C. Vann Woodward
Comer Vann Woodward
November 13, 1908
|Died||December 17, 1999 (aged 91)|
|Doctoral advisor||Howard K. Beale|
|Doctoral students||John W. Blassingame|
|Other notable students|
Comer Vann Woodward (November 13, 1908 - December 17, 1999) was a Pulitzer-prize winning American historian focusing primarily on the American South and race relations. He was long a supporter of the approach of Charles A. Beard, stressing the influence of unseen economic motivations in politics. Stylistically, he was a master of irony and counterpoint. Woodward was on the left end of the history profession in the 1930s. By the 1950s he was a leading liberal and supporter of civil rights. His demonstration that racial segregation was a late-19th-century invention rather than some sort of eternal standard made his The Strange Career of Jim Crow into "the historical Bible of the civil rights movement", said Martin Luther King Jr. After attacks on him by the New Left in the late 1960s, he moved to the right politically.
C. Vann Woodward was born in Vanndale, a town named after his mother's family and the county seat from 1886-1903. It was in Cross County in eastern Arkansas. Woodward attended high school in Morrilton, Arkansas. He attended Henderson-Brown College, a small Methodist school in Arkadelphia, for two years. In 1930 he transferred to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where his uncle was dean of students and professor of sociology. After graduating, he taught English composition for two years at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. There he met Will W. Alexander, head of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and J. Saunders Redding, a historian at Atlanta University.
Woodward enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University in 1931 and received his M.A. from that institution in 1932. In New York, Woodward met, and was influenced by, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and other figures who were associated with the Harlem Renaissance movement. After receiving his master's degree in 1932, Woodward worked for the defense of Angelo Herndon, a young African-American Communist Party member who had been accused of subversive activities. He also traveled to the Soviet Union and Germany in 1932.
He did graduate work in history and sociology at the University of North Carolina. He was granted a Ph.D. in history in 1937, using as his dissertation the manuscript he had already finished on Thomas E. Watson. Woodward's dissertation director was Howard K. Beale, a Reconstruction specialist who promoted the Beardian economic interpretation of history that deemphasized ideology and ideas and stressed material self-interest as a motivating factor.
Woodward, starting out on the left politically, wanted to use history to explore dissent. He approached W. E. B. Du Bois about writing about him, and thought of following his biography of Watson with one of Eugene V. Debs. He picked Georgia politician Tom Watson, who in the 1890s was a populist leader focusing the anger and hatred of poor whites against the establishment, banks, railroads and businessmen. Watson in 1908 was the presidential candidate of the Populist Party, but this time was the leader in mobilizing the hatred of the same poor whites against blacks, and a promoter of lynching.
Woodward's most influential book was The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), which explained that segregation was a relatively late development and was not inevitable. After the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, in spring 1954, Woodward gave the Richards Lectures at the University of Virginia. The lectures were published in 1955 as The Strange Career of Jim Crow. With Woodward in the audience in Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed the book "the historical bible of the Civil Rights Movement." It reached a large popular audience and helped shape the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Jim Crow laws, Woodward argued, were not part of the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction; they came later and were not inevitable. Following the Compromise of 1877, in the 1870s and 1880s there were localized informal practices of racial separation in some areas of society along with what he termed "forgotten alternatives" in others. Finally the 1890s saw white southerners "capitulate to racism" to create "legally prescribed, rigidly enforced, state-wide Jim Crowism."
Scholars especially praised Origins of the New South, 1877-1913, which was published in 1951 by Louisiana State University Press in a prominent multivolume history of the South. It combined the Beardian theme of economic forces shaping history, and the Faulknerian tone of tragedy and declension. He insisted on the discontinuity of the era, and rejected both the romantic ante-bellum popular images of the Lost Cause School as well as the overoptimistic business boosterism of the New South Creed. Sheldon Hackney, a Woodward student, hails the book, explaining:
Of one thing we may be certain at the outset. The durability of Origins of the New South is not a result of its ennobling and uplifting message. It is the story of the decay and decline of the aristocracy, the suffering and betrayal of the poor whites, and the rise and transformation of a middle class. It is not a happy story. The Redeemers are revealed to be as venal as the carpetbaggers.
The declining aristocracy are ineffectual and money hungry, and in the last analysis they subordinated the values of their political and social heritage in order to maintain control over the black population. The poor whites suffered from strange malignancies of racism and conspiracy-mindedness, and the rising middle class was timid and self-interested even in its reform movement. The most sympathetic characters in the whole sordid affair are simply those who are too powerless to be blamed for their actions.
Woodward taught at Johns Hopkins University from 1946 to 1961. He became Sterling Professor of History at Yale from 1961 to 1977, where he taught both graduate students and undergraduates. He did much writing but little original research at Yale, writing frequent essays for such outlets as the New York Review of Books. He directed scores of PhD dissertations, including those by John W. Blassingame; former chair of the African American studies program at Yale; Daniel W. Crofts, former chair of the History Department at The College of New Jersey; James M. McPherson; Patricia Nelson Limerick, Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Boulder; Michel Wayne, Professor of History at the University of Toronto; Steven Hahn, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania; John Herbert Roper, Richardson Chair of American History at Emory & Henry College; and David L. Carlton, Professor of History at Vanderbilt University.
In 1974, the United States House Committee on the Judiciary asked Woodward for an historical study of misconduct in previous administrations and how the Presidents responded. Woodward led a group of fourteen historians and they produced a 400-page report in less than four months, Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct.
In 1978 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Woodward for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. His lecture, entitled "The European Vision of America," was later incorporated into his book The Old World's New World.
Peter Novick says, "Vann Woodward was always very conflicted about the "presentism" of his work. He alternated between denying it, qualifying it, and apologizing for it." British historian Michael O'Brien, the editor of Woodward's letters in 2013, says that by the 1970s:
He became greatly troubled by the rise of the black power movement, disliked affirmative action, never came to grips with feminism, mistrusted what came to be known as "theory," and became a strong opponent of multiculturalism and "political correctness."
In 1969, as president of the American Historical Association, Woodward led the fight to defeat a proposal by New Left historians to politicize the organization. He wrote his daughter afterwards, "The preparations paid off and I had pretty well second-guessed the Rads on every turn."
In 1975-6 Woodward led the unsuccessful fight at Yale to block the temporary appointment of Communist historian Herbert Aptheker to teach a course. Radicals denounced his actions but a joint committee of the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association exonerated the process and found that there was no evidence that political criteria had been used. In 1987 he joined the conservative scholars who made up the National Association of Scholars, a group explicitly opposed to the academic Left. Woodward wrote a favorable review in the New York Review of Books of Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. It said that Duke University used racial criteria when it hired John Hope Franklin; Franklin and Woodward publicly feuded. Hackney says, "Woodward became an open critic of political correctness and in other ways appeared to have shifted his seat at the political table."
C. Vann Woodward died December 17, 1999, in Hamden, Connecticut, at the age of 91.
The Southern Historical Association has established the C. Vann Woodward Dissertation Prize, awarded annually to the best dissertation on Southern history. There is a Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Chair of History at Yale; it is now held by southern historian Glenda Gilmore. (Peter was Woodward's son, who died at age 25 in 1969.)