Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage, by Eugene Genovese, part I

Eugene Genovese is among the most famous American historians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  A working-class Brooklyn kid with Italian immigrant roots and former Communist, his application of Marxist theory to the history of American slavery was pathbreaking and remains important.  A lifelong outsider with a chip on his shoulder, his professional calling card has been that he is a notoriously difficult guy to get along with.  He was perhaps equally famous for marrying Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, another historian originally trained in French history who became (like him) a prominent historian of the American South, and of southern women in particular.  She was by his account in Miss Betsey:  A Memoir of Marriage (ISI Books, 2009) nearly a saint in her patience and caretaking of him, besides being the better teacher, better citizen, better Catholic, and tougher agent provocateur of scholars of all intellectual and political stripes. 

Now, I know what those of you who know who Eugene and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese are might be thinking:  this is going to be hiliarous!  After all, they are perhaps the closest things to neoconservative historians aside from Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Fox-Genovese’s unique brand of feminism (and attacks on “radical feminists”) are legendary.  But I think you should prepare yourself for a largely positive book review. 

Genovese has written an uneven but moving memoir of his 37-year marriage, one that might have done with a stronger editorial hand.  But then, his point is that her death not only widowed him, it bereaved him of the greatest intellectual companion of his lifetime.  I never met either Genovese, but I wondered if this book, flaws and all, is a fitting testament to her influence in his life.  Without her, he’s more than a little directionless and prone to cantankerous temper tantrums–but he’s actually pretty funny and self-deprecating, too.  Sometimes he’s funny when he doesn’t mean to be, and sometimes he’s not so funny when he thinks he’s making a joke–but he often hits his target, and is successful at portraying the loving domestic and professional worlds he and Fox-Genovese made for themselves and their many companion animals.  (Pride of place must go to Josef,a mutt devoted to Fox-Genovese.  Guess who he was named after?) 

Genovese is a politically and ideologically complicated man:  he complains about feminists and “multiculturalists” throughout the book, but he also complains bitterly about the fellow historians who accuse him and Fox-Genovese of being right-wingers.  He remains unapologetic about his Marxism and his ties to the Commuist Party of America (he says he was expelled in 1950, at age 20 or so).  Genovese details his work founding the journal Marxist Perspectives and his contacts with the Italian Communists through the 1970s and 1980s matter-of-factly, and never distances himself from them.  He names their beloved mutt Josef,and jokes throughout the book about his admiration for Stalin’s political style.  And yet he also approvingly cites Fox-Genovese’s arguments that Communism and Catholicism are mutually incompatible.  (He and Fox-Genovese are famous converts to Catholicism in the mid-1990s, but he makes it clear that the Church played a much larger role in her life than it plays in his.)  My sense after reading this book (and being aware of his scholarship and his position in the American historical profession) is that he is all of these things and he doesn’t want to have to choose–and that he likes being the outsider to any group. 

Miss Betsey’s first chapters in which Genovese recounts meeting, dating, and marrying Fox-Genovese are the weakest, because Genovese is clearly not a man who has the patience or inclination to write at length about sex or romantic love.  After two failed marriages, Genovese was a man in his late 30s living in 1960s Montreal who “lived an academic workaholic’s dream.  At my desk comfortably before seven a.m., I worked until ten p.m. or later and then enjoyed the company of one or another pretty, charming, bright young lady who dropped by for a nightcap. . . . I had a ‘swinging life-style’–as the modish call promiscuity and self-indulgence,” 2.  The old Stalinist just can’t resist inserting political commentary into the story of how he met the love of his life.  (And who, really, has used the term “swinging life-style,” hyphen and all, since 1972?)

But even these early chapters have their charms, as awkward as they sometimes seem.  Genovese is frank about his first vision of Fox-Genovese when he takes her on a blind date:  he says she looked like “death warmed over,” as she was recovering from both hepatitis and anorexia, 5-7.  (He is surprisingly open about her lifelong poor health and the ravages of chronic disease on her body at the end of her life.  I found it fascinating.)  When he then uses her sufferings and self-blame for her anorexia as an opportunity to contrast her to “academia’s self-dramatizers” who “whine and wallow in the cult of victimization” by contrast, it just seems mean-spirited, not flattering to Fox-Genovese, 10.  But clearly, the old Stalinist can’t let an instructive moment go by without an ideological swipe.  Fortunately these self-righteous ad hominem outbursts gradually decrease after the first few chapters.

The early chapters include some of the unintentionally funniest passages.  For example, he writes movingly and at length about Fox-Genovese’s skill with complicated French cooking:  he falls in love with her over her fish, and adores her boeuf bourguignon, although one of her culinary preferences baffled him.  I give you Eugene Genovese, gourmand:

A sophisticated man of the world, I of course ordered my hamburgers rare.  My wife ordered hers well-done.  But then,she ate  chicken and fish as well as meat well-done:  “If it was ever alive, I want it dead, dead, dead.”  At home, she butterflied her own filet mignon, making sure that it showed no trace of pink.  Dutiful wife that she was, she cooked mine precisely to my taste. (19)

Next, Eugene Genovese, fashionista:

Betsey wore a Pucci as her wedding dress.  In the 1960s, Emilio Pucci made astonishing dresses, the colors of which defied belief.  I bought Betsey a half-dozen, one more spectacular than the other.  They were cut miniskirt–the vogue–and since her winsome figure sported lovely legs, the dresses were particularly flattering.  Regrettably, Sr. Pucci subsequently exposed himself as peretrator of a Crime against Humanity.  He doubled the price (for which he might be forgiven) and drastically reduced the quality of his dresses (for which he should never be forgiven).  Out went the glorious colors; in came dull and ordinary substitutes.  I loved to see Betsey in the original Pucci dresses, but I would not have bought her one of the new ones at any price.  With a touch of horror, I can imagine her look of displeasure and disillusionment if I had descended to such poor taste. (17)

And finally, Eugene Genovese, ass man.  After a breast cancer scare, he writes:

[W]ith that melting smile of hers, she alluded to her small breasts:  “Let’s face it.  I don’t have enough to make a fuss over anyway.  And besides, I had the good sense to fall in love with an ‘A’ rather than a ‘T’ man.” (31)

Towards the end of the book as he documents Fox-Genovese’s numerous and increasingly debilitating health problems, he writes:

I recall only one occasion when Betsey showed frustration about her physical appearance.  Despite unfeigned modesty and lifelong observance of “play the cards you’re dealt,” she had a bad moment with the onset of MS.  When she lost control over her right leg, she had to wear a heavy, unsightly brace that, even with my assistance, she struggled to put on and take off.  She had to replace her tastefully selected shoes with bulky white sneakers and give up skirts and dresses for pants.  One day her eyes filled with tears she fought to hold back.  I tried to soothe her by assuring her that pants showed off her sexy rear end better than skirts or dresses.  She kissed me for the thought but grimaced. (114)

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me in reading Genovese’s book is that I identify with him with respect to his position in his marriage.  Many people who are partnered or married will recognize the fact that one person in the relationship is just more all-around competent than the other.  In Genovese’s account, there’s no question but that Fox-Genovese was that person.  She did all the driving (he never learned to drive), she managed their money and paid all of the bills, she translated when they visited Europe, she was friendly and gracious and smoothed the way socially for him, and although he prides himself on his skills as a sous-chef,in their home kitchen Fox-Genovese was the chef.  Similarly, I find it difficult to be married to Fratguy, because despite his chosen nom-de-blog,he’s much more the all-round competent person.  There’s no question that if I were to die he’d be perfectly fine with the house, car, and garden.  If he were to leave me or die, I’d be lost, because like Genovese, I’m the crank with lots of ideas and opinions but few practical household skills, and little interest car maintenance, money management, and the like.

I do, however, know how to make a mean boeuf bourguignon, but that’s about it.  Tune in next time for Part II of my review, in which I’ll discuss Genovese’s account of his intellectual and political life with Fox-Genovese, and the famous lawsuit for sexual harrassment filed against her in 1993 that was settled out-of-court in 1996 (for a rumored one million dollars.)

I’d love to hear reminiscences and thoughts about Genovese and Fox-Genovese from the rest of you.  I don’t think that many of you have probably read this book, though–it’s been entirely ignored by academic journals, and aside from two Christian magazines and the Chronicle of Higher Education, it hasn’t been reviewed widely in the popular press.

0 thoughts on “Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage, by Eugene Genovese, part I

  1. I am at a university where Genovese still casts a long shadow. Many, many tales of misbehavior and egotism told by older male colleagues who clearly long for the good old days. In fact they long for it so much they do all they can to try and keep the “we are outsiders oppressed by feminists and multiculturalists” theme going. As you can imagine I am thoroughly weary of this particular nostalgia. I did meet E. Genovese once as a grad student. We were discussing _Roll, Jordan, Roll_ in our first-year colloquium and he was visiting campus and agreed to come to the seminar. He leaned back in a chair and declared that he hadn’t read the book since writing it. We were supposed to just take in his “great man” aura, but mostly we were confused.
    Looking forward to the second installment of the review, and appreciate your balanced approach Historiann.


  2. Widgeon–this is so interesting. You of all people really should read this book–when he writes about your uni, it’s as a place at which he too was alienated and embattled by more conservative historians.

    This is why I think he’s someone who has enjoyed always being the outsider. He practically insists on it. Old, white radical history dudes like Genovese were not gratified when women and nonwhite scholars joined the radical history gang and got positions on university faculty. I think the old Marxists were furious at the thought they were out-lefted by the feminists and Latin@/African American studies crowds.


  3. 1. Aside, of course, from your comments on your Boeuf Bourginion, the asessment of your capabilities is nowhere near the truth.
    2. Where is all this talk about “competence” when I get near the dishwasher ?


  4. Wow. If there is one piece of information in the world that it would never have occurred to me to dream I would ever be in possession of, it is whether Eugene Genovese was an ass or a tit man.

    And yet… now I know.

    I’m really not sure what to do with that.


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