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Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South Paperback – October 24, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


"In this remarkable culmination of four decades of intense study, Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese marshal their impressive knowledge of slaveholding Southerners. With no holds barred they examine the disparate emotions and self-justifications of slaveholders' ideas, including a true picture of the complex and even contradictory ideas of paternalism. Their analysis deepens our understanding of the social relationships that shaped the history of the American South, relationships with vast implications even today. Steeped in comprehensive research, Fatal Self-Deception is cultural, social, legal, and philosophical history at its best - simply brilliant."
Orville Vernon Burton, Clemson University, and author of The Age of Lincoln and In My Father's House Are Many Mansions

"'One day they learned that they had been deceiving themselves and living intimately with people they did not know at all.' This Eugene D. Genovese wrote more than four decades ago. In Fatal Self-Deception, Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demonstrate with unflinching clarity just how fatal this self-deception proved. This judicious assessment of the 'burning contradictions' that riddled slaveholder ideology traces the immensity of that deception in the face of the embarrassments that betrayed the poverty of its moral and intellectual foundation. All along the way, slaveholders scrubbed away evidence that they were not loved by the enslaved, that black people were not inherently inferior, preferred slavery to freedom, and would be wiped from the face of the earth by emancipation, denying in the process (and against opposing voices, South and North) slavery's 'unremitting despotism'. In the end, as the authors write, 'Slaveholders had trouble getting their story straight'. The conundrums - including the place of poor white people in a slaveholding society - were unanswerable. The measureable consequence was the destruction of slavery in the US. A work of prodigious research."
Thavolia Glymph, Duke University

"An extraordinarily learned and persuasive exploration of the intellectual world of the southern slaveowners, Fatal Self-Deception delves with unprecedented depth into the slaveholding mind and helps us make sense of their understanding of paternalism and their always fraught defense of slavery. This is a masterful work of historical scholarship, wholly impressive in every respect."
Mark Smith, Carolina Distinguished Professor of History, University of South Carolina, and author of How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses

"In remarkable ways, this brief, lapidary volume, the last in the Mind of the Master Class series, at once hones and culminates the argument, about planter hegemony's rise, funcitons, operations, fall, and consequences, that Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese developed over a half century. How, in the process of forming, living, and imposing their worldview, planters deceived themselves about their meaning to and relations with their bondpeople emerges powerfully. So does planters' very different - and, in many respects, more distant and classist - regard of their white servitors, even when dining together. That thirty percent of the book is given to endnotes is a crude measure of the daunting research that underlies the work's conclusions about the affective bonds and disconnects both in paternalist ideology and among the holders and those who resisted and bore the consequences of that hegemony's emotional claims and sway."
David Moltke-Hansen, Director, Simms Initiatives, University of South Carolina

"This thoughtful treatise lets slaveowners speak for themselves, showing how they struggled to square paternalism with the need for profit. Readers get a fresh look at the Southern master's relationships with a host of household members. By drawing upon an immense number of original sources, the Genoveses persuasively argue that slaveowners practiced self-deception, not hypocrisy, by viewing their way of life as the best possible for all concerned."
Jenny Wahl, Carleton College


"In this final volume of their Mind of the Master Class trilogy, the Genoveses explore with characteristic acuity the fundamental."
Richard Follett, The Journal of American History

"... a rich and complicated portrayal of elite slaveholders' self-perceptions that is well worth reading."
Margaret Abruzzo, The Journal of Southern History

"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."
Emma Heishman, GRAAT Online (graat.fr)

Book Description

Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese discuss how slaveholders perpetuated and rationalized a romanticized version of life on the plantation. Slaveholders' paternalism grew out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation. But at the same time, this book also advocates the examination of masters' relations with white plantation laborers and servants - a largely unstudied subject. Southerners drew on the work of British and European socialists to conclude that all labor, white and black, suffered de facto slavery.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; First Edition edition (October 24, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1107605024
  • ISBN-13: 978-1107605022
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #502,354 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Alan Bauerschmidt on May 5, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Roll, Jordon, Roll revisited thirty years later, with more appreciation of the aftermath of Emancipation. Interesting insight on how expectation did not come to pass.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Much content not found elsewhere. Could have been more succinct in use of quotes while including more editorial content and analysis by the authors.
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Pleased with my purchase.
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