Radical History Review 88 (2004) 68-82
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Moonlight, Magnolias, and Brigadoon; or, "Almost Like Being in Love":
Mastery and Sexual Exploitation in Eugene D. Genovese's Plantation South
Diane Miller Sommerville
Like most eager graduate students on the job market, I vastly overprepared for my AHA interviews, which, thankfully, now seem like a lifetime ago. One of the questions I imagined my interviewers would ask was, what do you believe to be the most important book published in southern history (as I considered myself then as now, first and foremost, a southern historian)? Needless to say, the question was never posed; interviewers showed much greater interest in the more pedestrian tasks of determining what teaching gaps I could fill in their departments and in sizing me up as a collegial colleague. At long last, it seems, I now have an audience and a forum for that long-ignored question, as well as my response.
Professors Livingston and Sinha have offered wonderful, thorough analyses and synopses of the published work of Eugene Genovese and its impact on the field of southern history. Some of what I have to say, therefore, is a mere reiteration of their points. Foremost, what I believe to be Genovese's greatest contribution to the field is his attentiveness to analysis. As we all know, Genovese relied on many of the sources used by U. B. Phillips, whose work, American Negro Slavery, is considered the first scholarly attempt to grapple with slavery as a historical subject. Whereas the apologist and racist Phillips marshaled the sources, largely the texts written by slaveholders [End Page 68] themselves, to justify the enslavement of Africans and their descendants ("plantations were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of the American negroes represented"), Genovese subjected them to a different interpretive analysis, placing them squarely in a Marxist ideological framework. His work ranks among the most intellectually ambitious history ever produced; his efforts to navigate a comprehensive, coherent thesis about the slave experience and the antebellum slave economy through the voluminous sources, and his attempt to comprehend the places of both the master and the slave within the same system, are nothing short of bold, sweeping, and yes, provocative. 1
But as thoughtful and important a body of work that Genovese has produced, and despite the admiration it has engendered, I have encountered few converts among my own mentors and colleagues. If anything, I have, over the years, noted significant irritation, impatience, and incredulity, not to mention downright disavowal, among my historian cohorts. In short, while most historians express tremendous admiration for Genovese's intellectual achievement and even have adopted some of his language, few are persuaded by his conclusions, or at least the implications of those conclusions. They counter that his view is monolithic and fails to take into account nonplantation slave experiences; that his work is Manichaean; that he minimizes the impact of the market economy in the slave South; that he minimizes the acquisitiveness of southern planters and the extent to which they were complicit in the global capitalist economy; that his portrayal of slavery remains too romantic; that his treatment of the master class appears too reverential; that it fails to account for regional variation. The volleys continue ad nauseum.
Genovese's work has spawned a plethora of pointed responses to his provocative arguments. The most famous and sustained example, I think, is Jim Oakes's The Ruling Race. In fact, Oakes devotes several pages in his introduction to framing his own argument in light of Genovese's work. He then proceeds to forcefully and systematically, with the precision of a skilled surgeon, disembowel Genovese's theoretical corpus. I trot out the example of Oakes's rebuke of Genovese to illustrate what I think is the second reason Genovese's intellectual contributions are among the greatest in the field of southern history: his ability to provoke remains unsurpassed. Who among us wouldn't be...