Famed liberal historian C. Vann Woodward shows little patience with political correctness

CorrespondentNovember 2, 2013 

  • More information

    Nonfiction The Letters of C. Vann Woodward Edited by Michael O’Brien

    Yale University Press, 428 pages

General readers know the liberal scholar C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999) as one of the nation’s foremost Southern historians.

For decades professors assigned Woodward’s “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” (1955) to their college U.S. history courses. It sold a million copies and, according to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., was “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement.”

Following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Woodward argued that legal segregation was not the “natural” relationship between the races. Rather, segregation laws came to pass later than most historians had assumed – more than a decade after Southern Republican governments fell in the 1870s. If statutes could legalize Jim Crow in the late 19th century, Woodward reasoned, then statutes could overturn it in the mid-20th century.

In his well-annotated release of “The Letters of C. Vann Woodward,” Cambridge University’s Michael O’Brien edits almost 300 of Woodward’s letters, 1926-1999. During his long career Woodward ranked as the leading historian of the post-Civil War South.

An Arkansan, he earned his doctorate in history at the University of North Carolina in 1937. Woodward trained numerous influential Ph.D. students at Johns Hopkins and Yale Universities. He received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes, for such works as “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel” (1938), “Origins of the New South” (1951), “Reunion and Reaction” (1951), and “The Burden of Southern History” (1960).

Though O’Brien’s edition includes less than 2 percent of Woodward’s private correspondence, the letters nonetheless underscore his appreciation for the passion and pathos of Southern history. The correspondence also unearths Woodward’s propensity for deep introspection, self-effacing humor and, most commonly, incisive criticism and irony.

For example, writing in 1972 to O’Brien, then a student, Woodward described himself as “a Liberal Conservative Populist Marxist!” adding, “Actually I am trying to shun all labels. But critics will use them, and I suppose they have to.”

In 1935, while studying at Chapel Hill, Woodward wrote Antonina Jones Hansell, an older divorcée and his former lover. “Please try to avoid that gone-but-not-forgotten tone,” Woodward lectured Hansell, “unless you really feel that way about me. I find that, if any thing, you become more instead of less important to me, and I protest against becoming a memory, however roseate.”

The graduate student next explained to Hansell that reading Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River” (1935) reminded him of “how I felt about you, what all the nights meant.”

“Of course I am perverse and rebellious,” he added. “God, how I wish I could see you. For one thing, when I got around to it, I would make you respect a first class rebellion when you saw one.”

Never withholding his opinions on matters pertaining to race or “political correctness,” in 1991 Woodward complimented historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. for writing about what Woodward termed “the Afro-centric nonsense.” He observed, “As Anglocentric nonsense diminishes or yields to criticism, the black variety expands and gains immunity from criticism. It is difficult to get white academics, end even more black ones, to speak out.”

Woodward also advised Schlesinger to add a chapter in his book on what he termed “Gendercentric nonsense and Homophobic nonsense.” “University curricula are already disgracefully cluttered with such stuff.”

Several years later Woodward explained to another historian why during his career he had focused on “politics and economics and the seats of power and oppression and their many victims.” He confessed that “irony could not have concealed” his “underlying indignation and anger. I could not have written different history in that time.”

“And frankly,” Woodward added, “I am glad that I did not try.”

John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC Charlotte. His recent books include “Race and Recruitment: Civil War History Readers, Volume 2” and (with J. Vincent Lowery), “The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction.”

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