The historian Eugene Genovese has died at age 82, leaving a legacy that will be confounding ideologues for decades to come. His scholarly focus was the antebellum South, and his most famous book was Roll, Jordan, Roll, a study of slavery that broke important ground by presenting slaves as more than just victims and investigating the rich culture they built for themselves. It was the sort of book you might expect to be written by a leftist, and sure enough, Genovese came out of the left. He wasn’t some mild-mannered liberal, either: His first major public controversy came when he announced that he welcomed a Viet Cong victory in Vietnam.
But Genovese was also a cultural conservative, a sympathetic interpreter of southern traditionalists, and a fierce critic of the academic left. By the P.C. wars of the early ’90s, he was routinely categorized as a man of the right, even though he still considered himself a socialist; by the end of his life, he had contributed to National Review and spoken at the American Enterprise Institute.
Hence the confounded ideologues. Genovese was sometimes called a “Marxist conservative,” and while I’m neither a Marxist nor a conservative I got a lot out of reading his work. I may have disagreed with many things that he wrote, but I always knew he was thinking for himself rather than following a party line.