C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian by James C. Cobb. University of North Carolina Press, 2022. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1469670218. $37.50.
For anyone who teaches, writes, or reads Southern History, C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999) stands out as a figure of singular importance. Born to humble origins in the woods of Arkansas, a man more interested by literature than history, he emerged after World War II as the single most consequential historian of the U.S. South—and perhaps the most important American historian of his generation. With the keystrokes of a typewriter, Woodward felled the orthodoxy of Dunning School historiography, which insisted that the South’s postbellum racial segregation and political authoritarianism were “necessary conditions” imposed upon it by the “disasters” of Reconstruction.
The feats of Woodward’s career in the historical profession were made more remarkable, as Cobb recounts in this authoritative volume, by the fact that he never intended to become a historian. After attending parochial and conservative Southern colleges, Woodward only decided to pursue a “cursed” Ph.D. in history at the University of North Carolina to find funding and support for a biography he was writing about Tom Watson. And it was only once it became evident that he could not earn a living as a biographer that he applied himself as a professional historian. The publication of The Origins of the New South in 1951 and The Strange Career of Jim Crow (really, a series of lectures hastily edited into a timely book) in 1955 cemented his place of importance in the academy and his profile as a public intellectual.
Where Cobb’s biography excels is in its ability to hold in tension the moments of Woodward’s great foresight and moral courage with the limits of his immense abilities and considerable flaws. In 1950s, Woodward devastatingly criticized the tenets of the Lost Cause, and skewered the farce inherent in Massive Resisters’ defense of Jim Crow. Southern defenders of segregation argued that Jim Crow was both time-honored Southern tradition and the “natural order’ of Southern society; Woodward demonstrated it was neither. Segregation, Woodward argued, existed for merely two generations as a construction of law that was anything but natural. This earned Woodward the mantle of “American History’s Conscience.”
Yet, as the 1960s wore on, Woodward struggled to grapple with the new courses carved by the Civil Rights Movement and the consequences those bared for the historical profession and the academy. He bitterly criticized Black Power, as well as a turn in rhetoric that eschewed the racial integration won by campaigns of non-violent direct action. He criticized this rhetoric nearly as fiercely as he had attacked the Massive Resisters who clung to Jim Crow. As the Civil Rights Movement arrived in universities, it laid the foundations for Black Studies departments and new fields of history centered on the experiences of African Americans and other marginalized groups. Woodward had an equally difficult time accepting this.
At the end of his career, Woodward joined a chorus of other historians from his generation who openly worried about the atomization of the profession, the breakdown of grand narrative and consensus, and what that would mean for the place and utility of historians in the public commons. Woodward’s concerns presaged ongoing debates that roil the historical profession about the place, purpose, and practice of history. This makes Cobb’s biography a welcome and timely addition to the literature in this moment. It provides unique insights into the power and production of history and the generational conflicts that shape the discipline’s debates. The profession forever evolves and pushes new boundaries—sometimes even beyond the capacities of its most gifted practitioners.
Aaron David Hyams is a Lecturer in History at Sam Houston State University, where he regularly offers courses in U.S. Southern history.