My comrades on the Left have a problem with Gene Genovese. Me, too. But not theirs.
To be continued.
Eugene Genovese, who just passed at the age of 82, has crowded my life for more than thirty years. I imagine that a lot of people from my generation of historians could say the same thing, regardless of how they feel about his scholarship or his politics. A lot of younger people could, too, because they’re working within, against, and athwart that scholarship, whether they know it or not. And even younger—for god’s sake The Political Economy of Slavery (1965) is a required book this semester in my 100-level American history survey class, “Development of the US to 1865.”
The night I heard about his death I called a man I hadn’t talked to in almost twenty years—this was someone who, like me, was deeply involved in Marxist Perspectives, the journal Gene launched in 1978 with all kinds of left-liberal support (from Christopher Lasch and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for example) and who, like me, has been estranged from the man for many years. He was as mystified by my presence on the line as I was. We talked mainly about the theater scene in Chicago, where he now drives to acquire the evidence of culture, and where I still drive to acquire the semblance of family.
I can’t separate Gene from my adult life. Between 1976 and 1979, that life fell apart. I was in graduate school, switching from Russian to American History for the PhD under the spell of Carl Parrini and Marty Sklar, otherwise just watching and waiting as my wife left me, my mother died, and my sister died, in very short order, all within one year. Meanwhile Jimmy Weinstein and Sklar had launched In These Times in Chicago. I was involved in their preparatory discussions, as many other Northern Illinois University grad students were, starting where we were, in DeKalb, the middle of nowhere. It was a useful distraction.
My wife was an actress, a beautiful woman with real talent. She was deeply involved in the theater crowd at NIU—don’t laugh, it was pretty cool—and in what was already shaping up as a scene in Chicago. Steppenwolf was only one of the results of the intellectual ferment specific to this moment. All kinds of strange social, cultural, and political possibilities suddenly erupted in the mid-1970s, as if everybody was trying to make sense of, or just catch up with, what they had experienced over the past ten years.
So I had to attend many theatrical events, including the plays themselves, and afterward I always found myself in argument with the actors, including my wife, who were often the directors as well. Actors aren’t very articulate except when they’re on stage or in front of a camera, and then they’re a revelation—you know them, you know yourself—so I typically got the better of the argument in these off-stage moments. But who cared? It was great fun, every minute of it, and then it was over.
A remarkable Chicago production of “Romeo & Juliet,” in which a young man named Tim McShane played Mercutio, was the watershed for me, and maybe for the woman who would soon become my ex-wife. I think it was the winter of 1976, because in those days it was cold and dark outside, and always grim indoors—somehow Shakespeare’s forensic cruelties seemed commonplace. As I remember, the cast and crew and some of the audience repaired to a bar on Wells Street across from the makeshift theater, where we argued earnestly about the meanings of the play into the night.
When my wife left me soon after, my thoughts were always organized by the simple question that galvanized the argument that night on Wells Street: who dies next, and why? My mother had died of cancer in June 1976, and my sister was already terminal—she’d check out in August 1977—so it was a practical question. I assumed I was in the lineup, but maybe not next.
“Romeo & Juliet” became my way of coping with the catastrophe that was my life. (OK, maybe alcohol and sex also helped.) What was love, how did these people experience it, what did they do with it, what was it good for? I found that our modern romantic notions of love were anachronistic at best in explaining the momentum of the play, or in justifying our identifications with the star-crossed lovers. I concluded that Romeo and Juliet are the villains of the piece. Like Edmund, the bastard son in “King Lear,” they systematically violate every social norm available—they are eagerly “unnatural”—and in doing so, in behaving like modern bourgeois individuals, they lay waste to their families, their societies, and themselves. “Doff thy name, take all myself,” Juliet commands from her balcony. When Romeo complies, Mercutio and Tybalt are as good as dead, and so are the lovers themselves.
Meanwhile I’d been reading Mikhail Bakhtin’s book on Rabelais for fun. His idea of the popular grotesque and its underground life seemed to explain the insistently and crudely sexual languages Shakespeare deployed in “Romeo & Juliet.” So I wrote up a little essay on the play at some point in 1978, just about the time I picked up the guitar, and sent it to the editor of Marxist Perspectives. What did I know about publishing articles? Not a goddamn thing, except that Socialist Revolution had run my piece called “Politics, Ideology, and the Origins of American Revolutions”—yeah, plural—in July 1977, and In These Times had been letting me write esoterically, about Sigmund Freud and Lawrence R. Klein and critical realignment elections.
One day in 1978 I get a phone call. No niceties. “Is this James Livingston?” Yes, who’s calling? (It could’ve been a collection agency.)
“This is Eugene Genovese, I’m the editor of Marxist Perspectives. So you’re not in the English Department?”
Oh, of course, yeah, I know who you are. But, uh, no, I’m in the History Department.
“You’re a graduate student.”
“You work with Sklar and Parrini.”
Well, Marty is gone, he’s—
“Yeah I know all about In These Times, are you writing a dissertation?”
Yes, uh, on the Federal Reserve System.
“It’s on what?”
The Fed, the origins of the Fed actually—
“All right, where did this ‘Romeo & Juliet’ come from?”
How do you mean, I mean, I’ve seen the play a lot and I don’t think we understand it because we’re too romantic, in a technical sense, you know—
“OK, you’re not in the English Department.”
“I’m going to publish your piece, but you’re going to let me edit the footnotes, they’re overstuffed like you’re trying to prove something, like you’re a graduate student. And the title is too long, I have to cut it.”
“All right. Nice to meet you, Dr. Livingston.”
My essay appeared in # 7, Fall 1979, pp. 50-61. The journal folded immediately thereafter, when Gene responded to an editorial board revolt with a resignation, and an impending deal with Cambridge UP fell through.