Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
This book about Southern conservatism derives from the William E. Massey, Sr., Lectures in the History of American Civilization originally delivered at Harvard University by its author, Eugene D. Genovese. Ironically noting the incongruity between his subject and his Northern-born, Catholic background and Marxist political philosophy, Genovese describes himself as a sympathetic outsider who appreciates the value of a philosophy he does not share. In a time in which scholarly discourse has become narrow, partisan, and subjective, these lectures provide a refreshing and hopeful alternative.
As did C. Vann Woodward, another historian of the South, Genovese sees the region’s philosophy as one of the few coherent and substantive critiques of the general trend of American thinking. Throughout the book is the implication that current social problems might be resolvable if some attention were paid to the Southern viewpoint. At the least, Genovese argues, Southern students deserve an accurate assessment of the worthy features of Southern history rather than the caricatures of it that are current in the modern, politically correct university.
To this end, Genovese admires and draws from the efforts of twentieth century students of the South such as M. E. Bradford, Richard Weaver, and the Southern Agrarians. The Agrarian Movement, which came to prominence in the 1930’s, was the first self-conscious effort to rediscover Southern philosophical roots. After 1945, Richard Weaver provided a systematic theoretical foundation of Southern conservative thought. Most recently, M. E. Bradford has carried Southern philosophical study forward.
One of Genovese’s efforts is to disabuse readers of the notion that admiring Southern conservatism necessarily means admiring the institution of slavery. He argues that the philosophy is more complex than that, even though slavery did become entangled with it. That slavery was wrong does not mean that the bourgeois system that replaced it was right. Along with slavery, the Civil War ended a society that had sought to retain a traditional conception of social relations. To Genovese, the problem of the modern world is precisely that mankind seems no longer to be supported by such traditions.
As part of his delineation of the Southern tradition and its opposition to mainstream America’s development, Genovese follows Richard Weaver’s notion that American (Northern) society is a logical extension of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, in which the individual relies on his own inadequate reason and ethical sense rather than a traditional consensus of opinion. The result has made modern man, in Weaver’s words, “a moral idiot” and has created moral and political anarchy. The Southern alternative was what Bradford calls “social bond individualism,” which depends on the kind of strong social and cultural ties valued by the Old South.
Southern conservatives were essentially followers of Edmund Burke’s philosophy. They believed in natural law and the idea that political problems are ultimately moral ones. Like Burke, they attributed a positive meaning to the word prejudice. The prejudices of the community are developed from countless years of experience, and protect it from ideologically based social experiments that are not cognizant of the complexity of human development. Southern conservatives believed, as did Burke, that the natural inequality of human beings should be respected, as should hierarchy, because the alternative was a dull uniformity. In a retort to Karl Marx’s famous...
(The entire section is 1447 words.)
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