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.