U.S. Intellectual History Blog

These Historians’ Deaths

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Over the past few days I have followed, with so many others, the commentary on the lives of not one or two but an entire trio of eminent historians: Eugene Genovese, Eric Hobsbawm, and Henry May. I admire the care that has gone into reflections that have appeared elsewhere as well as on this blog, including those of Leo Ribuffo on Genovese, Andrew Hartman on Hobsbawm, and Ray Haberski on May. For myself, I can only offer something along the lines of a blogger’s equivalent to a moment of silence in honor of their memory, and that of the others we have already lost from their remarkable generation.

I knew only one of these three men personally. Eugene Genovese’s life was intertwined with my family’s at key points, a story some readers here no doubt know much better than I, and for almost as long as I can remember, his name has been a household word. I met him when we moved to Rochester in 1970 and again a few years ago when he invited me to participate in the early planning meetings for the Historical Society, including a memorable one at the New York City apartment of intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins, who died in 2009.  After learning second hand over the intervening decades of Genovese’s reputation as firebrand, which in other settings he of course earned, I found his tremendous personal warmth and charm truly disarming. And enlightening.

As Genovese goes from man to a legend to many, albeit one who has erred (is there any other kind, of either?), there is genuine pathos in this moment when a soldier–for he certainly fought passionately for causes he believed in–lays down sword and shield for the final time. His life is complete now, but perhaps it is my long-term awareness of him, directly and indirectly through his best written words, as in his amazing Roll, Jordan, Roll, as someone of such presence that makes it difficult for me to believe he can no longer be living–at least not yet.