Douglas Ambrose, Charter Fellow of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) and Carolyn C. and David M. Ellis Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at Hamilton College, has spent a good part of the summer finishing the editing of the last of dozens of books on the Old South by his late professor, Eugene Genovese, an internationally known authority on southern slavery. Genovese was active until his death in September 2012 at the age of 82. “The Sweetness of Life” represents the nearly completed book-length manuscript that focuses on the leisure activities of the slaveholders. Cambridge University Press will publish the volume in 2017. Ambrose also co-wrote with Genovese the chapter on “Masters” for the Oxford Handbook on Slavery in the Americas, a volume co-edited by AHI Charter Fellow and Executive Director Robert Paquette and Mark Smith (2010).
AHI Charter Fellow Doug Ambrose
Sweetness “provides a fitting coda to Gene’s ‘life work,’ which spanned five decades and shaped more than a generation of scholarship on the subject,” writes Ambrose in the introduction. With Sweetness, Genovese has completed the story of “’a great historical tragedy.’”
Genovese is perhaps best known for his 1974 book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, which earned him the Bancroft Prize in History and catapulted him into international renown. A Marxist at the time, Genovese had turned his attention from the subject of his first book, The World the Slaveholders Made (1969), in which he presented the slave-owners as pre-modern and pre-bourgeois, to the slaves and the coping mechanisms they used, such as religion, music, and passive and active rebellion.
Eugene G. Genovese (Copyright CSPAN)
The Sweetness of Life, like the other works in his corpus, reflects Genovese’s primary motive for devoting his life to the study of the slaveholders and slaves: to understand what he called “our greatest national tragedy,” the Civil War. As Ambrose notes in the epilogue, this last work continues to show how the worlds of masters and slaves were made together, how, as Genovese wrote in the opening of Roll, Jordan, Roll, slavery, although “cruel, unjust, exploitative, [and] oppressive,” “bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism while creating an organic relationship so complex and ambivalent that neither could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other.”
For Genovese, writes Ambrose, “the tragic character of the slaveholders resided precisely in their simultaneous holding of noble and ignoble qualities, of being both admirable and reprehensible at the same time.” Even as an undergraduate “with a fierce and . . . dogmatic Marxist bias,” Genovese came to see the slaveholders as “surprisingly strong and attractive men . . . who stood for some values worthy of the highest respect and who contributed much more to modern civilization than they have been credited with.” Still, Genovese viewed slaveholders as “objectively retrograde and as responsible for the greatest enormity of the age—black slavery itself.”
As Ambrose notes in the epilogue, The Sweetness of Life both continues the theme of the interdependence of the slaveholders and their slaves, and deviates from the “big” historical themes–such as “the world the slaves made,” “the mind of the master class,” and “the political economy of slavery”–of much of Genovese’s scholarly work.
In this last book, Genovese immerses the reader in the antebellum world, showing how “interwoven blacks and whites were in the southern social and cultural fabric.” “Whether noting the presence of slaves providing service at dinner parties and other social functions, the contributions of African cooks to the South’s distinct cuisine, or the enlistment of slaves in young slaveholders’ romantic maneuvers,” Genovese does it an “almost disarming manner,” writes Ambrose.
Although Genovese transitioned from Marxism to Catholic conservatism in the 1990s, his dedication to writing honestly about Southern slavery remained consistent and is displayed in the fragment of an introduction to The Sweetness of Life that he was able to complete before he died. He wrote, “I have come neither to praise nor bury the slaveholders but to limn some of the features of their lives, which may help us to understand them better, however harsh the ultimate judgment rendered.”
Genovese’s dedication to such high scholarly standards attracted students from across the ideological spectrum, including those at AHI, Hamilton College professors Robert Paquette and Maurice Isserman (AHI Board of Academic Advisors).
Doug Ambrose met Gene (as he was called) and his late wife Betsey Fox-Genovese, also a historian, in the summer of 1983, when both were still Marxists, but having second thoughts and disagreements with some of their doctrinaire colleagues. In the 1990s, Betsey converted to Catholicism and repudiated Marxism. Gene followed shortly thereafter, returning to the faith of his childhood. Doug studied with both, earning his Ph.D. from SUNY Binghamton, where Betsey had taught in the 1980s, in 1991.
It was at the 1994 annual meeting of the St. George Tucker Society for Southern Studies, a group founded principally by Gene and Betsey (then both teaching at Emory University), that Doug met one of Betsey’s Women’s Studies graduate students, and his wife-to-be, Sheila O’Connor. In addition to being her student, Sheila was important in Betsey’s conversion, an experience recounted by Betsey in essays in First Things and Crisis, and by Sheila in her introduction to Betsey’s book, Marriage: The Dream that Refuses to Die. The professors maintained a close friendship with their students as they married and raised their three children, visiting between Atlanta and New York State. Betsey died in 2007, but the visits to Atlanta continued.
Gene was a strong supporter of AHI from its founding in 2007. Both he and Betsey were charter members of AHI’s Board of Academic Advisors. In 2011 AHI co-sponsored with Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies a recognition ceremony for Gene’s work. The conference was hosted by Princeton, but Gene, no longer able to travel, watched it remotely.
Although in declining health, Gene was still working on a number of projects in 2012. The manuscript for The Sweetness of Life was the one closest to completion. That summer he told Doug about his frustration with not having the strength to write the introduction and conclusion, and asked Doug to be the final editor. At the time of his death his friends were reading the manuscript and offering comments and suggestions.
Gene was a consummate scholar, filled with curiosity about his subject. “One senses that Genovese had been accumulating for decades the bits and pieces of evidence that fill the chapters below, storing them away like gems until he could mount them appropriately,” Doug wrote in the introduction.
He notes, “Although one can read and enjoy it on its own terms—like all of Genovese’s work it displays his graceful prose, sly wit, sharp storytelling skills, and remarkable ability to evoke a time and place—it assumes even greater power when read as an integral if distinct part of Genovese’s scholarly corpus.”
Reflecting on what he has called “a labor of love,” Doug observes: “Gene was not only a great scholar, but also one of the best non-fiction prose stylists working in the academy. I was fortunate in that the manuscript of Sweetness was practically complete–it fully reflects, without any assistance from me, Gene’s superb scholarship and graceful writing. My primary responsibility was to help readers appreciate how this volume both reflects and adds to Gene’s lifelong dedication to pursuing the truth about antebellum southern slave society. To contribute in a small way to that pursuit, and to the high standards of professionalism that Gene exhibited throughout it, has humbled me. More important, it has regularly reminded me of the great privilege I enjoyed of knowing, learning from, working with, and loving this brilliant scholar and good man.”
By Mary Grabar