- The Sweetness of Life: Southern Planters at Home by Eugene D. Genovese
Eugene D. Genovese, who died in 2012, was one of the most important historians of the antebellum South. This appellation is well deserved. In a publishing career that spanned 1965 to 2017, Genovese produced a score of books and articles that explore the slaveholding South before the Civil War. Although he wrote about slave society, culture, and resistance, his main interest always centered on the master class—its ideology, politics, religion, and intellectual life. Genovese's writings are extremely well researched, strongly argued, and controversial. His primary interpretation of the antebellum South as a distinctive society based on the master-slave relationship and ruled by planter hegemony defined the field of antebellum southern history for generations. The Sweetness of Life is Genovese's last book, published posthumously and skillfully edited by historian Douglas Ambrose. [End Page 530]
The book's subtitle—Southern Planters at Home—accurately conveys the contents of the book, which covers a broad and striking range of topics: hospitality, horse racing, dancing, hunting, dining, fashion, travel, entertainment, and even drug use. Genovese moves at a brisk pace to cover these subjects. The book is really a collection of hundreds of stories and anecdotes drawn from a wide variety of primary sources. Genovese presents much material on family life that confirms conventional wisdom. Gentlemen planters often married women much younger than themselves. (In 1822, however, an apparently puritanical Mississippi legislature did debate voiding elopements of girls under fourteen years of age.) Planter couples often had one or two slave children sleep with them at night. Southern hospitality, like horse racing, was deservedly legendary. Augustus Chapman Allen and John K. Allen of Texas spent about $3,000 annually to provide lodging for strangers (in current value, about $93,900!). Perhaps the quantities and qualities of food enticed southerners to visit so much. Those lucky enough to dine at the St. Clair Club in low-country South Carolina could choose either clam soup or chicken mulligatawney with a meal of roasts, vegetables, and oyster pies. Planters met at resorts like Virginia Springs and White Sulphur Springs in Virginia and Newport and Saratoga in the North to cement friendships. Despite the stereotypes created by northerners and accepted by historians, the antebellum South was not devoid of cultural opportunities. Charleston offered some six hundred performances of twenty-three of Shakespeare's plays in the first half of the nineteenth century. Classical music could be found at the Mozart Society of Aiken, South Carolina.
Several aspects of this book reflect the characteristics of Genovese's earlier work. The research here is prodigious, duly reflecting his long scholarly career in southern history. Close to 130 manuscript collections were consulted. Many of these, such as the diaries of Samuel Agnew and John Hamilton Cornish, are familiar to historians. Well-known periodicals like the Southern Quarterly Review and Southern Literary Messenger were used as well. Genovese also cites the relevant secondary sources. Most important, this book reflects Genovese's consistent focus on white slaveholders, the primary subject in all his writings. Women—as planters' wives, mothers, slaveholders, cooks, musicians, dancers, vacationers, and medical patients—are ubiquitous. The place of slaves here is a bit more ambiguous. Genovese was smart enough to know that the antebellum South was a biracial society. He showed that the master-slave relationship involved complex dynamics of race, class, and gender. African American slaves are indeed present in this book. They trained hunting dogs, cooked meals, and enabled young white lovers to maneuver around parental [End Page 531] and societal boundaries. Yet slaves clearly remain in the background of Genovese's narrative.
Unlike his earlier works, The Sweetness of Life lacks any new strong or provocative interpretations. The book is almost exclusively descriptive rather than analytical. It is peculiarly reminiscent of the kind of anecdotal social history pioneered by Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Dixon Ryan Fox in their thirteen-volume History of American Life...