Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History
Few other American historians living today command the respect of his colleagues that C. Vann Woodward rightfully enjoys. The Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale has received all the honors that the academy can offer. He won them fairly, has taken them seriously, wears them lightly. The admiration rests not upon the substance of his work alone but also upon the manner of the man. Although Thinking Back is not an autobiography, it provides insight into the life of the working scholar, and illuminates his approach and contribution to southern history.
With a special but also a very southern gift for language, Woodward reflects in this book upon each of his major works, its origin and changing fortunes, directing his remarks to three themes, all interrelated: the ephemeral nature of historical truth; the criticism that has been made of his own work; and, most important, the discontinuity of the southern past. With the first theme, Woodward’s concern is personal as well as intellectual. As the opening chapter suggests, he grew up where the rocklike verities of southern life were supposedly changeless. In Vanndale, Arkansas, his birthplace in 1908, and later in Oxford, Georgia, where his father was a college dean, few doubted the glories of the Lost Cause, the villainies of “black republicanism,” or the sanctities of white superiority. Woodward does not say how he came to question local pieties. We would like to know more about those early years.
In any event, he soon lost conventional faiths and replaced them with others that were radical by southern standards. A summer visit to the Soviet Union during college at Emory, a postbaccalaureate year’s study of political science at Columbia in 1932, an involvement in the defense of a persecuted Atlanta black communist, an association with the “wrong crowd” at Chapel Hill (so defined by Woodward’s academic sponsor Howard Odum, the sociologist), and a growing involvement in his study of Tom Watson and Georgia Populism for his Ph.D. dissertation—all these formative experiences encouraged a drastic reappraisal of his homeland and its assumptions.
Today it is hard to imagine the difficulties facing the rebel against southern conformities during the years of Woodward’s youth. Some failed utterly, turning to alcohol as a lonely or boisterous defiance against local hypocrisies. Other gifted thinkers, like Woodward’s friend Robert Penn Warren, could turn to poetry or fiction, but few of similar talents found in the writing of history the means to deal with a region they both loved and lamented. W.J. Cash also felt the pressures of provincialism, and discovered a creative voice in meeting the tensions that southern intellectuals have always had to confront, but in one work, The Mind of the South (1941), he may have exhausted his ideas; in any event, suicide cut short further promise.
Not yet the ironist and skeptic that he would later become, Woodward conceived his first book, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938), around heresies. Research for the biography plunged …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.