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31 2 Woodward’s Southerner History, Literature, and the Question of Identity Leigh Anne Duck Historians are more skeptical of the alleged “lessons of history” than the laity, and they should know better than anyone else that when there is a choice between the “right” lesson and the “wrong,” mankind has a strong predilection for the latter. —C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History (1993) In “Woodward’s Southerner: History, Literature, and the Question of Identity,” Leigh Anne Duck deconstructs Woodward’s vision of southern identity presented in The Burden of Southern History. She begins with the misperceptions that remain rampant regarding Woodward’s take on the southern heritage. She delineates Woodward from his literary colleagues, the Fugitive-poets-turned-Agrarian-intellectuals at Vanderbilt (Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, for example), who championed a whitewashed, innocent southern past. And she also contends that Woodward was not an advocate of abandoning one’s southern identity in favor of a national allegiance , a position still attributed to him at times. Rather, Duck paints a more complicated and nuanced picture of Woodward’s southerner, exposing the historian’s inner desire to see white southerners find an authentic but usable past—one that “might be put to intellectually, politically, and ethically generative use.” Despite her effort to balance Woodward’s intent with his reception, Duck turns a critical eye toward Woodward’s omissions. Noting that Woodward honed his vision of southern identity in his essays on southern literature—a field consumed with defining southern identity at that time—Duck also points out Woodward’s lack of discussion of African American literature, specifically. She sees this omission as a casualty of his efforts to define a shared culture: “Woodward’s inattention to African American writing parallels his treatment of regional identity more broadly; in seeking a politically productive account of southern commonality, he neglects meaningful differences.” But these differences were not lost on Woodward, Duck concludes. His 32 Leigh Anne Duck evolving perspective, argues Duck, is revealed in his revised editions of The Burden of Southern History, where he not only calls for a Second and a Third Reconstruction that would move the South beyond Jim Crow, but he also highlights the ongoing injustices facing African Americans in the South in the post-civil-rights era. After her thorough evaluation of Woodward’s vision of southern identity and its political function, Duck concludes that “had Woodward imagined that, 150 years after the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the nation would still be debating that entity’s merits, he might not have suggested that a specifically ‘southern’ identity might constitute the best hope for promoting the values of modesty, caution, and justice in national politics.” • In March 2010, as the book review and opinion editor for the New York Times was seeking to contextualize debates over the new social studies curriculum in Texas, he was moved to cite the late C. Vann Woodward concerning the relationships among history, politics, and collective identity. The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) had garnered national attention not only because textbook producers are purported to cater to Texas’s demands in constructing volumes for multiple states,1 but also because SBOE members so unabashedly sought to shape historical knowledge in support of contemporary political agendas. (During one meeting, argument became so heated that a Republican accused more conservative members of “re-writing history”; in an interview, the leader of the conservative faction proclaimed education “too important not to politicize.”) Sam Tanenhaus, writing for the Times, situated this controversy in a long series of conflicting efforts to articulate and institutionalize an American identity, but he feared this particular incident might indicate that “after so many years of increasingly bitter polarization, Americans stand on the brink of a collective identity crisis and no longer share a set of common ideas about the true character of the country and the true meaning of democracy.”2 It is this concern that Tanenhaus sought to address via Woodward’s famous essay “The Search for Southern Identity” (1958), written amid regional turmoil over racial desegregation. Considering the midcentury South a “parallel phenomenon” to the contemporary nation, Tanenhaus recommends Woodward ’s solution: “What Southerners should do, Mr. Woodward urged, is 33 Woodward’s Southerner subordinate their regional attachment to the country’s ‘national myths,’ for instance the American ‘success story’ that had inspired so many others.” But Tanenhaus could not have been more wrong about Woodward’s recommendations, which, as the historian later explained, were...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780807147573
Related ISBN
9780807147566
MARC Record
OCLC
815382755
Pages
232
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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