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.”

The supreme irony of the profession’s greatest ironist is that Woodward, the central figure in desegregating the field of southern history and in making race, slave emancipation, and Reconstruction major issues of national history, is at heart an idiomatic but unreconstructed southern Rebel. Like a small number of fellow Confederates, past and present, he is a radical who has no apologies or rationalizations for slavery, debt peonage, Jim Crow, or racial inequality. In a 1987 lecture, “Southerners Versus the Southern Establishment,” one of the most recent pieces in The Future of the Past, he dismisses traditional southern liberalism with its tolerance of “separate but equal” doctrines as “conservatism under another name” and clearly directs his own sympathies to the causes of black and white southern “subversives” ranging from Thomas Jefferson to George Fitzhugh, John Rankin, Moncure Conway, the Grimké sisters, George W. Cable, Mary McLeod Bethune, and the aristocratic Confederate veteran Lewis H. Blair, who in 1889 published “an uncompromising attack on racial segregation, discrimination, and injustice of all kinds, and a demand for full civil and political rights for the Negro, especially voting rights, which were ‘as absolutely essential for freedom as is the atmosphere for life.’ ”

Though he has always been unyielding on the issue of racial equality, Woodward shares his ancestors’ distaste for northern abolitionists, with their “Roundhead earnestness” and uncritical worship of fanatics like John Brown. He has the deepest contempt for Reconstructionists like Edward Philbrick, depicted by one of Woodward’s most brilliant students as “a brisk young engineer from Boston” who insisted that land grants would corrupt the freedmen while he himself increased his own fortune toward the end of the Civil War by buying South Carolina land for one dollar an acre, and then paying black laborers twenty-five cents a day to produce cotton and thereby prove that “free labor” could be profitable.6

An expert fencer, Woodward partly disguises his most lethal thrusts by agility and grace. To be sure, only the most obtuse reader could miss the blood he has drawn from the southern “Bourbons” or “Redeemers,” who promoted Yankee values and institutions while advertising themselves as preservers of the Confederate lost cause. Closer concentration is required, however, when in his essay “The Future of Southern History” he offers a brief historiographical parody of emancipation and Reconstruction, picturing the traditionally maligned South (or southern intellectuals) as the slave, “crippled by generations of bondage,” perhaps not prepared for freedom and equality. At this moment a group of dubious allies, the cliometricians of the early 1970s, come to the rescue by vindicating the pre-Civil War economy and throwing the neo-abolitionists on the defensive. Similar layers of irony unfold in a previously unpublished essay, “Reconstruction: A Counterfactual Playback,” a response to the conventional leftist wisdom that “Radical” Reconstruction was not radical enough. Woodward notes that “it is becoming a bit tiresome (and it is entirely unnecessary) to be flanked on the left in speculative audacity. Armchair bloodbaths can be conducted with impunity by anyone, even a professor emeritus.” Following out the lines of this logic, he considers the probable consequences of a Cromwellian or Stalinist policy of liquidating all white southern resistance “down to the last unregenerate lord of the lash and the last bed-sheeted Ku Kluxer”:

Let no true revolutionary blanch at the implications. Remember that we must be cruel in order to be kind, that we are the social engineers of the future, that we are forestalling future bloodbaths, race riots, and relieving our Northern metropolitan friends of problems that trouble their thoughts and for a time threatened to destroy their cities. If our work is bloody our conscience is clear, and we do all that we do—compassionately.

Having ” ‘controlled the variable’ (as the quantifiers say) of Confederate slave owners’ resistance in the South,” Woodward turns in the same essay of comparison to the way Union army officers, reformers, missionaries, and educators treated Indians in the West, unencumbered “by die-hard Confederate reactionaries, former owners and masters of the red people,” concluding that the deception, degradation, exploitation, and segregation of the western Indians, during the very period of Reconstruction, suggests what northerners would have done to blacks even in a South purged of Confederate evil.

This is not to say that Woodward has cynically rejected belief in historical progress; he simply rebels against the claim that any group or region is blessed with collective innocence or cursed with collective guilt. As a sensitive native of H.L. Mencken’s “Sahara of the Bozart,” Woodward grew up in an era when it became increasingly fashionable for northern historians to portray the South as the nation’s seedbed of bigotry, mobism, fundamentalism, and prohibition. “Whatever appeared retrograde in national history,” Woodward told an audience at Vanderbilt University in the mid-1970s, “whether among the Founding Fathers, the Jacksonians, the Populists, the Bryanites, or the Progressives, was somehow attributable to Southern votes or influence.”

As a southern exile who has long lived among the Yankees and who has experienced how it feels to be mugged on a New Haven street, Woodward became uncharacteristically bitter when he exposed northern hypocrisy to a southern audience:

To explain or account for any and all of the ills that beset the black people in the Northern ghettos—deterioration of the black family, desertion of black fathers, mounting welfare rolls, soaring crime rates, increasing drug addiction, multiplying dropouts, and declining school performance—the answer was always the same: “Look away! look away! look away! Dixie land!” It was all due to evils of long ago and far away—slavery, racism, peonage, or whatnot, way down South in the land of cotton—which, of course, could not possibly be remedied by further strains on the city budget of Boston or New York, and which could not in any reasonable way be attributed to the shortcomings of the free enterprise system and the deterioration of industrial capitalism.

Consider the way the above passage arouses expectations of racial blame and then shifts abruptly to a neo-Beardian attack on the whole system and ideology that triumphed in what Charles and Mary Beard called “the Second American Revolution,” namely the Civil War. Woodward, almost as if he himself were a victim of Sherman’s march through Georgia, has at times expressed a certain quiet glee at the spectacle of moralistic and “antiracist” northerners fleeing to escape cities and public schools that become filled with southern immigrants of a different color. Unlike the many Marxist scholars he has encouraged, disagreed with, and trained, Woodward has shown no more faith in panaceas or optimistic visions than in “the national myths of affluence, innocence, and invincibility”—“the normal enthusiasm,” as he puts it, “for such perennial historical themes as progress in urbanization and industrialization, technological advance, the westward movement, immigration, ethnic voting, social mobility, and the rise of the middle class.”

The subversiveness of this unreconstructed Rebel has largely been concealed by Woodward’s southern courtesy and judicial bearing, to say nothing of his richly deserved but somewhat astonishing worldly success. Throughout his career he has won the nation’s most prestigious prizes and awards, countless honorary degrees, and such distinctions as the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (1978) and the inauguration, this past February, of a lecture series sponsored by the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press. He has been elected president of the three major historical associations in the United States, an honor now shared by one of his former students, Louis Harlan, who along with a number of other of Woodward’s students has also won a Pulitzer prize.

No other American historian, it seems safe to say, has ever trained a group of such loyal and distinguished Ph.D.s.7 Male and female, black and white, Woodward’s students have written much of the best work on nineteenth and early twentieth-century southern history and race relations. While they are by no means members of a doctrinaire or even identifiable “school,” their dominance of the field has no doubt shielded their teacher from some of the challenging criticism he has always called for but seldom received. It would be a serious distortion if this emphasis on unbroken public success were not qualified by one somber note. The Future of the Past ends, appropriately, with memorial tributes to Richard Hofstadter and David Potter, two of Woodward’s most revered friends, who were cut off in the prime of their careers. As a man all too familiar with private tragedy, Woodward could easily have expanded his concluding obituaries and expressions of grief. When he records in an essay on Francis Parkman that the great historian lost his only son and then his wife, Woodward does not tell the reader that he has shared the same fate himself.

Woodward’s two previous books of collected essays, The Burden of Southern History8 and American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue dealt almost exclusively with the issues of southern history, race, and the legacy of slave emancipation.9 The Future of the Past breaks from this tradition and reminds us that for the past thirty years Woodward has been much more than a regional historian or a historian limited by any “field” or even national boundary. If Woodward has avoided technical debates over method and philosophies of history, he has thought deeply about similarities and differences, continuities and innovations, and the links between literature (especially the work of Faulkner and his intimate friend, the late Robert Penn Warren) and the social sciences. He has been influenced by Marc Bloch and David Lowenthal, but he also knows how much Elvis Presley owed to W.C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton, and Leadbelly.10

In graduate schools today there is a tendency to assign and discuss only the more recent historical literature, in part because the sheer volume of publications soon obscures the memory of earlier work. Woodward’s own insistence on the constant need for “reinterpretation” would seem to validate this trend. His willingness to republish addresses he gave two or three decades ago can therefore be taken as a test of “the future of the past” in a quite different sense—an illustration of the presumed obsolescence of a voice speaking to us from the era of Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon. Strangely enough, several of Woodward’s older pieces have acquired new force and significance as a result of the global changes of the past year.

In “The Age of Reinterpretation,” for example, an essay published in 1960 at the height of the cold war, Woodward deliberately downplayed the long-term significance of “the ideological war between the communist and the non-communist worlds.” He mentions the topic at the end of his reassessment of fundamental changes in the modern world, and then only briefly. Looking at the United States from a comparative perspective, in a conscious effort to avoid narrow vision, he was much more impressed by the long age of “free security” that the nation had enjoyed until World War II, a security from enemy attack or invasion which had exempted young men from military training and discipline and which had lowered military expenditures to a small fraction of those of other nations. Thanks in part to the British navy, American military spending after 1815 seldom rose to as much as one percent of the gross national product. “In the decade preceding Pearl Harbor,” Woodward pointed out, “the percentage of federal expenditures devoted to military purposes fell lower than ever before in our history.”

Taking a cue from Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous theory of the frontier, Woodward raises fascinating questions about the effects of “free and easy security” on both social and economic behavior, on the pervasive spirit of optimism, and on “the national myth that America is an innocent nation in a wicked world.” Is it possible, Woodward asks, that this unique security allowed Americans to indulge in “the doubtful luxury of a full-scale civil war of four years without incurring the evils of foreign intervention and occupation”? Did the same immunity account for the Americans’ “peculiar national attitudes toward power,” enabling them to separate, check, and divide power, or entrust it to unregulated private business?

David Potter thought that this essay was “widely regarded as [Woodward’s] most significant single piece of work and as one of the major contributions to the interpretation of American history.”11 Yet few historians have explored the implications of Woodward’s discussion of free security, military expenditures, the anachronism of mass warfare in a nuclear age, or even his final theme regarding the end of a “Europocentric view” of world history. In some ways, the essay seems more daring and brilliant today than it did thirty years ago, since we are now better prepared to understand the linkages between drastic cuts in military spending and the compelling need to avoid the dangers of nuclear war and to see the world in less parochial, anachronistic ways. Much the same can be said of his pleas for comparative history, especially his forays into the comparative study of slave emancipations and periods of reconstruction, which, unfortunately, he never felt able to expand.

During the next decade an entire generation of post-World War II historians will be replaced. Although their successors will have no direct memories of mules, chain gangs, legal segregation, the struggle for civil rights, or even the Vietnam War, they may well be freed from the poisonous influences of the cold war era and may perceive a much clearer panorama of the previous century, much as one catches a fuller view of entire mountain ranges as a train leaves the foothills and begins to speed away across the plain. As Woodward continues to emphasize, history is never more needed than in such moments of apparent liberation from the past. For it is in moments of kairos, of abrupt discontinuity, that anachronisms become especially perilous—and “anachronisms are pre-eminently the business of historians.”

Long after Woodward’s specific “theses” have been revised or forgotten, one wishes that the following statement from him could be as frequently framed and displayed as the Hippocratic oath:

The historian is peculiarly fitted also to serve as mediator between man’s limitations and his aspirations, between his dreams of what ought to be and the limits of what, in the light of what has been, can be. There is no other branch of learning better qualified to mediate between man’s daydream of the future and his nightmare of the past, or, for that matter, between his nightmare of the future and his daydream of the past. So long as man remains recognizably human, he will remain a creature with both a past and a future. A creature so long described as earthbound and so newly transcending those bounds, so giddy over his spectacular innovations, so guilt-ridden about his past, and so anxiety-ridden about the present and the future is not a creature who can safely turn away from history.

This Issue

May 17, 1990