U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Sympathy management, or how not to “pull a Genovese”

Since I so enthusiastically endorsed presentism the other day in response to Gordon Wood’s spectacular display of reactionary sympathies, I thought to equivocate myself a bit, just for the sake of confusing the enemy—whoever that might be. For though one’s sympathies are always part of one’s scholarship, there is little doubt in my mind that ‘sympathy management’ is one of the most important—and trickiest—responsibilities of any historian. On this issue, I find the scholarly trajectory I have concocted from quite fragmentary evidence for Eugene Genovese, the great historian of slavery, as an instructive and cautionary tale. For though I’m not sure I sympathize with this story, I can certainly empathize.

When I first read about the slavery apologist George Fitzhugh through the prism of Eugene Genovese’s scholarship, I recall feeling a certain fledgling sympathy creeping up towards his ideas—particularly since Fitzhugh’s denigration of the northern ‘free labor’ regime catered particularly well to my then conviction that capitalism was the root of all evil in the modern world. Subsequently, however, I reminded myself of the evils of slavery, and with the help of a bit of self-flagellation purged such sympathies. Several years later, when I learned that at some point in his life Genovese had turned from Marxism to traditionalist conservatism it made sense to me. I might be wrong, but I have a notion that Genovese grew infatuated with Fitzhugh and his planter buddies; that he went down the rabbit hole that I had identified.

With time I also conjectured that this was also why he was so intent upon casting slavery as a non-capitalist economic system—for in this manner Genovese rendered slavery as a viable alternative to capitalism in American history and as an imaginary safe haven from the ills of modernity. Indeed, when I later read more of his work, I got a sense that Genovese had committed one of the most natural yet grave errors an historian can commit—sympathizing with one’s subject-matter when such feelings fly in the face of a preponderance of evidence that generous emotions are not warranted. This narrative might be solely the figment of my imagination, but I have come to think of this tendency in historical scholarship as “pulling a Genovese.”

As I write my dissertation I have found that one of the hardest parts of writing about my research is holding back my sympathy. This is especially hard since empathy is key to any analysis that seriously attempts to come to terms with the notion that people are crucial historical agents. Indeed, I have found it at times hard to contain the slippage between empathy and sympathy. Though I think that sympathy is ultimately inevitable and valuable with certain groups or people who are well deserving of such treatment, we should tread very carefully and check ourselves time and again before we commit to such attitudes. And even then we must refuse to sentimentalize.

For me this has become particularly acute as I am examining two very flawed groups of people in the early US that are in conflict with each other. On the one hand, I am looking at frontiersmen, particularly in Pennsylvania—folks who participated in the Whiskey Rebellion and who have long been in conflict with eastern seaboard elites, squatting and withholding taxes from the monied interest located in and around Philadelphia. So far, this might seem, to a person like myself with anticapitalist sentiments, to be a no-brainer—you obviously sympathize with the rowdy common folk. What complicates the picture, however, is the manifold atrocities committed by frontier folk against Native peoples in the region. Knowing the history of Pennsylvania elites’ relative commitment to treating fairly with Natives, I’m in quite a bind. What am I to do with a representative of elite mentality who so eloquently defends Native interests and denigrates the crude violent behavior of frontiersmen? Or how should I feel towards an elitist man who seems interested in promoting the cause of women when I know that frontier folk would never support such an agenda?

The solution I have contrived—aside from siding with the ultimate losers of my narrative, in this case, women and Native Americans—is to try and sympathize with certain actions or practices, rather than people; to not treat people as coherent entities, for indeed they are not. This however is proving quite hard, especially as I get better acquainted with people’s personal stories and inner contradictions. Indeed, as I increasingly empathize with them, I find it hard to contain my sympathies, and undoubtedly I often fail, for I too am not a coherent subject.

I was wondering if other people deal with similar predicaments and how they manage them. I would welcome people’s ideas about this question—or even just your sympathy.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think an alternative to empathy and sympathy (however valid one’s historical feelings may be either way) is putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Using those terms, I think, allows one to escape the empathy-sympathy trap (and the emotions each conjures). I find I’m able to healthily detach when I simply try to stand in my historical actors shoes.

    Otherwise I do sympathize with your predicament. 🙂 – TL

    • Hi Tim —

      I can’t speak for Eran (as he is currently about 2 miles away watching a Champions League game :p) but I’m pretty sure that by empathy, he more or less meant putting yourself in someone’s shoes; it’s an intellectual excercise. Sympathy, on the other hand, is what you feel much more naturally, because you are already, at least partially, in their shoes.

      • Robin introduced me to this distinction, so she knows what I mean better than I do.

  2. This has been a bit of an issue in my work because I write sympathetically about William Jennings Bryan — who was more honestly devoted to “the people” and their opinions than perhaps any other politician at the turn of the century, but who also endorsed racism and opposed scientific inquiry on religious grounds. I’ve solved the problem in the same way you do, and I think you put it rather well. For the purposes of my book, Bryan is a good guy, because my book focuses on emotional relationships and the trust a leader places in his or her followers. In real life, Bryan was neither good nor bad — he was complicated. I don’t have trouble holding those positions at the same time, but I can imagine it would be difficult for some.

    • Don’t you feel compelled though to show how his better qualities were tethered to his racism? That’s what I feel obligated to do when dealing with folks like Bryan or whoever it might be. But then again it’s impossible to address every possible angle in most cases.

  3. Sometimes historical actors have been so thoroughly denounced and rejected by scholars that some one with some sympathy actually corrects the record. For is it not true no one is all angel or all devil? Which reminds me of the controversy many years back over whether it was possible to write a sympathetic biography of Hitler. Such a figure does tend to makes one want to run the other way and I don’t envy the biographer who tries it. I think what Genovese did right was to allow the reader room to disagree. While I could see the point of view of the master class, I also saw the holes. It’s that just good historical criticism?

    • I’d be terrified by such a biography. Empathy towards Hitler or Nazis more generally is hard enough, though certainly necessary. Sympathy is not at all possible for me at least.

  4. On Genovese, there’s nothing better than the RHR Forum, #88 (2004), and while you’re at it, why not look at my six-part eulogy, at politicsandletters.wordpress.com.

    • Thanks I was looking around for something like this to verify my suspicions.

      • I don’t think your suspicions will be verified in these places. To the very end of his life, Gene believed, as I would imagine you do, that corporate capitalism and its attendants–consumerism, hedonism, bourgeois individualism–were the root of all the evils he perceived in our times. But he also believed that the Left’s critique of corporate capitalism was deeply flawed as well as insufficient. He was nothing if not intellectually consistent. His turn to the Southern Tradition of conservatism, as he framed it, was a distant echo of the Agrarians, and in this respect it recapitulated the move many anti-capitalist intellectuals have made since the 1920s.

  5. A very useful question to raise with regards to historical practice. Certainly, the scope of one’s research plays a role in all this. When dealing with subject that involves real world, tangible, and horrific consequences, such as slavery in Genovese’s case, the risks of undue sympathy or empathy create greater demands on the historian for detachment. In my work, on the other hand, which deals in part with postwar American mass cultural critics, despite my intellectual opposition to figures like Theodor Adorno, Clement Greenberg, C. Wright Mills, or Dwight Macdonald, I can still appreciate the recent historical circumstances that led them to fear mass culture/society (in short, the experience of Stalinism, Nazism, and fascism) and respect them for making the effort to assess the world around them and sound the warning they believed needed to be heard. Macdonald, in particular, amuses with his persistent and frequently despairing and hysterical attacks on popular culture, but I respect him for treating the subject seriously, for helping legitimize popular cultural intellectual discourse. I can smile as I pick through the weaknesses of his position(s), never feeling a fierce moral urgency in rebutting him. But I also realize that I have the luxury of knowing that the subject of mass culture does not have the same gravitas as slavery or coercion. The social responsibility of the historian, I think, is determined by the particular nature of the work.

    • I must admit that I have that elitist and neo-Marxist bone as well. Though I used to be worse, I’m still very suspicious of popular culture, and I’m still partial to Marcuse’s notion that liberal democracy is totalitarian.

  6. Sympathy, or empathy, seems to resonate through time. Since the days of Frederick Jackson Turner, historians have examined the conflict between western agrarians and eastern financiers and have extrapolated that to the rest of American history. Those Virginia planters who owned hundreds of human chattel; they are the victims in early American history.

    Indigenous scholars have for quite some time used the concept of “settler colonialism” to explain early american history. I believe it is also used in comparative history with other settler regimes like Israel and South Africa. One would think that “mainstream” scholarship might appropriate the concept and apply it to Jefferson and Madison, and yet the era after 1800 is referred to as “Jeffersonian Democracy” and not the “Era of Negro Disfranchisement” or the “Beginnings of Indigenous Removal.” The professions instinctive reflex is the story is about freedom, not the extermination of the Indigenous not the explosion of slavery.

    With whom do the majority of historians sympathize?

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