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C. Vann Woodward, Southern Historian

ISSUE:  Spring 1983
Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. Edited by J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson. Oxford. $25.00.

Most of us recall with special clarity the formative intellectual experiences of our youth and the ways in which those experiences helped us to come to terms with our heritage. The urge to look back on those days may come at any time, but it often asserts itself when we reach the middle years. C. Vann Woodward was into that era of his own life in 1956 when he published an essay on Southern letters in this journal. He began with a personal memory: “The Southerner who graduated from college about 1930 was soon aware of new voices in the land and new forces astir.” These “voices” and “forces” would help to reshape his land so that Woodward found “the early thirties were stirring years to be discovering the South and its history and spending the years of one’s youth.” Drawn to history as a career, he was buoyed by an “awakening of historical scholarship” which he saw as part of “a wider intellectual awakening in the South.”

For the Southerner who graduated from college in the early 1950’s, there also were new voices in the land and new forces astir. By the mid-1950’s the young Southerner who had decided on history as a career found swirling about him the beginning of what Woodward would name the Second Reconstruction of the South. There was drama and excitement in the fact that the crisis seemed to turn so heavily on historical questions. Could the South change? Could it be made to change? What was the relationship between past and present? Was segregation an immutable folkway, something that had always been there and could not therefore be rooted out without destroying the region itself? Or was Southern history more complex, less well understood than most people thought? Answers to these questions were freely and heatedly offered in those days and were the staple of public debate as well as cocktail party chatter. Everyone had the historian’s answer.

For the Southern historian who chose Virginia as the theater in which to find his own answers to these questions, the contrasts were sharp. On the one hand, the suave and well-mannered men of money and authority fell in line behind Senator Byrd, their tribal guru it seemed, to declare that they would resist—and resist massively—all attempts to change what they called their way of life. An ambitious Oklahoma-born journalist on the Richmond afternoon paper draped the mantle of Jefferson and Madison over the defiance to give the Virginians an air of decorum that set them apart from their uncouth allies in the Mississippi and Alabama Citizens’ Councils and Klan Klaverns. On the other hand, for all the vituperation and moral pressure, there was no real threat to intellectual freedom at the university founded by Jefferson. The resident faculty debated serious questions, and when they brought outsiders in to lecture they sometimes chose uncommonly well.

When C. Vann Woodward came down from Baltimore to give the James W. Richard Lectures at the University of Virginia in the autumn of 1954, he was impressed by his reception. He wrote later that the lectures “were given before unsegregated audiences and they were received in that spirit of tolerance and open-mindedness that one has a right to expect at a university with such a tradition and such a founder.” Those lectures, published the next year as The Strange Career of Jim Crow, were to become the most widely read of all Woodward’s works—works that in all have sold perhaps a million copies. Journalists carried copies of the small book with them across the South, covering one racial confrontation after another; civil rights workers distributed them at their workshops; students in college classes found the book showing up on their lists of assigned reading. For many people, then, to discover the South and its history in the 1950’s was to discover the writings of C. Vann Woodward.

The Jim Crow book was the culmination of a series of books that made Southern history alive and intelligible, rescuing it from pedants and apologists alike. Starting with Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (1938), Woodward studied the ways in which class and racial loyalties and fears forged the destinies of Southern whites and blacks. Watson, the hero of Populism, turned out to be a symbol of hope in the first part of the book, as he penetrated the shibboleths that had divided the downtrodden and, in the last half, an example of the tragedy of Southern history as disillusionment turned him into a fierce demagogue. In Reunion and Reaction (1951) Woodward ingeniously constructed an account of how the material interests of Southern and Northern conservatives had merged to force the abandonment of the defense of freedmen’s rights and lay the basis for the rise of Southern conservatives at the expense of the Southern masses, whites and blacks alike. The themes of these works were joined and expanded in Origins of the New South, 1877—1913 (1951). Richly textured, informed by irony and compassion, Woodward’s masterpiece traced the rise of the new ruling class, the heavy toll it exacted from the Southern people, and the emergence and crushing defeat of a popular and humane protest movement. To a friend who had written admiringly of the book he wrote, “My sympathies were obviously not with the people who ran things, and about whom I wrote most, but with the people who were run, who were managed and maneuvered and pushed around.”

In the crisis of the 1950’s Woodward’s historical scholarship and personal example were an inspiration to Southerners who, like him, put their sympathies with those who were run, who were managed and maneuvered and pushed around. They admired him when he consulted with Thurgood Marshall on how to present the case against segregation to the Supreme Court and when he turned his scholarly talents to the history of segregation, declaring that things had not always been the same. Admiration of his moral courage was made easier by the fact of his craftsmanship—no one wrote better, had a more thorough command of the sources, or a keener sense of irony and the complexity of Southern history. No one who cared about the course of events in the past was more scrupulous in writing history addressed to the present. He was also admired because his interpretive essays—especially “The Irony of Southern History” and “The Search for Southern Identity”—elevated Southern studies to the level of national, even international, importance, providing the kind of reach and resonance for historical studies that Faulkner’s novels had given to Southern fiction.

The late David Potter once said that Woodward’s “greatest significance to historical studies may lie in the fact that he has made himself the foremost practitioner of a concept of history which holds that the experience of the past can find its highest relevance in the guidance which it offers in living with the problems of the present.” The wonder is that Potter should have found among his fellow historians so few “practitioners” of this “concept of history,” for without some sense of responsibility, some concern for the consequences of what one writes, history is depleted of its vitality and becomes simply an intellectual game played by clever people, usually at the expense of other clever people. In any case, Potter thought it took special qualities to succeed if one had the present very much in mind. Woodward, he believed, was a remarkable success. He showed that “history can retain its basic scholarly validity even in a context of active presentism.” It is unlikely that Woodward has ever used a term such as “active presentism,” but he has always been fond of quoting Faulkner, especially the character in Absalom, Absalom who says that “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.” With this kind of sensibility informing his writing, Woodward has of course found it impossible to write history that does not speak to the present.

Because of his scholarship, his Southern ancestry (he is a native of Vanndale, Arkansas, where he was born on Nov. 13, 1908), and his concern for the fate of his region in a time of crisis, Woodward attracted to his seminars, first at Johns Hopkins and then at Yale, a remarkable group of students. More than 40 of them—white and black, male and female— completed the doctorate. Many of the 40 gathered in Philadelphia last spring to present to their teacher a book that 17 of them had written to honor him. According to reports from some who were there, Woodward wanted to make no speech but felt under some obligation to comment on what it was he thought he and they had been up to as historians. He did this by reciting for them a passage from Absalom, Absalom! The Mississippian Quentin Compson is addressed by his Harvard roommate, a Canadian. “Tell about the South,” Shreve asks. “What’s it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?”

The essays in the book his students gave him that evening help us to understand the answer to the question Quentin was asked. Editors James McPherson and J. Morgan Kousser aimed to produce a volume that was in some sense coherent. In the end they decided to organize it around three major themes of Woodward’s writings—region, race, and reconstruction. What makes the South distinctive as a region? How has race—the fact of race and concerns about race—shaped and misshaped Southern history? How has the South been reconstructed and by whom and with what consequences? These broad questions come close to casting a net wide enough to cover the question Quentin was asked, to let the Woodward students, in their own voices, “tell about the South.”

In the opening section on the South as a region, Daniel T. Rogers writes brilliantly about the Chapel Hill regionalists who dominated the agenda for Southern reform in the 1930’s. Rogers succeeds not only in dissecting their agenda, but he also constructs (one wonders whether intentionally) a portrait of the intellectual world in which Woodward did his graduate work. Rogers is particularly good in uncovering some of the shortcomings of regionalism (its skittishness about racial and class confrontations, especially) that must have troubled the young Woodward. Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s reconsideration of the proslavery doctrine ingeniously makes a strong case for the antebellum South’s tendency toward industrial apartheid, suggesting yet another dimension to the discussion of Woodward’s Jim Crow thesis. Steven Hahn revisits Woodward’s abiding concern with Populism by way of a compelling analysis of the Georgia controversy over fencing cattle in the post-Reconstruction era. Robert Dean Pope writes a tantalizing essay about biographical studies of Southern political figures in the Age of Segregation and laments what he takes to be the present low status of the art. He urges historians to renew their interest and reminds us that Woodward found his study of Watson to be a revealing window through which he came to see the larger history of the period. The section on region concludes with an elegant Willie Lee Rose piece, a portrait of the South and its race problem in popular culture, specifically in the books (and the plays or films inspired by them) Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Clansman, Gone with the Wind, and Roots. These “reading-viewing” events serve “as vehicles for celebration of shared convictions,” Mrs. Rose reminds us, “the public vehicle of new agreements on what to believe, at the growing point of American myth.”

To “tell about the South” in such neat divisions as the editors have imposed upon their book is not easy. In the middle section, on race, for example, Tilden Edelstein’s survey of American productions of Othello echoes themes from Mrs. Rose’s piece. It appears in the right section, however, because the underlying theme is the uncertainty Americans have betrayed over what really constitutes race.

This is a theme explored in imaginative and arresting detail by Barbara Fields, who argues that race is not a physical fact at all, but an ideological construct. These pieces are followed and complemented by Charles Dew’s reconstruction of the life of the slave Sam Williams, Louis Harlan’s account of Booker T. Washington’s relationship with American Jews, and Robert F. Engs’ penetrating but sad account of how American Indians assigned to Hampton Institute were victims of racism. Each essay opens up unsuspected dimensions of the history and concept of race.

None of the five chapters in the concluding section on Reconstruction offers us an interpretive key to the period, perhaps because old consensuses have been broken down and new ones have yet to emerge. When they do, Woodward’s students will be in the forefront. One dimension surely to be emphasized is the comparative study of emancipation experiences, a subject Woodward urged on historians years ago. Thomas C, Holt writes about such comparisons in the histories of the United States and the British West Indies, making us anxious for his larger study of the subject. Lawrence N. Powell gives new meaning to old facts in writing of the quarrels among carpetbaggers and helps us better understand the factionalism that undid the Republican Party in the South. Williams S. McFeeley tells us of a Republican who was both carpetbagger and scalawag and makes clearer the problems of conscience and politics during Reconstruction. J. Mills Thornton III declares that one of the reasons historians have botched up their Reconstruction studies is that most of the specialists in that subject know little about the antebellum period. To illustrate his point, he explains how Republicans unwittingly adopted tax policies that drove the white small farmers into the camp of the opposition. The last essay, appropriately enough, is a reexamination by Vincent P. DeSantis of the end of Reconstruction and a defense of Woodward’s 30-year-old interpretation of that episode.

The essays so briefly summarized here will be required reading for historians of the South. Happily, they are accessible to others as well. All of Woodward’s students agree that their teacher. never imposed on them a point of view or a methodology, but instead helped them to find their own way and their own voices. One sees proof of this in the rich variety of talents evident in their book. But if Woodward made no explicit demands on his students, he inevitably presented to them, in his own person and work, a model which inspired and molded them all. Such influences, of course, are difficult to trace precisely. Yet they can be clearly seen—in the mastery of the sources and the experimentation with appropriate methods of exploiting sources, in the taste for irony and the striving for literary grace, and, perhaps most important of all, in the underlying awareness that history is not a game intellectuals play but a real voice of the South never to be severed from forces astir in the region.


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