Woodward, C(omer) Vann

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WOODWARD, C(omer) Vann

(b. 13 November 1908 in Vanndale, Arkansas; d. 17 December 1999 in Hamden, Connecticut), renowned historian from Yale University who challenged conventional thinking about southern history and race relations.

Woodward was born in 1908 in Vanndale, Arkansas, a town his ancestors had built and named after his mother's family. He was the only son of Hugh Alison, a school principal and Latin teacher, and Bessie Vann Woodward, a homemaker. He lived in Vanndale during most of his childhood, before the family moved to nearby Morrilton, where Woodward attended high school. Then he enrolled at Henderson-Brown College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. After completing two years there, he transferred to Emory College in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated with a B.A. in philosophy in 1930. Woodward began his academic career teaching English at Georgia Technical University and reviewing books for the Atlanta Journal. In 1932 he moved to New York City and earned his M.A. in political science at Columbia University. There Woodward met the black poet Langston Hughes and other members of the Harlem Renaissance, a remarkable flowering of the arts among African Americans in the years between the two world wars.

Woodward's experiences led him to explore southern dissent as a historical topic. He chose Tom Watson, a noted racist demagogue and populist who advocated black participation in political and economic reform, as the basis for his first book. He entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1934 on a research grant secured for him by the sociologist and family friend Howard W. Odum, known for his work that embraces a view of the South that favors both success and equal opportunity. Chapel Hill, whose curriculum was that of southern liberalism rejecting racism, was an ideal setting for Woodward. He met and worked with various intellectuals, including Robert Penn Warren and Howard K. Beale, who served as his mentor. Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938, 1955) also served as his dissertation under Beale and earned him a Ph.D. in 1937. The book was the first of many in which Woodward set about to shatter the myth of the "Solid South," as he later called it. This same year, on 21 December, he married Glenn Boyd MacLeod. They had one son.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s Woodward held a number of academic posts before joining the U.S. Navy. He served for three years, and as a result of his naval service in the Pacific theater during World War II, he wrote The Battle of Leyte Gulf (1947), published after the war. At Johns Hopkins University, he wrote three more books. In the first two, Woodward again strove to show historians a new way to look at the post-Reconstruction South. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., called the third, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), the "historical bible of the civil rights movement."

Despite the success of his books, Woodward decided he was not reaching a large enough audience, so he began writing book reviews and essays on issues other than race. His first effort, "The Age of Reinterpretation," was published in 1960 in the American Historical Review and discussed how America had been able to focus almost exclusively on economic development rather than having to build a military force to ward off external threats. In light of this relationship, the dynamics between America and the rest of the world had changed since 1945, and now the United States also needed to build up militarily. This article, now seen as an important interpretation of the U.S. position in the postwar world, was at the time largely overlooked. His book The Burden of Southern History (1960), a collection of essays, also made a notable contribution. In 1961 Woodward joined the history department at Yale University.

Woodward continued to examine racial issues and the relevance of the southern experience. During the 1960s he looked at the first and second Reconstructions and hoped the nation would make good on its commitment to equality. But he was becoming pessimistic and came to believe that Reconstruction's aim was not equality after all. However, he hoped the South's experience and his education about what had happened would benefit America by showing that racial inequality was only hurting the country. He continually took on and defeated northern notions that they had saved the South and fostered civil rights. Woodward repeatedly told his fellow historians that this was simply not the case, but at the same time he still held fast to beliefs that the South was not blameless in denying basic rights to African Americans. Still, he thought any change in southern attitude was more likely to succeed if it came from within.

Woodward called on his fellow historians to make good their theory of history as literature with an engaging story to be told so that the proposed argument would stand a better chance of being heard. "Professor Woodward's books and other works were popular among historians and non-historians alike due to his talent as a storyteller," according to Howard R. Lamar, former Yale president and Sterling Professor Emeritus of History. Woodward himself admitted that love of writing was what propelled him into the field of history, because he wanted to write about a historical topic. His efforts at Johns Hopkins and Yale attracted gifted graduate students who have made major contributions to the field. Among his notable students are Wille Lee Rose, James M. McPherson, and William S. McFeely. His former students later paid him homage in a 1982 tribute, Region, Race and Reconstruction. In 1969 his peers honored him by electing him president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.

In 1971 Woodward published a second collection of essays, American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue. In this book he reviewed his deepening pessimism about the fate of civil rights and white America's fading commitment to racial equality. During the Watergate political crisis that brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, he supervised a team of historians researching corruption in the presidency. His retirement from Yale in 1977 did not affect his activism. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for his editing of Mary Chestnut's Civil War (1981). Woodward lived in Hamden, Connecticut, until his death at home on 17 December 1999 at age ninety-one.

John Herbert Roper, C. Vann Woodward, Southerner (1987), and Directory of American Scholars, 9th ed., vol. 1: History (1999), provide a good look at this southern historian. David Potter, "C. Vann Woodward," in Marcus Cunliff and Robin Winks, eds., Pastmasters: Some Essays on American Historians (1969) and Theodore Rosengarten and C. Vann Woodward's "South-by-North-east: The Journey of C. Vann Woodward. The Noted Chronicler of the South Looks Back on His Own History," Doubletake (summer 1999) give Woodward's view on his life. The New Yorker (15 Apr. 1972), the American Historical Review (June 1973), and South Atlantic Quarterly (winter 1978) provide biographical material on Woodward. An obituary is in the New York Times (19 Dec. 1999).

Brian B. Carpenter

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