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Civil War History 46.4 (2000) 337-340



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C. Vann Woodward: November 13, 1908-December 17, 1999

J. Mills Thornton III


I knew the Woodward of the books before I knew Woodward the man. Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (1938) was his first attempt to explore his region's history, and by happenstance it was also the first one that I read. Here, in this account of Georgia at the end of the nineteenth century, were all the deeply perplexing figures whose later incarnations had surrounded me as I grew up in mid-twentieth-century Alabama: Henry Grady, the good-hearted booster blind to the pernicious implications of his enthusiasms; Joe Brown, Alfred Colquitt, and John Gordon, the venal political leaders prepared at every moment to betray their adoring followers in order to advance their material interests, and yet revered still; Alex Stephens, the fierce ideologue utterly disabled by his unyielding hatred; and Watson himself, the idealistic young reformer transformed by the evil of his society, and the all too understandable vindictiveness in his heart, into a monster. I felt that I had encountered someone preternaturally capable of revealing clearly the complex historical predicaments of the modern South that I had theretofore only vaguely sensed. I quickly consumed as well Reunion and Reaction (1950), as fascinating as any detective story and as appalling as the most shocking piece of current investigative journalism; The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), which taught me for the first time that the patterns of racial discrimination that I had found so discomfiting as a teenager represented in fact a set of conscious political choices made by white Southerners of my grandparents' age, whom I actually knew; and finally Origins of the New South (1951), that brought together for me the entire story of the callousness, shortsightedness, and iniquity that had created the world about me. I also had had the good fortune to study as an undergraduate with two of Woodward's most talented former students, James McPherson and Sheldon Hackney, and I could see the influence that he had had in their lives. By the time I was ready to be graduated from college, therefore, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to write my doctoral dissertation under Woodward's direction. [End Page 337]

Against this background, my initial encounters with Woodward the man were rather disconcerting. Shy, self-effacing, hesitant of speech, he was anything but a classroom presence. In his graduate colloquia, the discussions never seemed to go anywhere. He would take his place at the head of the long table and quietly await our comments on the monograph under consideration. When we had all offered our generally superficial and too often uncomprehending critiques, it was time to move on to another book. Occasionally he allowed the famous Woodward wit to peep out, but he never permitted himself a directive comment or a hint of his own judgments. Even when we discussed his own books, they were left to stand entirely on their own, without defense, without explanation. By the end of my first year in graduate school, I had begun to wonder if I was missing something.

I was, of course. He expected us to figure it all out, in our own way, as he had done. He was not interested in acolytes; he wanted scholars. His instruction first began to explain itself to me only in my second year, when I began to produce original history of my own. Now he carefully probed my arguments and weighed my evidence, pushing me with incisive questions to examine whether my understanding of an event or a problem had truly encompassed its intricacies--social, intellectual, and moral. But his efforts were always directed toward aiding me in clarifying and defending my own explanations, never toward substituting his own. What he sought was not students who replicated his ideas, but students who replicated his mode of inquiry: meticulous and fair-minded, yet passionate and engaged; true to the integrity of the historical moment but constantly aware of its metaphorical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 337-340
Launched on MUSE
2000-12-01
Open Access
No
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