Worth Reading:
The Letters of C. Vann Woodward

The Letters of C. Vann Woodward. Edited by Michael O’BrienThe Letters of C. Vann Woodward. Edited by Michael O’Brien. Yale University Press, 480 pp., $40.

C. Vann Woodward has cast a long shadow over the American historical profession for the last 75 years. His path breaking biography Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel, first appeared in 1938, the first of Woodward’s 15 books and numerous essays and reviews that transformed the way we understand the American South in the years following the Civil War.

Woodward was born in Arkansas in 1908 and graduated from Emory and  Columbia before receiving his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. He taught for many years at Johns Hopkins and Yale, where he was Sterling Professor Emeritus until his death in 1999.

I had the pleasure of spending some time with Woodward on a cool early January day in 1998, a year before his death at the age of 91. I had just completed my Ph.D. at the University of Florida, and Woodward was on campus to speak and to visit with Bertram Wyatt-Brown, one of his most distinguished former students. Wyatt-Brown was my advisor and mentor at UF, the author of Southern Honor, and himself a giant in the profession. Among all the students who showed up for the private lunch that day with Woodward, I was the only one who brought copies of some of his books for him to autograph. I’m looking at them now on a shelf here in my office.

Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History

Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History

They were all path breaking works—Origins of the New South, 1877-1913; The Burden of Southern History; The Strange Career of Jim Crow; Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction; Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History; American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North/South Dialogue; and the aforementioned Tom Watson. In person, he was quiet and unassuming, soft spoken, and delighted to be asked to autograph them. He inscribed each of them differently, personalizing them all, bemused at some titles he hadn’t seen in years.

All of this was recently brought to mind when a new book from Yale University Press landed on my desk, The Letters of C. Vann Woodward, edited by Michael O’Brien. It’s a wonderful collection of letters written to and from Woodward, and they offer a rare glimpse into the mind and thoughts of one of our most influential and gifted historians.

Besides the influence of his own published scholarship, he mentored some of the leading scholars in America, including Wyatt-Brown, Civil War scholar James McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom), Willie Lee Rose (Rehearsal for Reconstruction), Louis Harlan (Booker T. Washington), and William McFeely, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass. McFeely was my mentor for a Master’s degree in history at the University of Georgia, so I was thus fortunate enough to be trained by not one but two of Woodward’s best students.

Wyatt-Brown and McFeely were each, in their own ways, heirs to the Woodward tradition—warmly generous with their time, loyal to their students, and unfailingly polite but professionally critical with anything you wrote for them or asked them to review. Woodward was all of these things as well, as these letters make clear, and he was justly proud of his students’ accomplishments while being self-deprecating about his own. His 1982 edited volume of Mary Chesnutt’s Civil War won for him a long-overdue Pulitzer Prize. Three of his own students—McPherson, McFeely, and Harlan—won that prestigious award as well, while others, including Wyatt-Brown, were nominated for it.

Michael O’Brien’s introduction is a good guide through the letters, but their worth is not in explaining the importance of Woodward’s historical writing and its impact on our thinking. One can look elsewhere to find that. The treasures here are different, though just as rewarding; they are more revealing of the temperament, character, and the evolution of the thinking of a man whose work influenced so many others.

Woodward’s published letters cover every phase of his career. They’re all worth reading, but even casually dipping into them reveals a deep humanity that most scholars sorely lack. He asks John Hope Franklin, the most prominent African-American historian of that day or this, if he’s thought about where he will stay at a conference in segregated Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1949; describes to Virginia Foster Durr the pain of losing his only child to cancer in 1969: “The ordeal was mercifully short but all the more poignant and bitter. The most haunting and unbearable part was . . the knowledge that it was the last of it all”; and rejoices to Wyatt-Brown in 1995 that after a non-malignant diagnosis of a colon polyp, “I leaped out of the bed, kissed the nurse, thanked the doctor and emerged in a world more beautiful than I remember it being before.”

The stoic academic that so many of us awe-struck students saw at professional conferences, that stares back at us from nearly all of his photographs, the man who weathered the devastating loss of both of his wife and son, is nowhere to be seen here. Here was Woodward in his 87th year, happy to be alive. Historians have long known Woodward the scholar, but this is a side of him that few ever saw.

In writing to a distant cousin, a college student whom he had never met, Woodward told of the tragic loss of his son Peter, and asked “Are you a hippie with granny glasses or a square with horn-rimmed? Revolutionist or jock, it doesn’t matter. The cousinship is the thing, and you must still have something of the southerner in you or you wouldn’t ever have bothered to write.”

And there it is. For all of us who struggle to understand the history of the American South and its connection to the world we live in now, C. Vann Woodward will always be a welcome companion who labored mightily to light up the dark spaces of our past, and whose published letters now reveal the true depth of this remarkable southern gentle man. For all of us who love history, he remains a kindred spirit. The cousinship is indeed the thing.

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The Letters of C. Vann Woodward

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