Reconsidering C. Vann Woodward's The Comparative Approach to American History
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Reconsidering C. Vann Woodward’s The Comparative Approach to American History
  • — To make the history of the United States more intelligible and relevant to foreign audiences.

  • — To revise parochial and complacent assumptions about American uniqueness or superiority.

  • — To reshape American historical viewpoints to reflect the nation’s enormous involvement in world affairs.

  • — To reach a wide reading public with good historical writing emphasizing broad themes and interpretive synthesis.

The summons of yet another jeremiad about parochialism and specialization in American history? AHA President Carl Degler’s recent call to consider our history comparatively? The goals of the latest OAH and American Studies Association projects to internationalize the study of America’s past? Or a foray in the current debate over national versus transnational approaches to history? 1

It could be any of these, but the list actually summarizes the aims of a neglected but valuable collection of original essays published over a quarter century ago: C. Vann Woodward’s The Comparative Approach to American History (1968). Retrospective essays in Reviews in American History usually feature books that became classics, prize-winning monographs whose new methods or theses directed historical inquiry for a generation or more. Woodward’s volume won no awards and mapped out a road taken only sporadically by subsequent Americanists. Appearing at a time when the unitary “consensus” history of the 1950s was being challenged, the book’s comparative program was all but buried by the explosive impact of minority and social history that shattered consensus and eventually questioned all general frameworks for understanding American history. The triumph of this new social history advanced immeasurably the inclusiveness and sophistication of American historiography. Yet its concentration on private spaces, local communities, and subgroup identities has left scholars hungry for national [End Page 552] synthesis and international frameworks of analysis. The flurry of recent calls to make American history part of world history, to open a dialogue with Americanists abroad, and to pursue historical subjects across national borders reflects this mood. In this changed environment Woodward’s anthology, bypassed the first time around, has recovered its relevance. Rereading it today, we can find much to admire in its promotion of a comparative agenda that would not only test American claims of national uniqueness but set United States history in an international frame of reference.

In one respect, The Comparative Approach was the result of unique circumstances. In the mid-1960s Woodward was asked to organize a program of broadcast lectures on U.S. history for the Voice of America as part of a longer series designed to acquaint foreign audiences with leaders in American arts and sciences. Woodward reasoned that a comparative approach “was peculiarly adapted to the interests and needs of foreign audiences” (p. x) since listeners were far more familiar with European life than American and no doubt interested in the relation of American history to their own. He commissioned twenty-two noted scholars to cover classic topics in American history, but asked them to add a comparative dimension by relating their subjects to developments elsewhere in the world.

While The Comparative Approach was prompted by this specific occasion, its context can be construed broadly in trends in American culture and historiography after World War II. The link to Voice of America and the presence of consensus scholars David Potter, Seymour Lipset, and Ray Billington among Woodward’s contributors provide none-too-subtle clues. The Cold War heightened Americans’ need to explain themselves to the rest of the world, and also scholars’ desire to remind Americans of the unique traditions and institutions their country represented in the worldwide contest between ideologies and socioeconomic systems. Taking the nation as their subject and continuity rather than conflict as their theme, many consensus historians not only smoothed away major differences between groups of Americans, they revived the myth of America’s special uniqueness that had been voiced by Frederick Jackson Turner and other nineteenth-century commentators, and they adopted it as an analytical principle. The title of Turner’s 1916 address, “Why did the United States not become another Europe?” became in effect the research program of Daniel Boorstin, David Potter, and Louis Hartz, but now pragmatism...