Eugene D. Genovese, RIP, Part 3

I

I didn’t see the Don again until October 1984, although we corresponded between 1982 and 1984, as I revised the dissertation for publication.  A lot happened to me and that dissertation in those five years.  A lot more happened elsewhere.  Like atomic particles at light speed, worlds were colliding and recombining in the 1960s and 70s, creating new social compounds and cultural isotopes.  In the 1980s and after, the walls of the centrifuge collapsed, and those particles became random missiles.  Anything became possible, even a second term for Ronald Reagan, even a second chance for Gene Genovese.

I was divorced from my first wife in 1977.  She had left for L.A. to make it big as an actress (and she almost did).  Over the next five years, I became an accidental tourist on the outskirts of the sexual revolution.  In 1979 I got married again, but that never got in the way of anything important.  If you had asked me why I remarried back then, I had two good answers: I have no idea, or, I’m rescuing a damsel in distress.  She thought she was a lesbian, and her father, a South Side steelworker with the intelligence of a toaster oven, had called her a whore for moving in with me.  Why not?  In those days, that was my answer to just about any proposition.

In August 1979, Marty Sklar resigned from In These Times in a dispute with Jim Weinstein over control of the editorial page.  Sklar had written all the editorials the paper had run since the inaugural issue in November 1976; he wanted more money, some time off, and the freedom to appoint his replacement when he took a vacation.  Weinstein called me and asked if I would write the editorials in Sklar’s absence.

After Marty and I spent an afternoon discussing the offer, I figured the downsides were ruined health and time away from the dissertation, noble sacrifices either way.  So I took the job, which lasted all of a month.  That short stint ruined my health, alienated me from Weinstein, and ended my relationship with Sklar.  He had started calling me the scab who broke his “strike” against In These Times.  I heard this from my adviser, among other reliable sources.

So I arranged a meeting with Marty and it went very badly.  We didn’t speak to each other for the next ten years.  The silence was broken only because Weinstein asked me to review Sklar’s “dissertation” book, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916 (1988), for In These Times.  “It was worth waiting for twenty years,” Jimmy said in his letter, referring to Sklar’s unpublished writing on anti-trust law, which Weinstein had used and cited in The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State (1968). My review was published in ITT the same mid-summer week of 1988 that I arrived in New Jersey to take a job at Rutgers (how did that happen?).  It moved Sklar to send me a polite note of appreciation.

Two years later, Weinstein asked me to write an obituary of William Appleman Williams.  I sent a draft to Marty, just to make sure I got the Wisconsin years right, and our correspondence created a new relationship.  By that time Sklar was a tenured professor at Bucknell; he had gone back to academia in 1982 because, for all his twenty years of trying, from 1959 to 1979, he couldn’t make a living as a writer on the Left.  His dissertation adviser was, of course, Eugene D. Genovese, the man who convinced the authorities at the University of Rochester to revive Sklar’s long-dormant PhD candidacy.

II

In those days, I made a living by ghost-writing for an academic dean who didn’t have the time to read or think—he was too busy making decisions—and by teaching in NIU’s extension division.  Back then Pell Grants made higher education in prisons a lucrative franchise for public universities, so my teaching assignment was the notorious Stateville Penitentiary in Joliet, where the residents had been locked down for 18 months by the time I arrived in the Fall of 1979.

On my first day in prison, the guards were pretty nervous, and very aggressive.  You can’t blame them.  After spending a year and a half on vacation, here they were being forced to actually police a sprawling complex of 19th century panopticonic masonry—see the opening scenes of “The Blues Brothers” for a look at the North Wall—which, everybody knew, was run from the inside by the Blackstone Rangers, the Chicago street gang later known as El Rukn.

When I presented myself at the guard station, already deep inside the bowels of this limestone inferno, the two men manning the gate objected, and strenuously, to my dress.  In their view, I looked like a resident because I was wearing jeans and a blue golf shirt.  Those were the days—long before today’s beige jump suits—when dungarees and a light blue short-sleeved shirt made up the prisoner’s wardrobe.

“You go in lookin’ like that, you ain’t comin out,” one of them said.  “Get in here, we gonna search yo ass, anyway.”  He said it in a friendly way, not as if my orifices, already clenched for twenty minutes, were now in play.  I’d been frisked by cops before, but this was different—truly methodical and genuinely scary.  The large white man conducting this search of my body kept grasping its limbs and joints as if he was getting ready to break them off.  I was wincing and wondering “what the fuck!” throughout, just like I was supposed to: in here, he was announcing, you have no rights.  They finally took my picture, gave me an ID, and put me in an orange jump suit, so that I could be distinguished from the residents in dungarees.

It turned out that the guys in orange jumpsuits were new arrivals, as I learned on my way to the “education complex” at the farthest remove from the front entrance.  “Hey baby!” and “Ooowee, you mine next time!” were the practiced lines of the residents who had the pleasure of greeting me on my way to the complex in the company of a trustee named “Free.”  Being a sexual object is a sentimental education all its own, especially when matriculation isn’t the goal.

When we got to the complex, two classrooms with half-glass walls and a smaller, windowless seminar room, all adjacent to the library, there were maybe 20 guys standing around with a guard at their perimeter.  One of them saw me with Free and yelled “Hey man, where you been, thought you was gone for good!”  I was thinking, ha, this is the joke they play on every new visitor, let’s make him wonder if he ever gets out, but no, the guy had really mistaken me for a former resident and was disappointed to hear that I’d be leaving that afternoon.  He wanted to catch up on my life outside.

Next thing I knew I was chatting with Eddie Ligon, the CEO of the Blackstone Rangers, and, by implication, of Stateville.  I decided within 30 seconds that I’d follow this man into the mouth of Hell if he told me it was a good idea.  He wasn’t large or loud, or even imposing in any way I could decipher.  He was simply the most charismatic person I’ve ever met.  He reminded me of Gene Genovese.

III

Five years later I had divorced and remarried again, this time for good (well, almost).  Meanwhile I had worked as a bartender, a waiter, an editor, and a visiting professor at Central Michigan University and North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.

In March of 1982, my colleagues at this last distinguished institution informed me that my services would not be required the following school year because they had decided not to interview me for the tenure-track position; indeed they had already hired someone else, a promising young man from Wisconsin named David Blight.  The head of my division, which included the departments of History, Philosophy, and Religion—the total here was six and a half lines, even though the school offered an MBA—walked me around campus the day of my official departure, explaining at great length why the students who protested my termination were deluded.  “Jim,” he finally said, “you just don’t understand what league you’re in now.”  I was thinking, yeah, the bush league, you schmuck—the only other place I interviewed in 1981 was Princeton University (I didn’t get that job, either).  He continued: “We got applications from as far away as Kentucky.”

So I was unemployed in Chicago during the famous Reagan Recession, 1982-83.  David Roediger, whom I’d known as an undergraduate at NIU, saved my ass by making me a “faculty associate” at Northwestern, an honorific position that came with a precious library card and History department stationery.  That year I revised my dissertation “for publication” and then got another visiting professor gig, this time at Illinois State University, just in time to get married again.  (Don’t say I’m not a romantic.)  Three days a week, I’d take the 4:30 Greyhound from Chicago to Bloomington to make the 8:00 survey class.  After teaching my courses, I’d hang out near the bus station at the Lucca Grill, where the ISU grounds crew drank beer after work.  At the end of the school year, knowing I got a job in North Carolina—a tenure-track position no less—my friends from the Lucca gave me a set of pens engraved with “Dr. Jim Livingston.”

IV

My move to Charlotte put me back in the orbit of the Don.  Cornell UP had sent my Fed book out for review twice by the fall of 1984, and was coming up empty—the editor was eager to publish this openly Marxist explanation of the origins of the Fed, but the reader’s two reports kept urging me to do “more research,” as if my argument wasn’t the issue.  The press finally turned in desperation to William Appleman Williams, who wrote a one paragraph report saying “Full speed ahead!” and urging me to put the “Note on Class Analysis”—a brief but incendiary methodological treatise intended as an appendix to the book—right up front.  Williams satisfied nobody except me.

I wrote to Gene asking for advice—again.  It turned out that he and Betsey were fellows at the National Humanities Center that academic year, 1984-85.  He was already planning to attend my talk at the Triangle Economic History Workshop, which convened at the Center, in October.

Genovese positioned himself next to me at the head of the seminar table that afternoon—he didn’t just sit down, he performed a rite, creating a significant space for himself.  His presumption made me smile because I was thinking, he just can’t help it anymore, he knows he’s in charge of whatever meeting has convened in his vicinity, for whatever purpose.  Like Eddie Ligon.  But about a half hour later I was thinking, no, Gene knew this would be a bloodbath, he placed himself there in solidarity with the victim, the author of the paper, the man who would be me.

The economists in attendance were uniformly angry about my use of their numbers in demonstrating that the divergence of real wages and labor productivity in the late 19th century transferred income from capital to labor—in much the same way that income was being transferred from labor to capital in the late-20th century by a similar and similarly measurable divergence.  It’s not rocket science, it derives from Keynesian and post-Keynesian economics, in this instance from Clarence D. Long’s NBER studies published in 1960.  If  real wages are rising and labor productivity is stagnant, nominal wages increase, profits decline, consumer spending is enhanced: shares of national income shift toward labor.  And vice versa (as witness 1987 to the present).  But these correlations, then as now, can’t be explained by market power—economic theory is insufficient to the task.

The calculations I presented that day became the basis of the AHR article of 1987, “The Social Analysis of Economic History and Theory,” which was published belatedly, as it were, after two years, two editors, and twelve readers at the journal.  Nobody knew what to do with it except the economists, who trashed it, saying that marginal utility was a universal cost-benefit analysis that human beings had always used, not a model specific to a post-scarcity stage of capitalism.  They said the same thing that day at the NHC, but in person—with more vehemence, rancor, and invective—as if I had infiltrated their discipline and emerged to accuse them of fraudulence.

I thought I was just borrowing their theories and their numbers to make an interesting point: contrary to every account of the period, workers were winning the class struggle of the late-19th century.  After 80 minutes of insulting remarks from the audience and stammering responses from me, I finally looked over at the Don.  He was putting the finishing touches on a psychedelic caricature of me in profile, pen on legal pad—it was quite good, from that angle I look like an Irish palooka or Neanderthal man—which bore this caption: “Jim Livingston confronts the running dog lackeys of the bourgeoisie.”  (I still have the signed original.)

Then he sat up straight, leaned forward, and explained the ideological vectors that were crossing and colliding in that seminar room.  The economists were silent for the length of Gene’s quiet, cogent critique of their insular, unexamined assumptions, which, he said, rendered them unable to recognize a new idea—a novel use of their own data—when someone from the world elsewhere offered it.  Most of the participants looked down at the table in front of them as if they were being scolded by a parent for not eating their peas and carrots.  As I remember, the exceptions to this rule were Robert Gallman, Richard Sylla, and the German guy who had denounced me for not understanding regression analysis, which he, of course, was using to estimate the height and weight of Bavarians in the late-18th century.

“Livingston is bending bourgeois economics to Marxist ends, you see,” Gene concluded, “he’s using your findings without adopting your assumptions.  You can learn from that example.”

In the weird silence that ensued, I summarized my argument, answered a few of the stray objections I had heard, and started thinking about the example of intellectual grace and forbearance Genovese offered us that day.  I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

V

At the reception that followed this blood bath, there were many handshakes and congratulations from the people who had spent the previous 90 minutes ridiculing my scholarly pretensions.  “Well done,” they all said, except the German guy, who was guzzling white wine.  I finally made my way over to where Gene and Betsey were holding court.  I wanted to thank him for saving my life—again—and, more urgently, to ask him whether he had some ideas about a reader or a strategy for my Fed book.

Betsey watched my approach with horror, no doubt wondering what happened to the shackles that had bound me in New Orleans.  Gene didn’t notice me until, at wit’s end, I interrupted his conversation with someone else.  I thanked him for his defense, then quickly explained my situation, mentioning the perfunctory report from Williams and the editor’s inability to move the manuscript in house without a strong endorsement from a reputable scholar with some expertise in economic and/or financial history, plus social theory, maybe even Marxism.

Got any ideas?

“You don’t have a lot of choices.,” he said.  “Historians of banking will hate it, a lot of Marxists won’t like it either.  You stand no chance with the economists.”  He gestured at the room to confirm the last point.

Well, Bob Wiebe liked it.  (I had asked him to read the revised dissertation while at Northwestern in 1982-83.)

“Did he?  He’s a good liberal.  That’s a possibility.  But wait a minute, what about Marty, why not Sklar?  He’s perfect.”

Yeah, except that we’re not speaking to each other anymore.  If I’m him, I tell the press to fuck off.

“He wouldn’t do that.”

I don’t know, he’s pretty pissed off.

“Yeah, he’s mad at me too, but don’t worry.  This will work out.”

It did work out.  Marty and I patched up our friendship.  I stayed in touch with Gene through his political and professional wanderings, even unto the Historical Society and the last, monumental project, The Mind of the Master Class.

Oh, and Cornell UP sent the manuscript to a prominent historian of banking, a man who had been in attendance at my disastrous NHC session.  He wrote a thorough, positive report that concluded with lines I memorized: “Livingston is a historian with a lot of rough edges.  He is going to have to learn to adjust to the standards of the discipline.  If he cannot respond to this report with the appropriate revisions and qualifications, he doesn’t belong in the profession.  You can tell him I said so.”
NEXT: Politics and Religion

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One response to “Eugene D. Genovese, RIP, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Adventures in Marxism: Eugene Genovese and James Livingston | myrivercityblues

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