Image Credit: above: Eugene Genovese takes part in the American Historical Association Council meeting in Washington, D.C., on April 7, 1973 (Photo by Charles Del Vecchio/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Remembering the Right

Remembering Eugene Genovese

Faith and Order

Eugene Genovese was one of the most influential and controversial historians of his generation. Whether Genovese ever self-identified as a conservative remains an intriguing question, without a simple answer. Few people knew him better than I did.

In his teens, Genovese, the son of a Brooklyn dockworker, had joined the Communist Party USA. It eventually expelled him for reasons he never explained publicly, nor privately to close friends. His standard retort to the “Why?” was to say, “I zigged when I was supposed to have zagged.” In 1965, then ex-Vice President Richard Nixon elevated Genovese’s profile by demanding that Rutgers University fire him for statements in support of the Vietcong during a campus teach-in. Genovese left Rutgers, taught briefly in Canada, and then moved back to New York to become chairman of the University of Rochester’s history department. While there, still professing Marxism and atheism, he published Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), a perennial on lists of the 20th century’s most important works of nonfiction.

Two decades later, he formally broke with the left in a penitential j’accuse entitled “The Question,” published in the magazine Dissent in 1994. What did members of the American left know about the horrors of Communism, he asked, and when did they know it? What did they know about its...

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