C. Vann Woodward. Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.
For any graduate student in southern history, C. Vann Woodward is a towering and intimidating figure. Although Woodward has been dead for over eleven years and his seminal works are now a half-century old, he remains one of the central figures in southern historiography. Of continuing importance for historians are four monographs: Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938), Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction (1951), Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951), and The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955). Like all seminal historiographic achievements, Woodward’s work has been criticized and revised by future generations of competent historians. While many of Woodward’s interpretations have fallen out of favor, Origins of the New South rescued an entire time period from historical oblivion. If that were not enough, he challenged historical orthodoxy, namely that southern history was in fact a series of dramatic ruptures instead of a timeless place that operated along a line of historical and cultural continuity. While most southern historians are well beyond the historiographic debate of continuity versus change that Woodward inaugurated, his work remains critical in understanding southern historiography and southern history because of its pioneering narrative and arguments. Historical events described by Woodward in a few paragraphs or in a chapter struck young historians who took the ball and wrote dissertations which later became books. He shattered an old paradigm and southern history never looked the same. Graduate students in southern history will read Woodward’s work and find inspiration for generations to come. In addition, Woodward trained a number of prize-winning historians including James McPherson, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, David Carlton, Barbara Fields, and many many others.
After decades of criticism, Woodward answered the critics in Thinking Back, a semi-autobiographical reflection on his life in the academy. Recapitulating the historiographic debates of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s is well beyond the scope of my blog, but I will offer some thoughts, few as they may be, on both Woodward and Thinking Back.
It would have been easy for Woodward to be defensive – and perhaps angry – in the face of so much criticism – much of it revisionist. Woodward comes across in this book as both gracious and genuine and reminded the reader that “both the critic and the criticized share as their common goal the pursuit of truth” (5). Later, he argued – I’m paraphrasing here – that truth often arises out of heated controversy. This is, of course, true of history but could also be applied broader to many forms of truth – social, political, or even religious. Perhaps Woodward’s most germane message to readers in the twenty-first century is that articulating ideas thoughtfully and listening to each other in a thoughtful way can lead to truth, something that is in short supply today. Woodward detested blind allegiances to ideology. Although he was a passionate liberal, he was never loyal to twentieth-century liberalism in an ideological sense. He was loyal to things he believed in, such as social justice and equality. The things Woodward believed in made him a liberal – and never the other way around (a phenomenon I’ve noticed).
Beyond explaining the formation of southern historiography, Thinking Back is useful to a non-academic but educated audience. History, that is to say written history, arises as much as the era in which it was written as by the era that is written about. I find the autobiographical elements of the book where Woodward described his education and experiences that formed his intellect and much of his scholarship most interesting. Not only do we learn that Woodward once tried graduate school in sociology (for two days), we also learn about the milieu which gave birth to The Strange Career of Jim Crow. We find out that Woodward never intended the book to receive the general readership it received when Martin Luther King, Jr. called the book “the Bible of the Civil Rights Movement.” Rather, he conceived his audience of the book (which was originally a lecture series at the University of Virginia) to be both southern and educated. This caused him to write the book with certain assumptions in place. Surely his audience did not need the excesses of the Jim Crow system explicated in the detail that an outsider would need. More importantly, however, he envisioned his audience as one loyal to the status quo who believed that Jim Crow was a time-honored southern tradition that could not be uprooted because it was simply too engrained into individuals of both races. His findings that the system of segregation really began fully in the 1890s was directed at this audience as jolt to those with historical amnesia. Woodward never considered that the book would be popular and widely cited by Civil Rights activists, who sometimes took quotations out of context and embarrassed him. Woodward also explored some of his formative experiences, including seeing grinding poverty throughout the South, his education in Arkansas, New York, Georgia, and North Carolina, and associations he made with intellectuals – white and black, left and right. Understanding what forms the sensibilities of the historian is sometimes as important as the past itself to understanding how we receive written history. Some might be uncomfortable with this statement, but it is inevitably true as all human enterprises are flawed. Rather than running from this, I personally think that this is something that should be cautiously embraced because it allows us to see the importance of individual perspective.
Finally, there is the question of Woodward’s southern heritage and upbringing. While he eventually left the South and spent the last decades of life in Connecticut after accepting a position at Yale, it is obvious that Woodward deeply loved the South. For someone who spent much of his career raging against the southern status quo, it might be a bit surprising that Woodward couldn’t hide his love of his deeply flawed home. To me, this makes perfect sense. Southern novelist and storyteller George Dawes Green once described the essence of being southern as hating what you love. For any southerner honest about the region’s history, this inevitably is the case. For example, how can the same people capable of strong family ties, irrepressible humor, engaging story telling, wonderous leisure, and love also be responsible for the worst chapters in southern history? As Woodward closes Thinking Back, he obliquely argued that the destruction of Jim Crow and integration of the South into the mainstream of American culture is not only expunging the South of its worst qualities but also simultaneously robbing the region of its uniqueness and thus its most striking virtues. Could it possibly be true that the South can only remain unique as long as it embraces its culture of hate? While it is a bit premature to say one way or another(it’s been less 50 years), it appears that, in some ways, Woodward was prophetic in this prediction. Any southerner can see that the South, as a unique cultural entity within American society, is waning, and fast. We might have slow accents, dialectical quirks, grits, sweet iced tea, and an unexplained urge to eat fried chicken at noon on Sunday, but those are, to me, very shallow and ultimately ephemeral expressions of southernness. And as the South continues to emerge from its dreadful past, what else will there be that we not only hate, but equally love? Northern migration into the South? Working a nine to five? Air conditioning? Atlanta traffic? Doubtful. And if that’s what it took to end what Woodward called “human betrayal in the South,” I freely admit that the loss of southern identity was well worth the price.