GRAAT On-Line - Book Reviews

Eugene D. Genovese & Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). £21.65, 232 pages, ISBN 978-1-107-60502-2 – Emma Heishman, Aix-Marseille University.

Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South is the fifth and final collaboration between Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Although this book is officially co-authored, Genovese claims primary authorship since, as he explains in the preface, Fox-Genovese’s declining health prevented her full participation in the project. Fatal Self-Deception takes on the "myth" of paternalism in the slaveholding South and examines the apparent double-standard of both owning and loving enslaved blacks. The authors come to the conclusion that while, from the outside, Southerners’ behavior seemed to be hypocritical, that, “[i]n most respects, southern slaveholders said what they meant and meant what they said" [1]. Genovese and Fox-Genovese, renowned historians and specialists in antebellum American studies, have succeeded in writing a book that is both rich in historical detail and accessible to general readers.

Fatal Self-Deception is the fruit of several decades of research and can been seen as the final episode in a series of work that began with Roll, Jordan, Roll (Eugene D. Genovese, 1974), Genovese’s influential tour de force which remains a point of reference in antebellum American studies today. In this culminating piece of research, the authors return to their recurrent theme of paternalism and focus primarily on the slaveholder’s psyche,drawing predominantly from white Southerners’ papers and letters as their primary source. The book is organized into seven chapters with titles such as "Loyal and Loving Slaves", "The Complete Household", or "Devotion unto Death" questioning notions of family, friendship and fidelity, among others.

The first chapter, “Boisterous Passions” introduces the dilemma of slavery through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. In this eighteenth-century text, Jefferson exposed the poisonous effects of slavery on Southern society, while remaining a slaveholder himself. Genovese and Fox-Genovese use this controversial figure to introduce their debate on the hypocrisy of paternalism. In the following chapters, “The Complete Household” and “Strangers within the Gates,” the authors develop in detail the rigid organization of Southern slave society. While slaves were kept within the hierarchical family structure, under the vigilant gaze of their paternal masters, others, such as governesses, tutors or even overseers, were considered outsiders and refused access to the intimacy of the household. Chapter four, “Loyal and Loving Slaves,” five, “The Blacks’ Best and Most Faithful Friend,” and six, “Guardians of a Helpless Race,” unveil the ways in which Genovese and Fox-Genovese believe slaveholders fatally deceived themselves. In particular, the authors reveal that the father-child relationship was often misunderstood by Southern slaveholders as one of mutual love and respect. These masters saw themselves as self-sacrificing, benevolent father-figures who carried the burden of protecting their inferior and less capable slaves. The final chapter, “Devotion unto Death,” brings to light the ways in which the Civil War quickly unraveled the proslavery argument and exposed these “self-deceptions” for what they were.

The romantic "myth of paternalism" has been questioned and denounced as mere proslavery apologist rhetoric for some time by certain scholars. Historian Paul D. Escott, for example, claimed that “[p]aternalism may have existed for white southerners primarily as a defense against outside criticism and as an argument that they were giving their bondsmen all the care that they required” [Slavery Remembered, 1979]. Genovese and Fox-Genovese, however, eloquently argue that perhaps a sincere sentimentality (or at least an honest desire to "protect" slaves) did exist in the antebellum South. Abolitionists and historians criticized proslavery advocates as hypocritical for embodying what was perceived to be a double standard; for preaching democracy and morality while (as critics of slavery argued) unethically and unconstitutionally enslaving others. The conclusion that Genovese and Fox-Genovese have reached after decades of research is that the question of slavery boils down to a simple difference of opinion regarding how to protect and ameliorate African Americans’ lives in antebellum society. On the one hand, abolitionists saw owning slaves as an immoral and fatal evil. On the other hand, slaveholders saw emancipation as equally unethical and dangerous to the survival of their "beloved" slaves.In contrast to the traditional binary perspective (North-South, free-slave, democratic-undemocratic…), Fatal Self-Deception reveals a complex dynamic which is impossible to organize into separate and exclusive categories. The authors also unveil a much more complicated relationship between the plantation household members, one which was based on multiple "self-deceptions" and which created an atmosphere that was poisonous to both slaves and slaveholders. According to Genovese and Fox-Genovese, the combination of these illusions contributed to the necessary demise of the peculiar institution.

Since this book is intentionally oriented towards the slaveholder’s perspective, readers immediately feel the absence of the slave’s voice. While Fatal Self-Deception does refer to the ways in which the slaves themselves contributed to intentionally deceiving their masters, this mention of active slaves (or really any black Americans) remains brief and underdeveloped. In addition, although Genovese and Fox-Genovese do address black abolitionists, it is a hasty acknowledgement that serves primarily to show that dissension existed in the antislavery movement. This absence is an intentional choice made by the authors in order to concentrate primarily on the psyche of the slaveholder, the main subject of this work. The slaveholder, however, existed necessarily in relationship to the slave and this perspective could have created a more well-rounded understanding of the antebellum South, especially for those readers who are unfamiliar with Genovese and Fox-Genovese’s previous work. Erasing the slave from any study of slavery is necessarily problematic and, in this particular case, the danger lies in painting an overly sympathetic picture of slaveholders.

Fatal Self-Deception is a captivating read because it exposes the psyche of what is arguably one of the most curious characters in American history—that of the slaveholding master. While Genovese and Fox-Genovese never defend the behavior of these men, they allow readers a glimpse into the convoluted ideologies that contributed to the founding of the American nation.

© 2014 Emma Heishman & GRAAT On-Line