I called him “Il Duce” or “The Don.” Everybody did, but not to his face.
That phone call from Gene Genovese lifted my spirits, and changed my life. By publishing my little essay on “Romeo & Juliet” in Marxist Perspectives, he had begun to draw me into a world of intellectuals that seemed more worldly, more sophisticated—more far flung, at any rate—than the one I inhabited along with my colleagues and friends from graduate school and at In These Times.
Don’t get me wrong. I got the best education available in the 1970s from these colleagues and friends. At Northern Illinois University, Carl Parrini, Marvin Rosen, Alfred Young, C. H. George, Paul Wolman, Bill Burr, Steve Rosswurm, Don and Kathleen Shankman, Larry Lynn, and Rich Schneirov taught me why to care about what we were thinking and writing. At In These Times, John Judis, Nick Rabkin, David Moberg, and James Weinstein taught me how that thinking could be expressed without academic ornament or pretension.
Perhaps what I mean to say is that the great education I received in these two unlikely places was decidedly unprofessional. There was no discipline in the education I got except the kind that keeps you up at night, drinking more coffee and then more beer, arguing with all the rigor you can muster with the text at hand or the people in the room, knowing that by morning you’ll understand something new, either about yourself or the world.
The presiding spirit at both NIU and ITT was of course Martin J. Sklar, the most profound and original thinker I have ever encountered, in person or in print, not to mention the hardest-working scholar I ever met: in the mid-70s, he was barely forty, but he had already read everything, and he was willing to test all of it in argument. He’s the reason I switched from Russian to American history: he was always the smartest guy in the room, but he never coasted on his natural talent, his native intelligence, instead he was always learning, always changing his mind, always reading every word, never gutting a book or relying on the reviews.
Sklar once scolded me when I made fun of Henry F. May’s End of American Innocence: “Don’t be such a fucking snob,” he said, “a book is like a friend, you learn to trust it by taking it seriously.” I wanted to grow up to be like Marty, reading every non-fiction text, even The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism or The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, as if it were a novel containing prose to be pondered, savored, quoted—in a word, remembered. Why does Weber define capitalism as the antithesis of greed at pp. 17-27 of the Parsons translation, and why does Keynes wait until pp. 211-12 to strike down Say’s Law? And vice versa: reading every fictional text, even poetry, as if its meanings exceeded these words and these pages, forever spilling into your life. Why does Eliot cite F. H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality, p. 346, at line 411 of “The Wasteland”?
Still, Genovese’s intellectual universe somehow seemed more cosmopolitan, more literary, more stylish. It was definitely more professional because it was more centered on academic standards, including comportment and dress, than anybody in my circles could care about. We Midwesterners were making the revolution, goddamn it, not interviewing for jobs as assistant professors, of course we dressed sloppily and smelled bad, we were busy: as late as 1979, I went to a convention interview in shorts because it was too fucking hot to wear anything else. But I so desperately wanted out of the disaster of my life that anywhere East of me seemed both inviting and imperative—even on a Greyhound to New York in July of 1977. On the way through South Philly, I decided that killing myself at the back of the bus was probably not my best idea so far, because if I pulled it off, I’d never see Manhattan again.
Genovese and Sklar were old friends by the mid-70s, having collaborated on the move of Studies on the Left from Madison to New York in 1963, along with James Weinstein, always the willing sidekick but, like Dean Martin in “The Sons of Katie Elder,” equipped with enough smarts, guts, and vision to sometimes take the lead, as Jimmy did in 1968, trying to convene an intellectual alternative to the extremities of SDS/PL by gathering Sklar, Genovese, William Appleman Williams, Christopher Lasch, Gar Alperovitz, and others in a kind of seminar on the political future, as he did again in 1970 by starting Socialist Revolution, and as he did once more in 1975-76, by launching In These Times.
Sklar resigned in protest as an editor of Studies in 1966, when Genovese published his hysterical review of Williams’s Great Evasion (about which more when I get to the politics of their scholarship). But the two remained friends as Gene migrated from Rutgers to Rochester by way of George Williams, and then, as chair of the department of History at Rochester, he began assembling or consolidating an extraordinary roster of scholars that included Lasch, Herbert Gutman, Stanley Engerman, Hayden White, and Donald Kelley, among others. In fact, Sklar enrolled as a graduate student in History at Rochester in 1968—he had never completed the PhD at Wisconsin—and, with Genovese’s painstaking administrative assistance, he would finish the degree there fourteen years later, after severing ties with Weinstein and In These Times.
Worlds were colliding, interpenetrating, aligning miraculously and behaving badly in the 1970s. New American Movement and DSOC were still asking how to posit social democracy as an alternative to the holy rantings of residual New Left sects. The folks at MARHO—they and their students now run my discipline—were starting to ask how to write good history without becoming cheerleaders for every symptom of subaltern resistance. And feminists were insisting that their gender concerns were not “superstructural” or secondary items on the agenda of liberation from capitalism sketched by historical materialists.
Gene Genovese stood at the very heart of the changes we felt in these times, and, like every writer we remember, he was trying to tell us where they could lead. But even in his masterpiece of 1974, the Bancroft Prize-winning Roll, Jordan Roll, he wrote with more fear of than hopes for the future. By the mid-1980s he had already broken decisively with all his erstwhile comrades on the Left, and was careening toward a new career as a right-wing public intellectual. In assessing this political passage, however, let’s keep in mind that he never relinquished the critique of corporate-financial capitalism and consumer culture that he had absorbed from the New Left—not even unto his death.
I finally met Il Duce in December 1978, at Hal Woodman’s house in West Lafayette, Indiana, during what was ostensibly an AHA teaching conference hosted by Purdue—it was actually a meeting of people associated with Marxist Perspectives. By that time, the journal had about 30 “organizational secretaries,” mainly graduate students and junior professors, but also some well-established scholars like John Womack and Woodman, the accomplished economic historian of the 19th-century South (Woodman got me my very first on-campus interview by shooting the breeze with Stan Katz, who asked on an elevator ride at the AHA convention of December 1980 if Hal knew a promising young economic historian Princeton could hire; I didn’t get that job).
A year later, with MP # 7 out, those organizational secretaries numbered over 60, and they included Bonnie Smith, Barbara Fields, David Roediger, and Steven Hahn. Among the contributing editors were Christopher Lasch—Genovese had somehow mended this badly damaged relationship—Alan Trachtenberg, C. H. George, Fredric Jameson, Alice Kessler-Harris, Mary Young, and in an uncredited performance, Warren Susman. Philip Lopate was in charge of poetry. A remarkable ensemble, no? Compare Genovese’s accomplishment here to that of a Hollywood producer or director in getting a formidable cast together for a big production, or to that of a musician in assembling a band that includes people who could (and did) front their own. It was the academic equivalent of The Godfather of the E Street Band.
About ten of us organizational secretaries were in attendance at Hal Woodman’s house that night in December 1978. Susman and a few other editorial board members were there, too. We talked excitedly about the future of the journal. We talked guardedly about the future of the discipline. Actually Gene did most of the talking. He explained with great aplomb that we—us leftists, Marxists, socialists, radicals—could take over the OAH if we liked, but it probably didn’t matter. It was more important to take over the “commanding heights” of the magazines and the “intermedia,” where the educators congregated. Public opinion was everything, he said—very Gramscian, of course. I was captivated by this tiny man, who filled the room with an evangelical presence, a charisma born of absolute faith in what he preached: he had answers to every doubt and question, all of them punctuated with erudite references, here Marx, there Augustine or Aristotle, then, ironically, Lenin or Mao. I was pretty sure we’d all be kissing his ring when the meeting ended.
Five months later, I went to the OAH meeting in New Orleans for that job interview in shorts (with Michigan State) and got a much bigger dose of the Don. His entourage, including Miss Betsey, swirled around him in the hallways and the suites, at the MP table where I sat with Lenny Quart talking movies, even in convention sessions. He had a princely retinue in constant attendance. At one memorable party in his suite, Gene maneuvered me onto a couch between he and Betsey, who looked me up and down as if I wore handcuffs and leg irons; her inspection of me was so imperiously objective that I turned my palms up and moved my feet, just checking. She didn’t say a word, she just stared at me. First Gene prolonged our phone conversation by quizzing me on the provenance of the “Romeo & Juliet” piece—how did a graduate student, an economic historian no less, come up with this original reading of the play?—and then he went off on a rant about how Marxists can’t seem to grasp the essentials of intellectual history or literary criticism.
I was caught off guard, because I thought at the outset that he meant to praise me; the darkening expression on his face suggested otherwise—either he was convincing himself of a dubious proposition, or Betsey’s stare bothered him as much as it unnerved me. So I said, Uh, what about Mikhail Bakhtin, or Raymond Williams, or Arnold Kettle? (Meanwhile I was thinking, yeah, and don’t forget Lukacs, Benjamin, Marcuse, pretty serious guys.) Gene waved these suggestions away like so many pesky insects.
“I’m talking about American intellectual history, the life of the mind in this country. Who does that anymore? Perry Miller used to. Alan Heimert? Warren used to, now what is he doing, he’s doing culture, not the history of ideas. Who else?”
I was stumped. It was a good question that Gene himself would answer, much later and to no one’s satisfaction, in The Mind of the Master Class. Remember, the 1970s marked the beginning of the export of several fields from departments of History, in a variation on the theme of corporate outsourcing or downsizing. Where once political, economic, and intellectual history were the core of the discipline’s curriculum and research, by the 1990s the cutting edges in political, economic, and intellectual history were, respectively, in Political Science, Economics, and English departments. What happened? I’m not complaining, by the way.
I don’t know, I said, I’m an economic historian.
“Like hell you are,” Gene said (I believe this was the beginning of my career as an intellectual historian).
Well, OK, I’m not an economist, and those guys look like the future. Fogel and Engerman, you like that book.
“I’ll read anything about slavery. That’s a new way of thinking about it, as a successful labor system, a modern system, it challenges a lot of assumptions. You have to grant them that.”
Yeah, I do.
I said this without conviction, but at that point, Gene sprang from the couch to greet somebody important, I don’t remember who, and Betsey, rising slowly, even languidly, like a debutante asked to dance by a significant scion, finally shifted her gaze to another prisoner of her husband’s undivided attention.