C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian
By James C. Cobb. 
University of North Carolina Press, 2022.
Hardcover, 504 pages, $37.50.

Reviewed by John C. Chalberg.

Should C. Vann Woodward be regarded as America’s historian? Given his career and this biography, a more accurate subtitle might have been “southern historian as American historian.” Or perhaps simply the addition of a question mark, as in “America’s historian?”

In all likelihood, biographer James Cobb of the University of Georgia signed off on the subtitle as is, but the story he tells leaves a few doubts and raises a few questions. For that matter, it seems quite likely that the C. Vann Woodward of these pages might well have spurned such a lofty title in favor of something a bit less grand, as in simply “American historian.”

After all, early on he did not see himself as an historian at all. If anything, in college and graduate school he thought of himself as a literary man, first and last. Besides, over the course of his career he was never greatly interested in the full sweep of American history. Two generations removed from Charles Beard (his graduate school adviser, Howard Beale, had studied under Beard), he had no pretensions to be another wide-ranging Beardian or a Daniel Boorstin or even a David McCullough, who tackled a number of very different, but very American, subjects.

Cobb tells us that a fellow graduate student remembered Woodward as being “totally uninterested in history except for the post-Civil War South.” In addition, the same graduate student emphasized that, when it came to actually doing history, Woodward was an “idea man” and never a “nuts and bolts man.”

While both lines ring true, given Cobb’s word portrait of his subject, the source and speaker of them remain somewhat mysterious. Cobb does name the speaker, but his practice throughout the book is to deploy a single footnote at the conclusion of many a paragraph. In this case the lone footnote cites a letter that a twenty-five year old Woodward had written to a friend in 1934. Neither of the above lines is attributed to Woodward or to the recipient of the letter. Was Woodward quoting the graduate student? If not, what is the source for the quote? We don’t know.

Perhaps the best explanation is that Cobb is a cross between an idea and a nuts and bolts historian. And yet, in many ways this is clearly a highly detailed, nuts and bolts book on the academic career of one of the most important American historians of the mid-to-latter twentieth century. (Woodward migrated from Johns Hopkins to Yale in 1962 and officially retired in 1977, although he continued to write reviews and essays until his death in 1999.)

Something less than an inspired or diligent graduate student in American history, Woodward’s overriding passion as an Emory University student had been literature. Still, he possessed few fond memories of his undergraduate years, especially the “depressing effect (that) the place had on me, particularly the cloying politeness and vacuous gentility.”

Graduate school at the University of North Carolina was little better. There he pursued his “cursed degree” with much indifference, coupled with little to no intention of ever putting it to use.

Given his singular interest in the post-Civil War South and his left-leaning depression-era politics, Woodward wrote his dissertation on Georgia populist Tom Watson. An able wordsmith, Woodward had hopes—even then—of being able to carve out a career as a writer of some sort. This time Cobb references unnamed classmates who thought that he might have a shot at becoming another Mark Twain, or at least a southern Mark Twain, if somehow he could only manage to apply himself.

But applying himself to the task at hand was not Woodward’s strength as a graduate student. In fact, by his own account he had come as close as was “humanly possible” to failing his doctoral oral exam. Whether before or after that particular experience—or both—Woodward also experienced bouts of the grad school blues. Bouts which found him speculating on the possibilities of one day having to survive by pan-handling, fruit peddling, or hack writing.

The first test of his chances of establishing himself as something other than a writing hack were the sales of his published dissertation on Watson. When they proved to be disappointing he finally resigned himself to a slightly more dignified form of peddling. Doctorate in hand, he would teach. 

But teaching was never his strong suit or his real interest. A loner and a mumbler, the classroom was always alien, if not exactly enemy, territory. In any case, his goal was always to do what he could to assure that his time spent there was kept to the minimum.

Nonetheless, an academic appointment would pay the bills that writing did not, so the classroom it would be—so long as he was left with ample time to write and shine.

According to Cobb, Woodward’s preference for literature over history dominated his early writing career and had its continuing impact on the rest of it. At a minimum, Woodward concluded at the time that his work on Watson had affirmed for him the “sheer inadequacy of biography v fiction.”

The Watson biography was certainly not a fictionalized account of the chaotic, larger-than-life life of the Georgia populist. But the result was history with a Woodwardized point of view, which is to say a biography written by an “idea man” and not a “nuts and bolts man.”

The idea that animated the Watson biography was that not just Watson himself, but the entire populist movement, was a story of “tough-minded realism.” As such, southern populists were superior to both the southern agrarians of the 1930s and their irrational attachment to the “never-never land of the past” and to the redeemers/boosters of the post-Reconstruction era and their misplaced dreams of a “never-never land of the future.”

In Woodward’s estimation, both the “pessimistic romanticism” of the agrarians and the “optimistic romanticism” of the boosters were at best mistaken and at worst both damaging and dead wrong.

Woodward’s next major project was to be a history of the New South of the late nineteenth century. Recruited to participate in a multi-volume history of the South, Woodward jumped at the chance to have his “say about the period.” Years in the making, the volume would not be published until 1951. Interfering along the way were not just those pesky classroom appearances, but a book on the Compromise of 1877. Titled Reunion and Reaction, Woodward took to task what he regarded as the twin evils of southern white racism and “rapacious” northern capitalism, both of which played key roles in putting to rest anything that remained of the idealism of the Civil War and Reconstruction itself.

As for his “say” on the aftermath of Reconstruction, Woodward concentrated his fire on those redeemers/boosters who had sold out to those “rapacious” northern capitalists, thereby shackling the states of the old Confederacy with what amounted to colonial bondage. Worse than that, Woodward judged, the “new evil” of the crop lien system may well have “worked more permanent injury” on southern blacks than had slavery itself.

As the American century eased past its mid-point, Woodward found himself simultaneously contending with an ongoing historical problem and an immediate political matter. Historically speaking, he thought too many southern historians had for too long been too intent on “hissing the heroes” (namely his favored southern populists) and “applauding the villains” (namely those misguided boosters who praised themselves as redeemers).

His solution was to write the book that would put him well on his way to one day qualifying, or at least being thought of, as America’s historian. The Strange Career of Jim Crow accomplished a good deal in a few pages. A staple of college required reading lists for decades, this slim volume drove yet another nail into the Woodward-designed coffin set aside for those unredeemable redeemers. It was also offered as his contribution to the budding national debate over school desegregation. As an added bonus, the book not only sold very, very well, but helped pave the way for Woodward’s journey further northward, meaning from Johns Hopkins to Yale.

But as biographer Cole oh, so gently points out, the book was one more piece of confirming evidence that C. Vann Woodward, the “idea man,” had yet again trumped any C. Vann Woodward, who might have had pretensions of becoming a “nuts and bolts man.” 

With the Brown decision rendered, Woodward sought to do his part to help assure the speediest possible end to segregated schools in the south. His contribution was to make a case that the career of Jim Crow was really not all that strange. In fact, it was a fairly recent invention, courtesy of those same villainous redeemers. And because it was fairly new, it could be fairly easily dismantled. Or so Woodward contended.

Here Cobb gently, but insistently, dissents: The roots of Jim Crow thinking went much deeper than the actual Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth century. In the process, Cobb also brings to bear various state histories that challenged both Woodward’s thesis and his optimism.

If C. Vann Woodward was disappointed, perhaps even stunned, by the depth and intensity of white resistance to integration in the late 1950s, he would soon be disappointed—and perhaps even stunned—by the separatist sentiments and actions of young blacks in the late 1960s and beyond.

The second disappointment leads Cobb to chronicle Woodward’s gradual political shift rightward during and after the tumultuous sixties. That shift was largely, but not entirely prompted by his opposition to the black power movement and affirmative action.

Once again Cobb’s treatment is, well, gentle, meaning gentle praise for Woodward’s efforts to desegregate the Southern Historical Association (from which W. E. B. Du Bois puckishly noted blacks had long been “cordially invited to be absent”)—and his equally gentle understanding of Woodward’s efforts to prevent leftist historians from taking control of the American Historical Association in the late 1960s, as well as Woodward’s successful effort to block the addition of Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker to the Yale history department. 

Always the southern gentleman, Woodward had been ”committed” to doing what he could to encourage support for the Brown decision. And always the southern gentleman, James Cobb is committed to preserving Woodward’s standing as America’s historian, even if it happened to have been the case that he had “tailored the evidence to fit his argument” in the Strange Career. Nor is Cobb interested in taking Woodward to task for his refusal to disguise what Cobb declares to have been his “utter contempt” for the likes of Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown.

Only very rarely does Cobb break character. But he does do so. For example, after noting that historian Forrest McDonald felt that Woodward had let his heart influence what his research on the history of Jim Crow laws had told him, Cobb couldn’t resist adding that Woodward hadn’t done enough research to give his head much of a chance to tell him much of anything.

In the end, Cobb seems content to leave matters like this: Woodward’s desire to make the “past speak to the present” simply took him “beyond the evidence.” 

More cutting words can be found, but Cobb leaves them to others. According to Woodward friend and fellow historian David Potter, the strangeness of The Strange Career was not without this note of irony: Woodward’s “least substantial” book was the very book that made his “public reputation.”

Throughout his academic career Woodward was always intent on using his public reputation to bring the history of the South to bear on the history of the country. Here irony intrudes as well. In an essay titled “The Irony of Southern History,” Woodward sought to put the “lost cause” that was the history of the South in the nineteenth century to a new and better national use in the twentieth century. Rather than wallow in nostalgia for a bygone past, southerners should convert its failure and loss into a useable past for the entire country.

And to what end? Ironically, its history and defeat in the Civil War had not just set the South apart from the rest of the country, but it had placed the South on common ground with much of the rest of the world, or at least that part of the world that had also faced trials and defeat. 

Thus chastened, the South had something to teach other Americans, especially those Americans of the twentieth century who had an “oversized faith in American progress, American prosperity, and American invincibility.” At least that was the idea of this “idea man” as he dwelt on both the ”irony” and the “burden” of southern history.

But of course buried within that burden was an opportunity to teach, specifically an opportunity to teach those Americans who had failed to understand that America’s “unique good fortune” had “dangerously” isolated the United States from the rest of the world during the Cold War.

Borrowing from the rhetoric of the 1850s, Woodward worried that America’s “unyielding insistence” of its omnipotence might well lead to an “irrepressible conflict” at some point during the Cold War. More than that, this “idea man’s” idea was that southern historians were in a unique position to warn their fellow Americans that Cold War zealotry and righteousness was no guarantee of triumph.

Woodward lived long enough to see the Cold War end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Had he been wrong to worry and warn? There is no evidence that he thought so. 

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Woodward was always on the lookout for a usable, meaning teachable, past. In that regard he was forever engaging in his version of an Obama-like commitment to hope and change. Once again Cobb calls upon David Potter to not so gently rein in his friend. “What,” Potter asked, “has the historian to do with hope?” While remaining the best of friends, the pair carried on a running debate over using the past to address the concerns of the present.

For Potter, the historian’s main responsibility was to provide what Cobb defines as a “thoroughly detached and straightforward assessment” of the past. In Potter’s own words the historian’s task was simply to explain to the reader “what the past was really like.” Not so Woodward, whose hope for desired change was always grounded in using history to advance his goals, both domestic and foreign. In that regard alone C. Vann Woodward surely does qualify as a very American historian.

John C. Chalberg writes from Minnesota. 

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