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 him, he recalls, “into all the dark, neglected, and forbidden corners of Southern life shunned by the New South school.” His scholarly contemporaries of that school pursued the theme of “progress, prosperity, peace, consensus, white solidarity, black contentment, sectional reconciliation and the overarching themes of unity, continuity, and nationalism.” The young scholar dwelt almost entirely upon their opposites.
Like Woodward, Tom Watson had a solitary temperament, a sense of cause, a love of history, and unusual literary skill. He first devoted his talents to dramatic performances as a lawyer in the circuit courts, then to political insurgency. Elected in 1890 as an independent-minded north Georgia Democrat in the midst of economic depression, Watson bolted the congressional party caucus and joined the small Populist circle. The crusade of the new Populist party was then stirring beleaguered farmers in a wide arc from the northern grain belt through the Texas plains to the eastern Cotton South. Proclaiming himself a true disciple of Thomas Jefferson and the credo of agrarian virtue, Watson united white farmers, sharecropping blacks, and industrial workers in brief, idealistic coalition against Bourbon capitalism and oligarchy. On one dramatic occasion, Woodward tells us, Watson helped to arm and organize white members of his cause to protect a black Populist campaigner threatened with lynching. The opposition was outraged at the violation of racial rules and the incident helped to defeat Watson in the next election. Gradually, the Populist enterprise, Woodward explained, fell victim to internal squabbling, changed economic conditions, and, chiefly, to countercampaigns by Democrats in which racism, reaction, fraud, and intimidation all had a large part.
The story was a grand one, especially for a young historian of the Thirties. Woodward recalls, “It was a book for the 1930s and of the 1930s, a book for hard times and hard scrabble, when rebellion was rife and the going was rough.” At a time when anti-Semitism and dictatorship dominated the news from Europe, Watson’s story had other, even grimmer parallels. After 1908 or so, Woodward records, the editor of the Jeffersonian tragically changed from crusading Jekyll into hate-mongering Hyde, inciting the South’s worst passions against Jews, socialists, Catholics, and blacks. But the nadir of Watson’s moral decline was his part in the killing of Leo Frank. For two years his filthy editorials stirred fury against an Atlanta Jew falsely accused, convicted, and sentenced for the rape and murder of a white girl in his employ. With Watson’s gleeful approval, a mob broke into the state prison, kidnapped Frank, hanged and mutilated him. Meantime, the governor of Georgia, in Watson’s eyes a traitor for commuting Frank’s death sentence, had to flee the state. With Klan support, Watson won a Senate seat in 1920 and served until his death two years later. The transition from reformer to racist owed much, the biographer surmised, to Watson’s twisted reaction to the defeat of Populism. The young author’s interpretation would later prompt objections, but, Faulknerian in theme, the work is Faulknerian also in its quality of observation, the most brilliant American biography I have ever read.
After World War II, during which Woodward experimented with writing military history, he resumed his scholarly assault on the region’s self-delusions. In Reunion and Reaction (1951) he explored the “Bargain of 1877,” which resolved the electoral confusion of the 1876 presidential contest. The Republican, Rutherford Hayes, obtained the White House over Samuel Tilden, but only, Woodward claimed, with the surreptitious help of southern politicians who were promised home rule, nonintervention by the federal government, and assistance in channeling pork-barrel dollars southward, most especially into the floundering, largely unbuilt transcontinental Texas and Pacific Railroad. Woodward stressed economic motives in the concealed transactions, an emphasis that critics would later claim was overdrawn. In 1951, however, the work was hailed as a masterful “detective story,” and it blasted a favored southern conceit: that the counterrevolutionaries who recaptured the region from carpetbaggers, scalawags, and “nigger” rule were high-minded heroes.
In the monumental Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (1951), Woodward pursued essentially the same mission on a broader but similarly relentless front. Powerful in its conceptions and based on deep research, Origins has a subtlety of texture hard to recapture in a brief review. In a memorable section the historian demonstrated that the Bourbons who ruled the South under Hayes, Arthur, and Cleveland were not, as long thought, paladins of clean government and economic prudence. Instead, they improved on scalawag chicanery when they plundered state treasuries and sold the South’s raw materials and convict labor to industrialist cronies for a pittance. The New South Progressives, from the largely urban and middle class, were shown to deserve credit for some civic reforms but Woodward could not overlook their indifference to black aspiration and their smug complicity in creating and prolonging the all-white suffrage system.
Woodward’s analysis projected an iconoclasm that recalled the radical economic history of Charles A. Beard, whose point of view had not often been applied to matters below the Mason-Dixon line. Woodward did so, moreover, in contradiction to prevailing trends in history writing. In the early cold-war years, some scholars, including Woodward’s close friend Richard Hofstadter, not only had abandoned the economic interpretation associated with Charles Beard but also their earlier zeal for political reform. Aware of the social injustices that persisted during postwar prosperity, Woodward remained true to principles shaped in the New Deal decade. Most especially he sustained an intense regard for underdogs, black and white, though within a democratic rather than a collectivist or utopian perspective. Southern to the core, Woodward was no dreamer. He had Watson’s experience to remind him of human frailties and backsliding.
Thinking Back is most effective when Woodward conveys the unremitting urgency with which he learned his craft and found his mission. Yet New South conservatism was the order of the day in historical circles. In 1938, for instance, the editors of the prestigious History of the South series unenthusiastically selected him to write the volume of the period following Reconstruction. One remarked confidentially to another, “Woodward can’t write.” The judgment says much about his chosen profession, one in which then—and sometimes now—dullness seemed requisite to good scholarship and good prose aroused mistrust. In these recollections, however, Woodward seldom strays from the main point: his growing recognition of the time-bound character of the search for historical truth, a factor not easily squared with the idea of mission.
Woodward’s particularly absorbing and thoughtful chapter on The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) reveals his growing recognition of the historical perils of “presentism,” the distorting of past events to meet current political or ideological objectives. Woodward had been invited to present a lecture series at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1954. On the previous May 17, Warren’s Supreme Court ruled segregation in public education unconstitutional, but the justices had not yet mandated procedures for implementing their decision. In the “phony war” atmosphere that the interval occasioned, southerners, Woodward reasoned, might be receptive to direct assaults upon cherished convictions. He explained that black segregation and disfranchisement were relatively new mechanisms that arose early in this century in the aftermath of Populism, out of fear of its resurrection. Mouthing pieties about cleaning up rampant campaign frauds in which they themselves had participated, racist politicians had legislated grandfather clauses, eight-ballot-box laws, direct primaries, poll taxes, and literacy tests by which to strip blacks from election rolls and, by hidden or overt design, poor whites, too. With the abolitionist and carpetbag generation long since vanished, few Yankees, from federal justices to Republican ward bosses, objected. At long last, Woodward concluded, Woodrow Wilson’s South really was solid and white, but the road there had been stony and rutted.
Unlike his other interpretations in New South history, the propositions about Jim Crow earned the author an unanticipated following that could be reckoned in hundreds of thousands. Americans were seeking some rationale for desegregation as angry whites screamed “Never!” at frightened black schoolchildren. Each court order provoked yet another outbreak of defiance from southern governors. Jim Crow appealed as a tract for cooling passions, healing wounds. It offered laymen testimony that between the post-Reconstruction period and Plessy V. Ferguson (1896) southern whites obeyed (reluctantly) federal race statutes, accepted (ungracefully) mixed schooling at least in some experimental locations, lived (grumblingly) in close proximity to freedmen, and even appealed (gingerly) for their votes in ordinary political give and take. The historian seemed to predict that what had happened before could occur again with more lasting and harmonious results.
It was exhilarating for Woodward to become a national figure, to march with King at Selma and hear him pronounce Jim Crow the civil-rights movement’s “historical Bible.” But he was conscious, he recalls, that he was miscast as the counselor of militants. By this point, he had tempered his earlier idealism with a mature appreciation for Niebuhrian irony. From this perspective, Woodward pointed, for instance, to the dangers arising from the arrogance of power; he urged that a true reading of the southern past with its miseries and defeats should have a sobering effect upon cold-war passions. But, while he advocated such cautionary, rational uses of history, he realized that pursuit of the subject had the disconcerting habit of becoming like Alice’s nightmarish game of croquet. Independent of the writer’s intention, Jim Crow‘s readers marched off in unpredictable directions. The oversized audience, including “the truly uninformed,” he observes, “often sought for the cheering and hopeful message,” then shamelessly “used it as they wished.” He sympathized with the aims of most who seized a phrase or quotable term from the book, but he was appalled at their disregard for context. Subsequent revisions of the work corrected overstatements, ambiguous passages, and issues of fact as later scholarship revealed them. By then, though, public interest had faded. Nonetheless, the book conceived as a “mythbuster” had produced its own myths, an ironic outcome, particularly for an ironist.
The second subject of Thinking Back, criticism of Woodward’s own work, closely follows the first, the transiency of established historical opinion. Each of his books, as the author points out, has aroused extended disputes among scholars. With much wit and agility, Woodward overcomes the perils of pomposity, bitterness, or truculence that await the reviewer of his critics. Woodward can avoid such snares because his sense of self-deprecation never becomes self-effacement and because he has always been genuinely curious about shifts in historiography, quite apart from their bearing on his own work.
He considers the charges of his critics, using the form of a fictional trial. Courtesy, consideration for others, are virtues associated with southern gentility, a much abused style whose adherents grow fewer each year, but the spirit is as much alive in these pages as in Woodward’s professional and literary transactions.
Among the charges are these: he overromanticized Populism, most especially Watson’s early sympathies for blacks and the Populists’ own political virtue and racial tolerance; he underestimated southern intransigency and oppressiveness in the post-Reconstruction period; and he misconceived New South leadership in which, the critics say, old planter families like Faulkner’s rough-hewn Compsons, McCaslins, and Benbows figured more largely than the “new men” that Woodward likened to Snopeses. Others objected to essays or published lectures such as “The Irony of Southern History,” on the grounds that they supposedly twisted the past in order to make a moral comment on a current problem. Yet, one suspects, The Burden of Southern History (1960) and other collections will be read for many years not only as historical documents but also as literary ones, regardless of the circumstances in which they were written. In any case, the critics, some of whom were Woodward’s students, raise useful questions. The wheel of historical fashion is perhaps tipping somewhat toward Woodward’s emphasis on conflict and away from the historians who searched for a “consensus” among conflicting social groups, a change exemplified by the work on Populism and race by Lawrence Goodwyn, Joel Williamson, J. Morgan Kousser, and Steven Hahn.
The third theme of Thinking Back, the specific character of southern history, is by far the most revealing. Seeking a thread through all his work, Woodward finds a persistent stress upon what he calls regional “discontinuity.” Like other memorable terms in Woodward’s work, this one bears much intellectual weight. For him it means that the history of the South is a long, dismaying record of conflicts over class and color, and of deep fissures in southern experience: secession, defeat, and emancipation; Reconstruction and Bourbon Restoration; Populist revolt and a second white redemption of Jim Crowism; the “bulldozer revolution” of World War II and a second reconstruction during the 1960s. It means, too, a southern past drearier than its northern counterpart; it signifies as well a region more dissonant and diverse in character than reputation and homegrown myth would allow.
Woodward’s insight here is the most important contribution to southern history that he has made. The revelation of a fractured past provided a means for rescuing a dissenter tradition from the obscurity to which it had been consigned. In effect Woodward asked: Why should southerners glorify only men like Lee, Jackson, or the New South promoter Henry Grady, all of whom upheld a class and an order of traditions in need of shaking down? There were braver, more deserving figures—the young Tom Watson, for example, or the novelist George Washington Cable and the businessman Lewis Harvie Blair, both of whom spoke out for racial justice in the 1880s. Towering above all, in Woodward’s judgment, was the genius of Thomas Jefferson, appropriated though he was by southerners of every political persuasion.
By no means was Woodward engaged in mythologizing, a common southern habit, but rather in providing a history for the South that had a freedom from myth and a dignity forever denied it by the old parochial history. When he began, the historiography of the New South suffered from “prose so pedestrian, pages so dull, chapters so devoid of ideas, whole volumes so wrongheaded or lacking in point,” Woodward recalls, that fresh blood and new aims had to reinvigorate the discipline if the South were ever to achieve a self-respect commensurate with its real meaning. Although other scholars like David Potter and David Donald were engaged in the same enterprise, Woodward’s careful, complex studies were especially important in raising professional standards to new heights even as they overturned received wisdom about race, governance, and class. Given the disaster of the Depression and the new money, ideas, and growth of federal power of the postwar era, the idea of “discontinuity” made historical sense. Moreover, it provided those southerners sensitive to the urgency of change a tradition of their own. It was a remarkable achievement, a congruence of historical validity and current intellectual need.
At last, because of Woodward, the South had a genuinely tragic history. There could be no tragedy without nobility. That quality of heart, in Woodward’s argument, was not to be found at Chancellorsville alone and certainly not in the politically manipulated legends of “the Glorious Dead.” The appeal of the idea of chivalry in the postwar South had obscured a different heroism, a courage found in the lonely voices of protest, speaking out in such unlikely places as the convict labor camp, the black sharecropper’s church, and the Populist hall where grizzled freeholders met to air grievances. In some ways Woodward anticipated the concept of history written from the bottom up that has been popular in more recent times. But most important he showed that an unglamorous postwar South exemplified the human condition in ways the rich and righteous North could not. Like Faulkner’s novels of Yoknapatawpha County, Woodward’s history transcended regional limits and united southern history with the careworn past that has been the heritage of most of mankind.
To accent the singularity of Woodward’s insight one need only draw a contrast with the themes in Cash’s The Mind of the South which appeared in 1941, a contrast Woodward himself makes in these pages in which he continues his longstanding dispute with the North Carolinian’s ghost. Cash, he claims, has been holding séances lately with an odd assortment of leftists and conservatives, each with their own political point to make. Woodward’s disagreement with Cash is rooted in philosophical and temperamental differences even though both writers aimed at the same target: the falsity of the South’s self-image. The “continuitarian” Cash, as Woodward calls him, accepted the traditional concept of an unchanging South. He did so, though, to expose the region’s wastefulness and essential savagery. Cash proposed that from the landing at James-town to the building of Atlanta’s skyscrapers, the southern pretension to aristocracy had been hollow, the intellectual culture second-rate, the tradition of dissent weak, all of which, in his unabashed dismissal of exceptions, ironies, or ambiguities, violated the spirit and sense of Woodward’s approach.
In Cash’s South, there were no heroes, not even Jefferson living on the famous hill; there was no golden age of the founding fathers from a liberal, almost antislavery Virginia. In Cash’s judgment the nonconformist had no chance. Community opinion drove out recusants like Cable or pressed them into ugly reaction or silence—the actual outcomes, for instance, of Tom Watson and Lewis Blair. Instead, Cash peopled his world with archetypal “Josh Venables” and other rustic mediocrities of indeterminate energy, lineage, and rank. Raw and uncouth, the South lived by a wilderness code that slavery and later color prejudice helped to perpetuate. He called it the “Savage Ideal,” a complicated tangle of masculine and racist impulses.
Cash’s structural approach to southern ethics was no less damning of “New South” complacency than Woodward’s theme. Much of what he wrote was painfully valid and memorably presented, but it had a deep flaw. Without heroes, without a sense of future possibility, without appreciation of change, Cash had fashioned a vision of a social ethic so monolithic in character that it seemed to allow only for estrangement or cynicism. It explained the southern suspicion of intellectuality, apathy about education, fear of outsiders and labor unions, reliance on family, mistrust of government and taxation, chest-thumping masculinity, and traditions of personal and mob violence, including such matters as the ritual killing of Leo Frank. But Cash’s vision could not lead to action. Nor could he confer upon southern history the dignity that Woodward gave it. Those who favor him, Woodward says in effect, run that risk as well. Just as Cash ignored the dissent and dissonance that Woodward revealed, he also failed to create a usable past, just when the South was about to depart from well-trodden paths. Woodward’s account of W.J. Cash here is partly a meditation on the temptations of historical despair.
Thinking Back seems to me Woodward’s most felicitous book. It matches the vitality, grace, and wisdom he has brought to the rest of his writing. It should be widely read not only because the journey through the sequence of the author’s works is so rewarding but also because it is itself a new genre with a lightness and profundity all its own. Yet, it is altogether too brief. One would welcome a sequel in the form of a genuine autobiography, a detached yet personal commentary on the intellectual movements of his time. Woodward, however, closes Thinking Back with the common-law phrase: “Further, deponent sayeth not.” Perhaps that dismissal only applies to the work at hand and is not a statement of finality. One hopes so. He has yet much to tell Americans about their past and present.