- The Letters of C. Vann Woodward ed. by Michael O’Brien
In 1993, after a day spent at an academic conference in Oxford, Mississippi, a group of southern historians decided to go out for drinks at a funky, let-it-all-hang-out beer hall near the campus. One elderly and elegant member of the group, however, attracted the attention of the young waiter, who asked: “Who’s the dude in the suit?”
His name was C. Vann Woodward (1908–1999); and the sartorial anomaly was only one facet of a life that was somewhat off-center. No historian of his generation ever dominated a field as thoroughly; no scholar’s name was ever so indelibly linked with the exploration of the southern past itself. Yet most of his career was spent above the Mason–Dixon Line, capped with over four decades in New Haven. He preferred to live in the North. Woodward was honored with the presidencies of the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. And yet not even his naval service altered the denial of his security clearance during the domestic Cold War. (He aroused suspicions because of his evident commitment to racial equality.) Before Woodward came along, the interests of southern historians tended to cluster in the antebellum period and on the Civil War. Woodward’s own eccentric choice landed on the half-century or so after Reconstruction, an era that he mastered so authoritatively that the Ole Miss waiter who, upon learning of the dude’s identity and then emitting an expletive, exclaimed: “We had to read him in class!”
Yet so mythic a figure had not come down from Parnassus but from Vann-dale, Arkansas, where his father served as a school superintendent and his mother [End Page 120] was active in the United Daughters of the Confederacy. A mystery that Michael O’Brien’s marvelous collection of letters does not dispel is how Woodward managed to surmount the pall of racial prejudice that pervaded such hamlets—and, incidentally, not only the region. (For example, numerous editions of a standard textbook like Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager’s The Growth of the American Republic treated slavery as benign. “As for Sambo,” the authors added, “there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its peculiar institution.”) In sharp contrast, Woodward’s works are entirely unblemished by any hint of racial condescension, much less of hostility. Such moral acuity is mystifying, for he recalls in one of his letters that he had “lived among lynchers” (407). Nor could he remember any teachers who exerted any special influence over him (252). Virtually every other white southerner who recognized the injustice of Jim Crow could claim to have experienced some sort of epiphany. For Judge J. Skelly Wright, it was watching a Christmas party across the street from his law office in New Orleans, where the celebrants were being separated into opposite sides of the room, which was in a home for the blind. To be sure, in a 1930 letter Woodward mentions an episode in Atlanta, where an injured pedestrian was ignored by an ambulance and was forced to wait for another from a black hospital. But by then the cruelty of segregation had already been made evident.
Another biographical enigma left unsolved in this volume is professional. In 1951 Woodward published a magisterial volume that should have won a Pulitzer Prize, The Origins of the New South, 1877–1913. (That Prize had to await his edition, three decades later, of the Civil War diary of Mary Chesnut.) From the extensive primary research lavished in Origins came two spinoffs: Reunion and Reaction (1951), on the Compromise of 1877 that ended Reconstruction; and The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955 and frequently revised), which Martin Luther King, Jr. hailed as “the historical bible of the civil rights movement.” Then the archival investigations essentially stopped, as did the books that were inspired by fresh interpretations. Woodward...