Charles M. Wingard
Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage, by Eugene Genovese. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2009, 144 pages, $25.00.
Two of America’s odder contemporary historians are Eugene Genovese and his late wife, Elizabeth (Betsey) Fox-Genovese, who died in 2007.
Although the couple’s scholarly works cover a diverse range of subjects, it is the antebellum South’s story, told through the eyes of slave and slave owner, for which the Genoveses will be long remembered. Distinguished by a comprehensive examination of the era’s primary source materials, their scholarship never fails to impress and enlighten. Only 150 years have passed since the War Between the States, but the Old South is truly another world, one to which the Genoveses skillfully introduce students with the single most valuable gift great historians bestow—understanding of a people and their culture. As a minister, I especially appreciate the thoroughness and sensitivity with which they treat Southern religious life. Through the years, Eugene Genovese has become one of the premiere expositors of the Southern conservative intellectual tradition.
But what’s odd about this couple is not their first-rate scholarship, but their intellectual and spiritual journey, from atheistic Marxism to their conversions to Roman Catholicism in the 1990s. This was not your ordinary marriage.
Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage is Gene Genovese’s moving, provocative, and humorous tribute to his beloved wife, an extended reflection on the rich life they shared—from their first date to her death in 2007, after many years of physical decline and debilitating sickness.
Gene and Betsey’s first date was their first meeting. His first impression of her was “Death Warmed Over,” the effects of her battle with hepatitis and anorexia evident. He describes the evening:
When I arrived at five p.m., Betsey looked terrible. At six or so, she wasn’t all that bad. At seven she had become sort of nice-looking. By eight, sitting across a table at Restaurant le Maïtre [sic] Jacques, she had blossomed into lovely. When I left her at one a.m. with a kiss on her forehead, she was radiantly beautiful. Almost forty years later, she was in immeasurably worse shape than when I first laid eyes on her. Physically broken and fighting for life, she was unable to get out of bed by herself; barely able to walk; wracked by relentless, searing pain. Still radiantly beautiful. (7)
Campus run-ins with fellow Marxists were not uncommon. The Genoveses deplored intellectual sloppiness and political correctness. On occasion, when debating or speaking to ostensibly Christian audiences, they found themselves—two atheists—articulating Christian doctrine for the sake of intellectual honesty.
While teaching at the University of Rochester in the early 1970s, Gene and Betsey were invited to a public forum by two Catholic chaplains, liberation-theology Marxists. Quickly the chaplains had cause to regret the invitation. While confessing their commitment to work with the priests toward common political goals, the Genoveses asserted the incompatibility of materialistic Marxism and Christianity. Things grew hot. The author recalls:
In the end, we were driven to defend Catholic theology against ‘dissident Catholics’ who had no time for the fundamentals of Catholic theology, Church doctrine, and the teaching of the Vatican. So there we were, nonbelievers and committed Marxists, fervently defending the doctrines of original sin and human depravity against professed Catholics who replaced the ostensibly dated teachings of St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas with those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Karl Marx of the utopian Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts—the jejune ‘early Marx’ whom neither Betsey nor I ever took seriously. (71)
In 1975, after speaking at a Unitarian church on the subject of slavery, members eagerly invited him to join their congregation. His atheism was no obstacle. Most of the congregation didn’t believe in God! After all, how could anyone believe in a God who permitted natural disasters, like the recent earthquake in Nicaragua, which claimed the life of baseball star and humanitarian Roberto Clemente en route to deliver aid to quake victims?
I gasped. How could well-educated and intelligent people talk such rubbish? Stunned and momentarily forgetting my atheism, I responded with an impassioned defense of Christian theology. I may not have believed in God, but I considered their objections an insult to my intelligence. I interpreted their remarks as meaning that God, to be worthy of worship, had to do whatever they wanted Him to—that God had to follow the dictates of their various consciences. I reminded my Unitarian hosts of the words of Genesis 23:50 [sic]: ‘The thing proceedeth from the Lord. We cannot speak unto you bad and good.’ (73)
I confess that I am fascinated by the Genovese intellectual pilgrimage and turbulent campus adventures, told within the context of a moving love story. Their marriage was marked by mutual devotion, affection, tenacity, and cheerful perseverance in the face of trials.
With thanksgiving the author concludes:
Betsey was the love of my life, and I have had no prouder yet more humbling sense of fulfillment than the knowledge that I was the love of hers.
With Betsey, my life was blessed. (137)
Charles M. Wingard is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, serving as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Huntsville, Alabama. Ordained Servant Online, February 2012.