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Can Southern Conservatism Rise Again?

ISSUE:  Summer 1995

The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism. By Eugene b. Genovese. Harvard. $22.50.

Harvard University’s William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization have an impressive history of their own, one that begins at the podium and ends in slim, elegantly produced volumes such as Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), Irving Howe’s An American Newness (1986), and Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992). Genovese’s deeply personal ruminations on how the best of Southern thought and temperament might be applied to our current situation is a worthy addition to this distinguished series.

Genovese’s credentials as a historian of the South hardly need rehearsal. Roll, Jordan, Roll is arguably the best study of American slavery, and his other writings, taken as a whole, have changed the way historians—particularly those in the North—think about the ante-bellum South. No doubt part of this can be chalked up to Genovese’s maverick spirit and feisty independence of thought. He clearly enjoys marching to his own idiosyncratic beat, especially when most of his colleagues were (are?) content to write off the South as slavery’s evil empire, and to dismiss virtually everything its best minds thought and spoke.

But there is another part as well—the human part, if you will—that might best be described by twisting Will Rogers’s credo until it reads as follows: Genovese never met a Southerner he didn’t like. As a historian, this means that he takes whites and blacks at their word, sensing honesty, integrity, and most of all, love where others find only deception, duplicity, and relentless race hatred; but even more important, as a human being, these feelings of Southern partisanship arise from an early recognition that “the people of the South, across lines of race, class, and sex, are as generous, gracious, courteous, decent—in a word, civilized—as any people it has ever been my privilege to get to know.”

Does this mean that Genovese, after decades of living and writing about the South, numbers himself among its insiders? Hardly. He remains well aware that as an Italian boy, raised in Rrooklyn, he was not exactly to the Southern manor born, but he is equally aware that his very outsiderhood carries with it at least as many assets as liabilities. In short, if Genevose begins his Massey lectures by freely admitting that he speaks and writes about Southern conservatism “uneasily,” that is all to the good, because the result is intellectual grappling of a very high order.

Genovese begins by asserting that the “principle tradition of the South—the mainstream of its cultural development— has been quintessentially conservative”; and then goes on to document his case by reassessing such political figures as John Randolph and John C. Calhoun, and making new claims on behalf of the Southern Agrarians (principally, Allen Tate, Lewis Simpson, and Robert Penn Warren). Thus far, what I have described may sound like yet another dreary exercise in historical revisionism, the sort of thing only an academic could cook up, but Genovese harbors much grander ambitions. Indeed, he means to link the fall of the Confederacy with the disintegration of the Soviet Union—all by way of asking what Southern conservatism, rightly understood, might have to say to currently dispirited leftists:

The fall of the Confederacy drowned the hopes of southern conservatives for the construction of a viable noncapi-talist social order, much as the disintegration of the Soviet Union—all pretenses and wishful thinking aside—has drowned the hopes of socialists. The critique of capitalism has led southern conservatives to the impasse in which the Left now finds itself. World-historic events compel a reassessment of first principles as well as political and social policies.

For Genovese, the solution is not to abandon, or even retreat from, a lifelong struggle for social justice, but, rather, to reconfigure the terms of the economic-political debate. And it is here, Genovese argues, that the rich tradition of Southern conservatism may prove instructive. For this to happen, however, the institution of slavery must be separated from its Southern apologists—and that is what might be called a hard sell. About Genovese’s own position there has never been the slightest doubt: slavery was wrong, period. But after joining those who would insist that Southerners repudiate white supremacy, and arguing as vigorously as possible that “it is dangerous as well as wrong to obscure the genuinely tragic dimension of southern history—the extent to which courageous, God-fearing, honorable people rendered themselves complicit in slavery, segregation, and racism,” Genovese also insists that it would be equally wrong to demand that Southerners repudiate the greatness of their past. The history of the Old South is more, much more, than an occasion for Northerners to celebrate their moral superiority and for Southerners to acknowledge their ancient guilts. As Genovese points out, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of the descendants of slaves and slaveholders sitting together on the hills of Georgia as Southern brothers will be realized

… when, and only when, those descendants, black and white, can meet with mutual respect and appreciation for the greatness, as well as the evil, that has gone into the making of the South.

Moreover, Genovese is convinced that the nation as a whole may not survive its present downward spiral toward moral and political paralysis unless it takes both the achievements and limitations, the cautions and critiques, of a Southern tradition seriously.

Yet another “usable past” is what Genovese has in mind, albeit one fashioned from an abiding faith in “organic social relations” and the concomitant virtue of restraint. That there are large measures of disillusionment in Genovese’s current formulation is clear enough. As he puts it, in a sentence that will surely be highlighted by friend and foe alike, “An ignoble dream of personal liberation, whether in its radical-democratic, communist, or free-market form, has proven the most dangerous illusion in our time.” Here, Genovese speaks with the bitter knowledge that only a former “dreamer” can bring to his subject. On the other hand, he has never been shy about conducting his education in public. If this be deemed a fault, it has also been the impetus for field-shaking scholarship. Which is to say, his Marxist analyses gradually gained wide acceptance, and there is every reason to believe that his critique of radical liberalism may have an equally bracing effect.

At the very least, Genovese has used the Massey Lectures as a bully pulpit for views about the South, Old and New, that seldom echo through Harvard classrooms; and in the process, he has reminded us of the wisdom and honor everywhere to be found in the words General Robert E. Lee (then a college president) penned shortly before he died: “My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them; nor indisposed me to serve them; nor in spite of failures, which I lament . . . do I despair of the future. . . . It is history that teaches us hope.” Genovese would add that Southern history, rightly understood, can also teach us how to avoid the impulses toward totalitarianism that drenched our century in blood, and that, on lower frequencies, continues to threaten the independence of thought and the very civility of life.


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