C. Vann Woodward: returning South

February 06, 1994|By Bruce Clayton

Title: "The Burden of Southern History"

Author: C. Vann Woodward

Publisher: Louisiana State

@4 Length, price: 304 pages, $35 ($11.95 paperback)

Want to understand the South's jangled history? Then read the master: C. Vann Woodward is to history what William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren are to the region's literature.

Start with Dr. Woodward's "The Strange Career of Jim Crow" (1955), available in a considerably revised, updated edition. Martin Luther King Jr. called it "the Bible of the civil rights movement." It's still the best, most incisive history of how the white South evolved to embrace racism and make Jim Crow the order of the day -- from segregated drinking fountains to separate but woefully unequal schools and cemeteries.

Then dip generously into the brilliant, lively essays in "American Counterpoint" (1971), in which Dr. Woodward ranges widely from slavery to that elusive thing called "equality." Then work patiently through Dr. Woodward's 1951 masterpiece, "Origins of the New South, 1877-1913," a Gibraltar of a book that opened historians' eyes to race and class in the past.

If you prefer something lighter, this man from Arkansas -- who taught at the Johns Hopkins University from 1946 to 1960 (before Yale lured him away) -- produced a graceful memoir almost a decade ago. "Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History" can be read in one sitting. I wish it were a bit more personal, but it's a pleasant conversation with the past.

But I finished it wanting to know more about the man who played a vital role in desegregating the then-staid Southern Historical Association in 1949. He also might have elaborated on his work in the early 1950s with Thurgood Marshall and the legal branch of the NAACP to provide data on segregation as the organization prepared for the historic Supreme Court decision of 1954. Too often, "Thinking Back" relies on that patrician courtliness Southerners can assume when they want to talk and still keep the world at a suitable distance from their hearts.

My favorite of his books is "The Burden of Southern History." Originally published in 1960, and expanded eight years later, it has been enlarged again and brought out in a handsome third edition, with a picture of the photogenic professor on the jacket and on the cover of the paperback edition.

Few can write with Dr. Woodward's subtlety of mind or graceful, incisive style to ponder the South's distinctiveness, particularly its heavy load of history, its "burden" of having been a slaveocracy in the land of the free. Dr. Woodward writes:

"The South's preoccupation was with guilt, not with innocence, with the reality of evil, not with the dream of perfection. Its experience in the respect . . . was on the whole a thoroughly un-American one." But that's just part of the story Dr. Woodward explores in this new, larger collection of essays, now a baker's dozen.

Of the eight original essays -- composed during his highly productive Baltimore years -- more than half still have a luminous quality. Not bad: Like matinee idols, historical essays tend not to age well, and make us wonder whether we might not have been awfully naive.

The opening piece from 1960, "The Search for Southern Identity," announces the book's major themes and concerns -- what does it mean to be Southern; is race at the center; is there, underneath the emery wheel of time, a distinctive regional identity; is it worth saving, and if so, does the South have any lessons to teach the nation? Several of the five new essays extend these topics to the present and give his ruminations on the past a renewed resonance.

Among living historians, Dr. Woodward's grasp of irony and paradox is unparalleled. To match his deftness in this regard one would have to return to Henry Adams, Carl Becker or Richard Hofstadter. Like them, Mr. Woodward feels irony, and can say offhandedly, "historians have their armchair consolations, of course, their after-dinner ironies with brandy."

Three of his before-dinner essays tackle head-on "The Irony of Southern History" -- he calls the 1993 version "Look Away, Look Away." Consider this brief sampler of ironies Dr. Woodward expands upon perceptively: It was Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia slaveholder, who made sure that all America treasured liberty and knew that "all men are created equal." After Dixie's defeat in its war for liberty, the region could not experience what much of the rest of the country did -- innocence, success, prosperity and the feeling of never having lost a war.

But the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War altered the America psyche forever, piling irony upon irony. It was a white Texan, Lyndon Johnson, who pushed through the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. He tried to overcome Vietnam by force, conjuring up the (Yankee) myth of innocence and invincibility. More irony: It was a black Southerner, Martin Luther King Jr., who crusaded to convert America to a new innocence.

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