“Southern Conservatism”: The View from Brooklyn

The James Madison Program at Princeton often provides an unexpected breath of common-sensical fresh air in the academic fever-swamps.  Last March it held a conference on the work of the historian Eugene Genovese, and I was allowed to comment on a few of the many provocative things this Brooklyn-born Sicilian-American has had to say about the American South.  (The first part of what follows is adapted from an essay in my book Minding the South.)

For many years Gene Genovese has been not only the foremost living historian of the Old South’s slave society — and maybe the “living” isn’t needed — but also an exemplary “public intellectual,” bringing his formidable intelligence and analytic skills to bear on issues of the day in a variety of forums.  What he has to say on almost any subject is worth hearing — not because he has always been right, as he’d be the first to acknowledge, but because what he says is invariably interesting, and because he says it so well. That’s certainly true of what he has had to say about the species of conservative thought that he called in his Massey Lectures at Harvard “the Southern tradition.”

Consider Gene’s collection of essays and reviews, The Southern Front, published in 1995. Early in the book he presents three biographical reflections on what he calls “Representative Carolinians.” (That’s an uncharacteristic inaccuracy, by the way. Would that James Johnson Pettigrew and James Henley Thornwell had been “representative” — what a society that would have been!)  Two of these pieces began as admiring reviews of books I have read, and they are good books, but I can honestly say that the reviews make even better reading.  Taken together, these three essays exemplify a number of features that mark the entire book, and indeed much of Gene’s incidental and occasional writing of the last few decades: admiration for what he sees as worthy and unjustly neglected aspects of Southern thought; impatience with cant (especially politically correct cant); generous sympathy with men and women of integrity, intellect, and courage committed to lost (even rightly lost) causes; learning, tough-mindedness, and wit.

If the collection has a central theme, it has to do with Gene’s alarm at the excesses of unchecked individualism, and his search for a corrective.  He once found that in Marxism, and perhaps still does, with some major, rueful reservations. However, he argues that similar themes can be found in a strain of Southern conservative thought that originated in the defense of slavery and flowed into the last century through the Vanderbilt Agrarians and Richard Weaver to Mel Bradford and other, lesser lights. (And incidentally, he pays the authors of I’ll Take My Stand the courtesy of taking them seriously as doing what they thought they were doing – unlike my otherwise estimable colleague Louis Rubin, who tried to defang them by making their “South” some sort of trope.)

Obviously those of us who share Gene’s views at least in some respects will take the most satisfaction from seeing them so well argued.  But even those who disagree with his prescription, or who don’t see the problem to begin with, would profit from reading these pieces.  They will find, in the first place, simply a wealth of little-known fact. It’s good to learn about Pettigrew and Thornwell and Mel Bradford and Eugene Rivers — all fascinating men, who should be better known than they are.  But it’s at least as great a pleasure to learn more about Gene Genovese, who is at least as interesting as the people he writes about. Reading him is like traveling with an amusing and perceptive companion. There’s something gallant about his defense of unfashionable scholars he believes have been ignored or treated shabbily by the academy, and he has a remarkable talent for unearthing such folk and celebrating their contributions (thereby, excuse the expression, expanding the canon).  There can’t be many others who have read the major works of both the Stalinist historian Herbert Aptheker and the (Pat) Buchananite journalist Sam Francis — and Gene is probably unique in admiring both of them.

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