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The Rebel

The Future of the Past

by C. Vann Woodward
Oxford University Press, 370 pp., $24.95

Historians sometimes forget that history is continually being made and experienced before it is studied, interpreted, and read. The latter activities have their own history, of course, which may impinge in unexpected ways on public events. It is difficult to predict when new pasts will erupt through the surface of established understandings and change the landscape of the future.

In the fall of 1954, for example, C. Vann Woodward delivered a lecture series at the University of Virginia that challenged the prevailing dogma concerning the history, continuity, and uniformity of racial segregation in the South. He argued that the Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, far from codifying traditional practice, were a determined effort to wipe out the considerable progress made by blacks during and after Reconstruction. This revisionist view of the history of Jim Crow legislation grew in part from the research that Woodward and John Hope Franklin had done for Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP legal campaign during their preparation for Brown v. Board of Education. A few months before Woodward lectured at Charlottesville to a nonsegregated audience the Supreme Court had issued its ruling in this epochal desegregation case.

The lectures were soon published as a book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Ten years later, in a preface to the second revised edition, Woodward confessed with ironic modesty that the first edition “had begun to suffer under some of the handicaps that might be expected in a history of the American Revolution published in 1776.” That was a bit like hearing Thomas Paine apologize for the timing of his pamphlet Common Sense, which had a comparable impact. Although Common Sense also had a mass readership, Paine had intended to reach and inspire: he was not a historian concerned with accuracy, and with the danger of historical anachronism. Yet, like Paine, Woodward had an unerring sense of the revolutionary moment, and of the way historical evidence could undermine a mythological tradition that was crushing the dreams of new social possibilities. It was for this reason that Martin Luther King, Jr., hailed The Strange Career of Jim Crow as “the Bible of the civil rights movement.”1

As Woodward conceives the “craft” or “guild” of professional historians, terms that recur throughout his new collection of twenty-two essays and reviews, its apprentices must continually be admonished to address and hold the interest of the laity, to resist the pressures of most academic disciplines in which specialists speak in increasingly esoteric jargon only to other specialists. This public mission, which Woodward sharply distinguishes from popularization or demagoguery, has acquired special urgency from the accelerating pace of change during his own eighty-one years of life, which have witnessed such profound global transformations.

Every generation, as Woodward remarks, “has a unique experience of history.” But for young people in the early 1990s, the pre-atomic, precomputer, pretelevision age is almost inconceivable, whereas for youthful southerners of Woodward’s generation, the Civil War and its consequences were still a living, and omnipresent, past. Woodward himself remembers not only the First World War as seen from the small Arkansas village in which he grew up but the look and feel of rural Arkansas in the age of mules, sharecroppers, and chain gangs, long before the advent of paved roads, rural electrification, plumbing, or tractors. During the fifty-two years in which Woodward has continued to publish books, lectures, essays, and reviews, including many notable and recent pieces in this journal, he has carried memories of visiting the Soviet Union in 1927, after crossing the Atlantic as a seaman on a Dutch freighter; of confronting Atlanta and the urban boosterism of the New South in the late 1920s; of witnessing clashes in 1932 between Nazis and Communists while he was living with a Jewish family in Berlin; of becoming chairman in Atlanta of the Angelo Herndon Defense Committee, working to prevent the execution of a young black Communist who had been charged with “insurrection,” under an antiquated statute, for speaking out against the southern system of racial control.

I’ve been an academic all my life,” Woodward is quoted as saying in an interview, “and never knew any other life except four years in the navy.”2 This self-effacing, hyperbolic statement apparently refers to his good fortune, as the bookish son of a school administrator, in having an academic uncle and other intellectual mentors who provided models while also encouraging his questioning spirit and desire for knowledge. But Woodward got a personal taste of the Great Depression when, as a result of budgetary cuts, he was fired in 1934 from Georgia Tech, where he had been teaching English, and had been admonished for his defense of Herndon’s freedom of speech: it was then he encountered ghastly rural destitution in central Georgia as an interviewer for a WPA sociological survey. Earlier, his friendship with the poet, actor, and essayist J. Saunders Redding, “the first black man,” Woodward has written, “with whom I ever broke bread and exchanged views as an equal,” prepared him to win the trust of Langston Hughes and other blacks in New York who introduced him to the Harlem Renaissance and allowed him to perform in a play with a Harlem theatrical group.

Woodward was in the Soviet Union, on a second trip to Europe in 1932, when he experienced firsthand the international outrage over the sham trial and conviction for rape of the teen-age Scottsboro boys. Over a decade later, when serving in India as a US naval officer, Woodward sought an audience with Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the great leader of India’s untouchables, who politely interrogated the white southerner about the condition of the black “untouchables” of the United States.3

Few, if any, American historians have achieved Woodward’s imaginative ability to view the South, or the United States, from the other side of the globe; to see whites from a nonwhite perspective; to get to the soul and inner tensions of Tom Watson or Mary Chesnut; and above all, to recapture the contingent quality of events that then come to be seen as sacrosanct or foreordained, or are mythologized as evidence of superior heroism or virtue. Woodward clearly deepened his understanding of human error, of human blunder, ambition, luck, and irony, when he worked for the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Naval Office of Public Information, writing restricted and anonymous studies of World War II battles—Kolombangara and Vella Lavella and The Bougainville Landing and the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay.4

These themes of contingency and fallibility added power and suspense to his masterful book The Battle for Leyte Gulf, “the largest engagement ever fought on the high seas,” which was actually composed of four interrelated battles, “separated by as much as 500 miles,” yet “fought between dawn of one day and dusk of the next” as the Americans sank thirty-two Japanese ships and finally defeated Japan’s “supreme naval effort of the war.” As Woodward makes clear, however, in the battle’s closing phase the American “pursuer had now become the pursued, the decoy the aggressor, and though they did not make the assumption, it was the Japanese and not the Americans who had the superior gun power in the end.” Is there a subliminal question here, one wonders when rereading this book, whether the South could have won the Civil War?5

At various times Woodward has suggested that his taste for irony and indeterminism, like his lifelong campaign against complacency, self-congratulation, and self-righteousness, arises from his southern identity—from a legacy that includes devastating military defeat and occupation, the imposition of alien values and folkways, and the downfall and perversion of a second “lost cause,” Tom Watson’s anticapitalist Populism of the 1890s. This mood of chastened rebellion lies near the surface of the great books that initially made Woodward’s reputation: Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938); Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (1951); and Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction (1951).

Like his close friend Richard Hofstadter, Woodward was fortunate in being an exceptionally clear writer whose original work appeared at the very threshold of the great expansion of historical studies that accompanied the unprecedented growth of liberal arts colleges and universities after World War II. In his 1969 presidential address to the American Historical Association, reprinted in the volume under review, Woodward noted that the association’s membership had more than tripled in the previous twelve years; that between 1953 and 1969, among all graduate and undergraduate degrees granted, history’s percentage had nearly doubled; and that “the total number of history titles published in the United States in 1968 was three times the total for 1950.” Although Woodward warned that all booms come to an end and predicted the dramatic decline in history degrees that actually began after the peak academic year of 1970-1971, this plunge did not seem to affect his own national stature or the quality of his graduate students at Yale, one of the few institutions in which the number of undergraduates who take history as their major subject continued during the 1970s and 1980s to exceed by far the number of students majoring in any other subject.

Never an animated or expressive public speaker, Woodward delivered his 1969 American Historical Association address to an impatient and seething throng of sixteen hundred academicians who were preparing to struggle over resolutions on Vietnam and black rights at the business meeting that was to follow. Under such circumstances, it is doubtful whether many listeners reflected on Woodward’s witty prediction that “the current vogue of combining Cavalier hairstyles with Roundhead earnestness may well revert once more to tonsorial roundheadedness and attitudinal cavalierness”; or heeded his warning that “a fatal betrayal of the craft would be to permit the profession of history to become inextricably entangled with the future of the past, the purposeful past of the rationalizers, the justifiers, and the propagandists.”

As a maverick, Woodward had always repudiated two of the leading characteristics of much postwar historical work: the “nostalgic affection for the American past, reconciliation with the present, and optimism about the future,” that could be found in the works of such historians as Samuel Eliot Morison, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., and Dexter Perkins; and the newer emphasis on “consensus rather than conflict…stability and homogeneity rather than change and contrast,” an outlook popularized especially by Louis Hartz and Richard Hofstadter. As a critic of conservatism and self-satisfaction, Woodward was unavoidably “entangled with the future of the past.” In 1969 he was even more disturbed by the “anti-history animus” that increasingly pervaded the arts and humanities, and that descended by various paths from Emerson, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Gide, Camus, and Sartre (he didn’t mention Heidegger or the budding Deconstructionists). Each “Now Generation,” Woodward implied, would become enslaved to false history precisely because they refused to consider what one of William Faulkner’s characters meant when he said, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”

  1. 1

    C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (Oxford University Press, 1966), p. v; John Herbert Roper, C. Vann Woodward, Southerner (University of Georgia Press, 1987), p. 198. Woodward himself, who renders the King quote as “historical Bible,” notes that sales of the book in hard cover were “unexceptional…for a couple of years,” and recalls that as “a member of the great throng of Selma marchers who listened to Martin King’s eloquent speech in front of the Alabama state capitol, I heard him read and endorse passages from the book as support for his crusade. I say my feelings were ‘mixed’ only because I knew perfectly well what those Montgomery white people who silently lined the streets were thinking and saying about a certain Yale professor of Southern origins being quoted by Martin King in those circumstances.” Woodward credits the remarkable use and misuse of passages from his book, “in editorials, articles, congressional debates, even judicial opinions,” to the South’s violent defiance in the late 1950s and to “the great Civil Rights movement” that arose from the Montgomery bus boycott and the black sit-in demonstrations in Greensboro, North Carolina (C. Vann Woodward, Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History (Louisiana State University Press, 1986), pp. 90–93.

  2. 2

    Roper, C. Vann Woodward, p. 20.

  3. 3

    Woodward, Thinking Back, pp. 85, 87–88; Roper, C. Vann Woodward, p. 54.

  4. 4

    Roper, C. Vann Woodward, pp. 130–131.

  5. 5

    C. Vann Woodward, The Battle for Leyte Gulf (Norton, 1965, originally published by Macmillan, 1947), pp. 1, 4, 161–162. My question draws some force from Woodward’s review of Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, and William N. Still, Jr., Why the South Lost the Civil War, in The New York Review of Books, July 17, 1986, pp. 3–6, and from his description, in The Future of the Past, of “the first historical problem I confronted as a boy…. If Marse Robert was all that noble and intrepid, if Stonewall was all that indomitable and fast on his feet, if Jeb Stuart was all that gallant and dashing, and if God was on our side, then why the hell did we lose that war?”

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