, particularly slavery. His magisterial 1974 work, Roll, Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made, was awarded the Bancroft Prize in 1975 in the field of American history.
But beyond his consummate scholarship and academic achievements, Genovese was an intrepid defender of academic freedom and integrity and a fierce critic of the politicization which had so widely corrupted American academic institutions. We were honored to recognize him in 2001 with the Sidney Hook Memorial Award, which he accepted at our national conference in New York. In his introductory remarks for the occasion, the late Stanley Rothman noted that:
Even in his Marxist days, Genovese had insisted that one should not use one’s classes as a sounding board for one’s social and political perspectives. In his teaching he never tried to press his views upon his students even in his (as he thought) Marxist phase. Indeed he leaned over backwards to insure that students who disagreed with him were not afraid to express their beliefs. He also believed that professional associations should avoid taking collective public political stands as associations, whatever the proclivities of individual scholars. He was astonished and dismayed, then, when the major professional associations started pronouncing on public issues and becoming frankly partisan on cultural as well as social and economic questions.
Never one to mince words, Genovese spoke his mind in his acceptance speech:
Today, too many defenders of academic freedom are cowering in the face of charges of McCarthyism and racism – charges leveled by people who themselves are outdoing the McCarthyites in the repression of dissent, and by protection racketeers who parade as civil rights leaders…. The cowering puzzles me. I have been called a racist since my teens and do not recall having lost a minute’s sleep. For the appropriate reply, I refer you to the late Mike Quill, the boss of the Transport Workers’ Union in New York. Let me paraphrase his reply to someone who called him a Communist: I’d rather be called a racist by a protection racketeer than be called a protection racketeer by a racist.
It was a memorable occasion for a memorable man. May he rest in peace.