Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview • Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese • New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005 • xiv, 828 pp. • $70.00 cloth; $29.00 paper
Reviewed by Michal Jan Rozbicki, associate professor of history at Saint Louis University. He is the author of The Complete Colonial Gentleman: Cultural Legitimacy in Plantation America (1998).
The Mind of the Master Class, a long-awaited study by two of America's most prominent—and unfailingly original—historians, Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, clearly falls within the genre of intellectual history. The authors, conspicuously unburdened by postmodern epistemological angst, set out to probe in great depth the intellectual efforts of the antebellum slaveholding elite. They make no secret of the fact that they admire this group for their pursuit of "nobility, honor, courage, piety, loyalty, faithfulness, generosity, and a capacity to survive both victory and defeat with grace whether in public matters or private" (p. 7). It is a measure of the authors' caliber that they are able to treat their subjects without undue presentism. Their approach is neither prosecutorial nor celebratory; instead, they meticulously reconstruct contemporary meanings of ideas and show how they were used to make sense of the slaveholders' world. This respect for re-creating their inner mindset without imposing our norms on it—norms of the interpreting culture—is rare, and should by no means be confused with romanticizing the slaveholders. Southern thinkers are shown building their intellectual edifices and grand fictions on what for them was an axiom: that only a society with unequal relations could guarantee order, liberty, and coherence.
The two major themes of the volume, history and religion, serve as prisms reflecting the dilemma in which southerners found themselves between 1820 and 1860 as individualistic market capitalism and liberal Protestantism increasingly threatened their way of life. The narrative—graced by a huge scholarly apparatus, a gold mine for students of the South—is organized into five parts: the first examines reactions to contemporary revolutions that pitted capital against labor, and that southerners saw as threatening anarchy and dictatorship; the second and third deal with the mining of history for moral and political instruction, and the appeal of medieval chivalry in southern culture; the fourth focuses on the role of Christian theology; and the fifth scrutinizes the clash between corporatism and individualism. The authors demonstrate how contemporaries utilized history to give slavery and hierarchy the respecta-bility of a long pedigree, to bolster their faith in corporatism as a neutralizer of deep class conflicts, and to come up with a long and venerable genealogy for chivalry, which they saw as "the heart of the southern ideal of the gentleman" (p. 329). The lengthy and sometimes highly detailed section on religion is especially fascinating as it reveals how culture was translated for political use by applying biblical and theological legitimacies to southern reality. In all, the writers examined by the Genoveses emerge as neither provincial nor isolated, but as sophisticated thinkers, deeply engaged in contemporary intellectual currents, and no inferiors to their northern counterparts.
Two devices integrate the massive and complex material covered in this book. The first is the authors' gift for connecting individual thinkers with the larger culture of the South while successfully avoiding a common weakness of intellectual history: overly homogenizing the individual and the original to show bigger patterns of representativeness. The second is an important, though lately unfashionable, recognition that intellectual elites, by virtue of their education and public voice, were able to produce much (though far from all) of the cultural resources for the rest of society, to provide certain conceptual frameworks that, when instilled in the collective mind, often came to be taken for granted. To acknowledge this is not to privilege them in the historical narrative but merely to point to reality. This is why the "mind" in the title does not refer to some single, unified frame of thinking (which did not exist in complex southern society) but instead is a metaphor for the cultural capital created out of Western intellectual heritage by the slaveholding elite, an eclectic but usable ideology that not so much told southerners what to think as told them who they were.