Genovese, Eugene Dominick

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GENOVESE, Eugene Dominick

(b. 19 May 1930 in New York City), marxist historian who wrote extensively about the slave economy in antebellum America and gained national attention as an outspoken critic of the U.S. policy on Vietnam, testing the limits of academic freedom.

The son of Italian immigrant parents Dominick F. Genovese, a dockworker, and Lena Chimenti, a homemaker, Genovese grew up in the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, where he befriended children of left-wing families, joined the Communist Party at seventeen, and organized for the American Youth for Democracy, a communist front group. He was expelled after three years for his refusal to follow party orthodoxy.

After receiving a B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1953, Genovese served ten months in the U.S. Army before being discharged for his former membership in the Communist Party. He earned an M.A. in history from Columbia University in 1955, and a Ph.D. in 1959. He taught at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (1958 to 1963) and at Rutgers University (1963 to 1967).

In March 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson, fearing the imminent collapse of the South Vietnam government, sent U.S. Marines to South Vietnam, a significant change in the direction of U.S. military presence in the country, which up to this time consisted of military advisors. This military escalation touched off protests, including those on college campuses that took the form of "teach-ins." On 23 April 1965 the Rutgers University chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society in New Jersey sponsored a teach-in at which Genovese spoke. The transcript of his remarks is nearly ten pages long, and reveals that he told the audience of his marxist and socialist views, welcomed the opportunity to discuss matters clearly outside the scope of his classes, and generally took U.S. imperialism to task. Targum, the Rutgers student newspaper, condensed Genovese's remarks to "I am a Marxist and a Socialist, and I would welcome a victory by the Vietcong." This statement was picked up by the press, creating controversy far beyond the university setting.

In response to complaints from citizens and organizations, the General Assembly of the state of New Jersey ordered an investigation. The ensuing report, issued on 28 June, recommended that the General Assembly request Rutgers's Board of Governors and administration to reappraise university regulations pertaining to academic freedom and employment practices and procedures. On 6 August the board sent a report on the Genovese case to New Jersey governor Richard J. Hughes, noting that all board members were out of sympathy with Genovese's views, and that five of the nine members believed the expression of some of his views demonstrated a lack of good judgment. The board, however, stood behind its 9 April decision to promote Genovese to associate professor and grant him tenure, effective 1 July 1965, and saw no reason to revise regulations on academic freedom. The board also denied that Genovese had violated the loyalty oath.

The controversy intensified during the fall 1965 New Jersey state elections, especially when Senator Wayne Dumont, Jr., the Republican candidate for governor, demanded that Governor Richard J. Hughes, the Democratic candidate, dismiss Genovese. Former vice president Richard M. Nixon campaigned for Dumont and called for Genovese's termination, arguing that academic freedom did not apply to anyone advocating the enemy's victory in wartime. It should be noted that Genovese wanted the Vietcong to prevail in the political arena, and did not wish any U.S. battlefield casualties. Hughes won reelection. Genovese left Rutgers in 1967 for a professorship at Sir George Williams University in Montreal.

Although Genovese continued to oppose the Vietnam War, he organized opposition that foiled the radical leftist historian Staughton Lynd's 1969 bid for the presidency of the American Historical Association (AHA). Lynd wanted the AHA to go on record as opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam, while Genovese wanted universities and professional organizations to promote intellectual freedom and avoid political entanglements. In 1969 Genovese returned to the United States as chair of the history department at the University of Rochester. On 6 July he married Elizabeth Fox, a graduate student at Harvard University; this was his third marriage.

As well as gaining attention for the controversy ignited by his criticism of the Vietnam War, Genovese also garnered attention for his scholarship, which applied a marxist analysis to the slave-era South. In his first book, The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), Genovese received both widespread acclaim and criticism for his analysis of the economy, culture, and ideals of the southern slaveholders. He argued that slavery ruined the economy of the ante-bellum South, while creating a patriarchal and aristocratic social system and society very different from and hostile to the bourgeois capitalism of the North. Genovese believed that the antagonistic worldviews of the premodern, agricultural South and the modern, capitalist North, rather than purely economic factors, prevented the southern ruling class from eliminating slavery and made the Civil War inevitable. The World the Slaveholders Made (1969) continued his research into the ideology and hegemony of the Southern planters.

Genovese, who relied heavily on the ideas of Ulrich B. Philips's classic American Negro Slavery (1918), wrote a foreword to a 1968 reprint edition that praised Philips for his insightful views on the economic failure of slavery and planter paternalism, with its concomitant lack of slave rebellion, while condemning Philips's racism. Radical and liberal historians of the 1960s, who viewed Philips as a racist, Southern apologist for slavery, were outraged by what they perceived as Genovese's attempt to give scholarly respectability to Philips.

The rise of black nationalism during the mid-1960s stimulated the search for the roots of African-American culture and resistance. In 1968 Genovese published an essay in defense of William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner, which came under sharp criticism from African-American writers for its fictional account of an actual nineteenth-century slave revolt. While Genovese rejected what he viewed as the exaggerated historical claims made by black nationalist supporters, his views evolved as he engaged in extended dialogues with some prominent African-American historians, eventually contributing to his acceptance of the importance of studying African-American culture.

During the following decades, Genovese remained steadfast in his determination to protect academic freedom and to keep politics, especially political correctness, out of academia. During the mid-1990s Genovese embraced social conservatism, receiving support from his former critics on the right.

World Authors, 1950–1975 offers a biographical sketch of Genovese, and his intellectual development is discussed in August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915–1980 (1986). Twentieth-Century American Historians (Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 17) examines Genovese's major works. Two interviews shed light on Genovese's political struggles during the 1960s: Christopher Hitchens, "Radical Pique," Vanity Fair (Feb. 1994); and James Surowiecki, "Genovese's March," Lingua Franca (Dec.–Jan. 1997).

Paul A. Frisch