restricted access 1 Therapist of the Public Mind: Woodward and the Most Burdensome Burden
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1 1 Therapist of the Public Mind Woodward and the Most Burdensome Burden James C. Cobb Since the last World War old racial attitudes that appeared more venerable and immovable than any other have exhibited a flexibility that no one would have predicted. One by one, and in astonishingly rapid succession, many landmarks of racial discrimination and segregation have disappeared, and old barriers have been breached. —C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History (1993) Drawing on Woodward’s books, articles, and correspondence, James Cobb traces the evolution of his role as a “therapist” of the southern mind. Cobb focuses most of his attention on two of Woodward’s works, making the connection between The Strange Career of Jim Crow, where race was central, to two specific essays in The Burden of Southern History, where Woodward argued that by focusing on the broader historical—as opposed to the narrower racial—dimension of their regional identity, white southerners could teach the rest of the nation about restraint and humility, a lesson badly needed amid the saber rattling and megalomania of the McCarthy era. Woodward’s storied rise to prominence in the profession did nothing to undermine his dedication to shaping public opinion, both within the South and without. In fact, Cobb argues, Woodward’s desire to influence his readers’ thinking often outdistanced the evidence he could marshal in support of his arguments. In The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Woodward famously contended that segregation had developed relatively recently in the South and that it was a “stateway” instigated by law rather than a “folkway” derived from cultural experience, his implication being that once relieved from the onerous segregation statutes, southerners would throw off the Jim Crow system. Meanwhile, in both “The Search for Southern Identity” and “The Irony of Southern History,” Woodward urged southerners to embrace their experience with defeat and humiliation in the Civil War in order to offer guidance to the rest of the nation, caught up in the dangerous and deadly cold war. Over the 2 James C. Cobb course of time, as evidenced in two subsequent editions of The Burden of Southern History, Woodward’s optimism steadily dimmed. The civil rights movement turned violent and moved north, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and many black activists rejected integration in favor of separatism. At the same time, few white southerners appeared to have learned the lessons that Woodward believed their history could teach them. From Cobb’s point of view, Woodward continued throughout his life to urge Americans “to reflect soberly on their past before reacting rashly to their present.” • After reading the galleys for The Burden of Southern History in 1960, Henry Nash Smith came away thoroughly convinced that C. Vann Woodward “possesses southern history so completely that in his writing it ceases to be mere learning and becomes the form and content of thought at its most sophisticated level.” This was high praise indeed for a collection of previously published essays that might well have struck some at the time as simply an attempt to piggyback on the success of Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, which had appeared five years earlier and, after multiple printings , was already out in the first of three revised editions.1 At first glance, the two books appeared to have relatively little in common . Strange Career owed its enormous appeal—and eventual sales in excess of a million copies—to its relevance to the nation’s ongoing struggle with the problem of race. Race seemed decidedly less integral to Burden, where Woodward tried to persuade white southerners that their real claim to regional distinctiveness lay not in their traditional dominion over black southerners but rather in a larger, defeat- and poverty-ridden historical experience that actually left them peculiarly equipped to offer their fellow Americans some valuable lessons in humility and restraint. Yet Woodward’s concerted efforts in Burden to get southern whites to stop defining themselves through their allegiance to the Jim Crow system are very much of a piece with his emphasis in Strange Career on that system’s relatively recent origins. Considered in the context of Woodward’s own somewhat “strange” career, the connections between these books also reflect his extraordinary transition from a traditional scholar writing primarily for his peers to what he called “a therapist of the public mind,” who broke free of academic con- 3 Therapist of the Public Mind straints to reach out to a broader general audience with a...


Subject Headings

  • Southern States -- Politics and government -- 21st century.
  • Southern States -- Social conditions -- 21st century.
  • Southern States -- Civilization -- 21st century.
  • Woodward, C. Vann (Comer Vann), 1908-1999. Burden of southern history.
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