Friday, October 12, 2012

A Moral Man: A Eulogy for Eugene Genovese*

David Moltke-Hansen

The doorbell rang at the South Carolina Historical Society in the spring of 1987.  When I opened it, the couple standing there asked if David Moltke-Hansen were in.  Then Gene and Betsey introduced themselves and said they had just stopped by to say how much they admired something I had written and to meet me.  That night I told my wife to shoot me; it would never get better than that.

Fifteen or so years later, I was visiting with Gene and Betsey in Atlanta.  Gene was distraught, almost frantic.  It was Betsey’s birthday, and the flowers he had ordered had not come.  Betsey reassured him that she knew he was always thinking of her—except, of course, during baseball games and when he was reading and writing.  That, I thought to myself, doesn’t leave much time except in dreams, at meals, and in the car, with Betsey driving, because Gene never learned how to drive.

Until the last couple of years, when his health deteriorated even further, Gene worked incessantly.  Witness the three books he saw through the press after his beloved Betsey’s death five years and nine months ago.  In addition, he worked on the five volumes of Betsey’s selected, uncollected writings, read manuscripts, and went through four newspapers a day.  He worked like that for nearly sixty years.

That abiding drive hints at another that animated those years.  Gene always was a moralist, whether as a Marxist or as a Catholic.  He recognized the evil men and women do through the acquisition and abuse of power, and he wanted to understand and combat that evil.  At one point scientific socialism seemed the way, but then Communism failed and failed him, even as Marxism continued to influence what and how he wrote.  Last year, rereading old political pieces of his from the ‘60s and ‘70s, he noted wryly: my reasoning was impeccable, just not my premises. 

Uncompromising in his moral judgments, Gene thought it unforgivable weakness to quail from necessary action because of possible collateral damage.  And he was entirely ready to see me become such damage.  Once he told me (after just having handed me a new book that he had dedicated to me) that I should and would die at the revolution.  Which revolution, I asked?  Any worth its salt, he said.  Liberals, social democrats, and other, mealy-mouthed, intellectually flaccid temporizers, the implication was, need to be eliminated.  Or at least have power wrested or kept from them.  He was not fond of libertarians either, thinking radical individualism radically wrong in the face of the collective challenges posed by power’s corruption. 

Now, when I become President, now when I become Pope, Gene would say—suggesting he should be both—things will be different.  The sad difference is that we no longer can hear him say that.  We shall remember, however, more than his humor and passion and moral drive.  We can still celebrate a brilliant interpreter of American slavery and the planter class, a tough colleague, and a generous friend.

*Moltke-Hansen gave this eulogy at Eugene Genovese's funeral mass on October 2nd in Atlanta, GA.

1 comment:

hcr said...

Thank you for this, David. I never met the man, and know him only by reputation, which was not always positive. Seeing him through the eyes of a friend helps to bring him into focus as a human being.

Thank you.