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Stranger in a Strange Land: Mark Noll

Truly Great

In this issue we feature a guest column by Mark Noll, who serves as Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

The last week of last September witnessed the death of two historians who left an abiding imprint on their chosen profession, but who also contributed substantially to the invigoration of distinctly Christian concerns in the understanding of American history. Eugene Genovese, who died at age 82 in Atlanta, and Henry May, dead at age 97 in Oakland, were as different in personality as they were similar in historical achievement and biographical trajectory. Genovese never lost the rough edge of his Sicilian immigrant heritage. May was no less active or earnest, but he communicated openness and civility that bespoke his genteel origins and long life in relatively laid-back California.

The common personal trajectory was a move from the Left toward (and in Genovese's case, to) the Right. During his undergraduate days at Berkeley, then during distinguished military service and at Harvard for doctoral study, May went through what he later described as "my long involvement with 1930s-style Marxism." For his part, Genovese became notorious in the spring of 1965 when at a Rutgers University teach-in he spoke as a "Marxist and a socialist" to affirm that "he did not fear or regret the impending Vietcong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it."

By the mid-1960s, May was further along the trajectory that Genovese would soon follow. Charles Capper, in an illuminating blog post memorializing his former teacher, reports that an advocate of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement once burst into a class taught by May to announce that the important thing now (!) was to protest the napalming of Vietnamese. May's response was to shout: "Wrong—what is important at this hour in this room is [Jonathan] Edwards."[1]

May's career as a historian remained fixed on the intersection of modernity and faith. His first book, Protestant Churches and Industrial America (1949) documented, but also rued, the disengagement of the nation's prominent denominations from the problems of industrialization. Then came The End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Times, 1912-1917 (1959), in which May wrote with appreciation about how early 20th-century intellectuals skewered easy Victorian optimism—but also with irony about how those same intellectuals fell prey to romantic fantasies of their own. May's path-breaking essay "The Recovery of American Religious History" was published in the American Historical Review in 1964. Here he reported insightfully on the upsurge of scholarly interest in a domain long neglected by academic historians, but he also communicated his conviction that works like Perry Miller's on the Puritans, H. Richard Niebuhr on the weaknesses of Protestant liberalism, Catholic scholars bringing their tradition into public scrutiny, and Neo-Orthodox theologians with their sense of human limits were important for religious substance as well as historical relevance.

In 1976 appeared May's magisterial study, The Enlightenment in America, which depicted 18th-century American intellectual life as a great struggle between the Calvinistic legacy of Puritanism and the advanced thinking of the era. The book featured a persuasive account of four nearly discrete Enlightenments that Americans experienced (skeptical and radical, which opposed traditional Christianity; moderate and didactic, which Christianity assimilated, but only by being "battered or eroded"). It also explained that although May himself could not "sympathize fully" with either "firm partisans" of Christianity or its opponents, he nonetheless counted himself among those for whom "the Enlightenment is still interesting" because they are "still worried about Christianity." In later collections of essays and a memorable autobiography, readers witnessed an extraordinarily capable historian and a master of disciplined prose explaining, in a paraphrase of the title of one of those collections, a "heart divided between Protestantism and the Enlightenment."[2]

Genovese displayed the same lifelong fascination with Christianity as a compelling subject for historical investigation, but eventually came to a firmer stance of faith himself. His early books, with their emphasis on the alienations created by modern capitalism, were thoroughly Marxist—or, more precisely, guided by Antonio Gramsci's understanding of the way that ideas can exert as much oppressive hegemony as material class conflict. Yet even in this phase of his career, Genovese's classic book Roll, Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974) included an unusually empathetic account of how the slaves shared in Christianity's "greatest bequest to Western civilization … its doctrines of spiritual freedom and equality before God—those flaming ideas that Nietzsche and so many others have worked so hard to drown in contempt."

Then as he continued to research the world the slaveholders made, religion became even more salient. His own turn to cultural and moral conservatism coincided with a deepening appreciation for the slaveholders' Christianity. Eventually a number of preliminary studies led to three painstakingly documented books that were written with his wife Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a formidable historical and cultural presence herself. In this literary outpouring, the Genoveses were not defending slavery, and they affirmed repeatedly that the disease of racism was worse even than slavery. But they did express their admiration for the slaveholders who saw individualistic consumer capitalism as threatening "the disintegration of community itself" and leading to "a competitive marketplace [that] turns its losers over to the state for the protection and succor that their communities cannot provide."[3] These last three books have been, and will long remain, a source of fruitful controversy, as much for their positive depiction of Christian principles as for their account of the corruptions of capitalism and moral weaknesses of political liberalism.

My personal acquaintance with May and Genovese was slight. Once at a conference I did come as close as a young American historian would ever get to Parnassus by engaging both May and Edmund S. Morgan in brief conversation. And in a telephone call after Genovese had returned to the church of his boyhood, I was the recipient of his Mafioso-style Catholicism at its most characteristic: "So you haven't yet acknowledged the Holy Father as the Vicar of Christ? Remember that purgatory can last for a very, very long time."

Visits that both paid to conferences at Wheaton College left vivid memories of personalities as distinctive as their work. In the fall of 1984, Nathan Hatch and Harry Stout organized a meeting on "Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience" that was hosted by Wheaton's Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE). Henry May was their perfect choice to keynote the conference. In a deferential but exceedingly insightful paper, he caught exactly the challenge faced by a modern academic audience when confronting Edwards: "Perhaps Edwards's greatest achievement … is that he comes close through his poetic powers to achieving the impossible," which was "to prove to the unilluminated the logical necessity of … supernatural illumination, and even to tell us what it is like." May's own ambiguity before Edwards was poignant. It was obvious that he not only understood, but also resonated with, Edwards' deepest insights into the beauty of God's holiness. Yet as a member in very good standing of the modern academy, he sensed what he called "an inconsistency in homiletic effect" between Edwards' proclamation of God's unbounded mercy in Christ and "the uncontrollable power" of God's predestinating will.[4]

At the conference, which featured most of the premier Edwards scholars from the university world, May's demeanor was as impressive as his paper. In keeping with his acknowledged status as an academic elder statesman, he was dignified, serious, and reserved. But his kindness and approachability were just as evident. For me the deepest impression came when he was heard to tell one of the presenters who obviously accepted Edwards' theology as well as his simple brilliance: "very good to hear from the home team."

Genovese's visit to Wheaton took place at an ISAE consultation organized by Darryl Hart in the spring of 1994 to examine issues concerning the relationship between religious (or anti- and non-religious) personal perspectives and historical scholarship. At a meeting where a wide range of often conflicting viewpoints were expressed forcefully, Gene and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese were in their element. Their papers were among the most forceful as they drew on the many university conflicts in which they had participated, as well as on their research. His addressed "Marxism, Christianity, and Bias in the Study of Southern Slave Society," hers took up "Advocacy and the Writing of American Women's History."[5]

More striking than their impressive formal presentations, however, was a memorable conversation after the meeting as the Genoveses waited outside Wheaton's dining hall for a limo to O'Hare Airport. It was shortly after Betsy Genovese had been received into the Catholic Church, when Gene had started to attend services with her but still proclaimed his own agnosticism; it was also while both were very deep into the study of southern slaveholders that would lead to their trio of learned books in the next decade. Luxuriating in a lovely spring day, Gene offered an unaccustomed spectacle to the Wheaton undergraduates passing by as he puffed away furiously on an angular black cheroot. Those who paused to listen got an even more spectacular earful: "You wussy evangelicals. It makes me sick to be around your pansy theology. You need to be reading the real Calvinists like James Thornwell and Robert Dabney. Now, they knew what they were talking about. If you want real theology, these were the real men!" But … but … some of us tried to splutter, "Thornwell and Dabney were infamous for their stout defenses of slavery." A problem, Gene conceded, but a minor one compared to the strength of what they had to say about God and the human condition. Whereupon a long, black limo appeared, Gene and Betsy dove into its dark interior, and they were off. Not long thereafter, Gene returned to full fellowship in the Catholic Church. I never heard whether he thought Dabney and Thornwell would enjoy a reduced purgatorial stay because of their sturdy theology.

The Stephen Spender poem "I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great" ends by evoking "the vivid air signed with their honor." "Greatness" has become so thoroughly overused (a great movie, a great tackle, a great latté) as to become nearly vacuous. But if the word can still find traction, it certainly fits the Communist fellow-traveler who became a fellow-traveler with Christianity and the full-throated Communist who became a fully engaged Catholic. The signature statements made at the mass said for Gene Genovese at Atlanta's Christ the King Cathedral on October 2 and the memorial service held for Henry May at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Albany, California, on November 24 marked the passing of two historians, two people, who were truly great.

1. us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2012/10/henry-may-in-his-times-by-charles-capper.html. Equally illuminating for Genovese is the blog post by Leo Ribuffo, jacobin-mag.com/2012/10/eugene-d-genovese-1930-2012/ (both accessed 11-1-12).

2. Ideas, Faiths, and Feelings: Essays on American Intellectual and Religious History, 1952-1982 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1983); Coming to Terms: A Study in Memory and History (Univ. of California Press, 1987); The Divided Heart: Essays on Protestantism and the Enlightenment in America (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991).

3. The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), p. 679. The other two books, also published by Cambridge, are Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders' New World Order (2008) and Fateful Self-Delusion: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South (2011).

4. Henry F. May, "Jonathan Edwards and America," in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Harry S. Stout (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 19-33 (quotations, p. 31).

5. The papers were published in Religious Advocacy and American History, ed. Bruce Kuklick and D. G. Hart (Eerdmans, 1997).

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