The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview

By Rozbicki, Michal Jan | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview


Rozbicki, Michal Jan, The 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

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 FoxGenovese, 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. …

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