Remembering C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999)
By Paul Gaston
Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter 1999 pp. 19-20
C. Vann Woodward died on December 17, 1999, just a month after his ninety-first birthday. I heard the news from Sheldon Hackney, his friend and former student. “Vann died peacefully at his house in Hamden [Connecticut] late this afternoon,” Sheldon’s e-mail message said. “His daughter-in-law, Susan Woodward, had moved him out of the Whitney Center just yesterday. Workmen were still completing the construction of a ramp that would provide wheel-chair access to the sun room, where his bed had been set up, amidst his books. Lucy and I had stopped to see him just an hour after he had arrived home, where he desperately wanted to be, but he was mostly asleep and did not really recognize us. Susan tells us that he asked to be gotten out of bed so he could sit in his desk chair that had been brought up from the study. That is where he died.”
I last saw Vann in a New Haven hospital in July, shortly after the heart operation from which he never recovered. He was a strong man, physically as well as morally and intellectually. As we talked about the operation (“they took the organ out and put it on a table,” he said, shaking his head in wry disbelief) I thought back to the time two summers previous, when he arrived at the little Danish island of Aero for a meeting of Europeans and Americans who write and teach about the South. After a grueling twenty-four hour non-stop air, rail, and ferry trip from New Haven through New York, London, and Copenhagen airports and then to our remote island, he walked up the cobblestone street to the hotel, bag in hand, commanding hard-breathing stragglers to keep up. I thought he must be immortal.
He foiled that belief, but he lives permanently in our consciousness, which is a pretty good form of immortality.
In the New Haven hospital room we talked about why we became historians, and especially historians of the South. He chose history, he told me, because it would give him the opportunity to write, which is what he craved. The South he grew up in was a stirring place to be. I recalled a passage he once wrote about how he was aware, in the early 1930s, of “new voices in the land and new forces astir.” Deepening poverty brought on by the Great Depression threw in broad relief the South’s historic burdens of racism, inequality, and broken spirits, at the same time quickening the conscience of its youth. Too shy and temperamentally unsuited for the world of politics and agitation, he chose to be a writer, soon to become one of the new voices in the land. Admiring the brilliance of the novelists and poets, he did not become one of them but turned his burgeoning literary talent to making the past speak to the present.
By the time he arrived in Chapel Hill for doctoral studies, he had a book already under way. With a few added chapters it became his dissertation and, in 1938, one of the seminal works in American history: Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel . That book set him off on a life-long career of writing about the ways in which class and racial loyalties and fears shaped the destinies of Southern whites and blacks. Watson, the hero of Populism, turned out to be a symbol of hope in the first part of the book, as he penetrated the shibboleths that had divided the downtrodden and, in the last half, an example of the tragedy of Southern history as disillusionment turned him into a fierce demagogue. Woodward the writer, one of the new voices in the land, was well on the way to becoming one of the “new forces astir” as well.
After war duties as a Naval officer (and a book on a naval battle), he returned to academia, teaching first at Johns Hopkins University and then at Yale. More importantly, he returned to the themes of the Watson book. In Reunion and Reaction (1951) he showed how the materialistic ambitions of Southern and Northern conservatives merged to end Reconstruction, abandon the defense of the
freedmen’s rights, and lay the basis for the rise of Southern conservatives at the expense of the Southern masses, white and black alike. In Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951), his masterpiece, he traced the rise of a new ruling class, the heavy toll it exacted from the Southern people, and the emergence and crushing defeat of a popular and humane protest movement. His Alabama friend Virginia Durr wrote to say it was a great book, telling truths long hidden or denied. In reply, he said, “my sympathies were obviously not with the people who ran things, and about whom I wrote most, but with the people who were run, who were managed and maneuvered and pushed around.” His sympathies never altered.
As our hospital-room conversation moved on, I told him that, in ways he might not have known, he and I were comrades in the South’s civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. At my post at the University of Virginia, where mostly self-satisfied young men believed that segregation and the privileged social order they came from were ordained by higher powers and would certainly never be spoken badly of by General Lee, the teaching of Southern and Virginian history was an exhilarating challenge. I can’t imagine how it could have been met without Vann, and I told him so. His books on the promise and betrayal of Populism, the retreat from Reconstruction, and the triumph of the oppressive New South created a new way of looking at the whole of the southern experience; as they did, they fortified and guided my own passion.
After Origins came The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), which Martin King called the “historical Bible of the civil rights movement.” It washed away the defense that segregation was an immutable folkway that could not be changed by mere law and soon became recognized as the most influential work ever written about American race relations. It was followed by The Burden of Southern History (1960), a collection of essays that provided for southern history the kind of reach and resonance Faulkner’s novels gave to southern fiction.
With these five books I felt I had an invincible army behind me. And, as time passed, that army captured many of my students. The campus movements they organized to end segregation, combat racism, and build a different kind of New South out of the region’s virtues and promises were anchored in the Woodwardian reconstruction of southern history, now energized by the moral example of the black freedom movement. I wanted to tell him all of these things, and more, but he needed rest before the next visitor of the day should arrive. “Keep in touch,” were the last words he spoke to me.
Vann was a hero and example to my students as he was to thousands of other young and old people of good will; and my debt to him as an activist-teacher was incurred by many other young southern scholars in those days. He was also a hero to us for the kind of committed life he led. When Thurgood Marshall called on him to help prepare arguments in the Brown case, he responded; when historians were asked to join the last phase of the march from Selma to Montgomery, he marched; when expert testimony was needed to persuade Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act, he testified.
One might have thought that his scholarly integrity and moral courage would have been called into question because of such “activism,” or “presentism”; in fact they almost never were. Partly this was because of his craftsmanship–no one wrote better, had a more thorough command of the sources, or a keener sense of irony and the complexity of history. No one who cared about the course of events in the past was more scrupulous in writing history addressed to the present. Later, of course, he would be showered with all the honors his profession could bestow and he would read with modesty and a good measure of amusement the regular declarations of his status as the nation’s pre-eminent historian. Partly, too, I think, his authority derived from the kindness and consideration he showed for others. He wrote often that criticism was the lifeblood of good scholarship, but he never made it personal or conveyed it with malice. The mean-spiritedness, careerism, and petty rivalries that mar so much of our intellectual discourse found no home in his makeup. In this, as in so much else, he was a rare model.
He kept working right up to the time of last July’s surgery. He once told me that he wrote more in his retirement years than when he was teaching, promising me I would find the emeritus years even more satisfying than what had come before. Sheldon reports that “he lived the end of his life as well as the rest of it. Up until last July, he was working every day, taking a walk every day, having an evening martini every day, and was surrounded by people who loved him. In this, also, he was a model for us.” His parting words to me, “keep in touch,” put me in mind of one of the old Movement songs:
There’s someone by my side walkin’.
There’s a voice inside me talkin’.
There’s some questions need some answers.
Carry it on. Carry it on.
Paul Gaston, Life Fellow and former President of the Southern Regional Council, is Emeritus Professor of History in the University of Virginia and a contributing editor to Southern Changes.