- The Vital Center
American intellectual history has been written largely as a white, male, northern, progressive, Protestant and Jewish story, usually by people of some, if not all, of these affiliations. Although Michael O’Brien exaggerates when he claims that standard accounts of intellectual life in nineteenth-century America amount largely to the story of “William James and a few of his friends,” 1 those seeking to offer a convincing alternative account have a hard row to hoe. Of course, it is possible that the canonical figures (or movements)—the Puritans, Founding Fathers, the Transcendentalists, the Social Darwinists and Pragmatists, the transitional Modernists such as Mumford, Brooks, Bourne and Frank and the chastened Modernists of the post-World War II world (for example, Arendt, Trilling, Bell, Kazin) with DuBois, Gilman, and national character studies thrown in for good measure—just are the best we have to offer. Periodically, however, someone contests the standard story, to insist that the canon be expanded to include other voices and open out to other rooms.
One such recent voice is that of Eugene D. Genovese. Genovese certainly needs no introduction as a historian of slavery and the antebellum South; but since his pathbreaking work of the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s in those fields, his focus has shifted from the social history, broadly construed, to the intellectual history of the Old South. Genovese has always been interested in intellectual history: his profile of George Fitzhugh in The World the Slaveholders Made (1969) was a distinguished addition to the literature on what Louis Hartz called the “reactionary Enlightenment” in the antebellum South. Moreover, The Fruits of Merchant Capital (1983), coauthored with Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, contained several essays clearly demonstrating the virtues of a Marxist-oriented history of ideas. And in the last two decades, Genovese has published numerous articles and a short volume, “reports from the field” as it were, about research in progress on a large study of antebellum southern intellectual life.
It is in this context that The Southern Tradition: The Achievements and [End Page 232] Limitations of an American Conservatism belongs. Originally presented at Harvard as the Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, this short but wide-ranging book straddles several genres. It is first of all a polemic, even a kind of jeremiad. Never much enamoured with the kind of “objective” history that many take as their historiographical ideal, Genovese the polemicist seems to have two prime concerns. The first is to remind his readers of the intellectual vitality of (white) southern intellectual conservatism:
I am alarmed at the “modernization” that is transforming the South . . . . I increasingly suspect that its desirable features are coming at a price northerners as well as southerners, black as well as whites, will rue having to pay and need not pay. That price includes a neglect of, or contempt for, the history of southern whites.(p. xi)
Second, Genovese, by now a seasoned veteran in the culture wars, thinks that a closer look at southern conservatism can help “rescue” the Left from
the disguised totalitarian tendencies that infect left-liberalism and social democracy. The hard lessons I have had in mind, which especially concern the Left’s rosy view of human nature and the irrationalities of its radical egalitarianism, may be gleaned from this book.(p. x)
Thus, Genovese promises antidotes to the intellectual and political illnesses besetting American political culture.
As a historian by training, Genovese thinks that the best basis for remedying present ills is to apply the hard-won insights of the past. From that vantage point, The Southern Tradition belongs to the genre of intellectual history. Throughout the book, Genovese moves back and forth with considerable, though at times confusing, facility between the stalwarts of antebellum conservative southern thought such as John C. Calhoun, John Taylor of Caroline and John Randolph of Roanoke, and the Fugitive-Agrarians of this century, paying special attention to epigones, Richard Weaver and M. C. Bradford, and making reference to literary historian Lewis...