About the Book by James C. Cobb Titled “C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Barton Swaim about the book by James C. Cobb titled “C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian”:

In the years before he died in 1999 at the age of 91, C. Vann Woodward held a semisacred status among professional historians and American intellectuals generally. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., with whom Woodward was often compared, called him the “conscience” of the historical profession and the chief source of its “moral leadership.” Drew Gilpin Faust, later the president of Harvard, called him “the twentieth century’s greatest American historian.”

These and other encomiums, related in the first pages of James C. Cobb’s biography of Woodward, sound politely exaggerated—the sort of thing you would say about an accomplished scholar in his dotage. In fact, the liberal intellectual class had by then begun to suspect Woodward of moving to the right. But the cultural authority he acquired over the course of his long career is both remarkable and, in our fractured age, hard to imagine. That Woodward hadn’t published a book-length work of originally researched history since 1955 suggests that his fame arose as much from prevailing cultural anxieties as from his greatness as a historian.

Comer Vann Woodward, born in 1908 in Vanndale, Ark., was named for his uncle, a sociologist and ordained Methodist minister from whom Woodward inherited a hatred of segregation. He attended Emory University in Atlanta and received a master’s degree from Columbia in New York. Later he earned a doctorate at the University of North Carolina. In 1932 Woodward traveled to the Soviet Union. That experience gave him, he wrote, “an exhilaration and wonder at the impetuous optimism and fervor of these new people of the new world.”

Woodward, who in the 1950s taught at Johns Hopkins and later at Yale, made a name for himself as a historian with “Origins of the New South, 1877-1913,” published in 1951. Historians at the time treated the post-Reconstruction South as a mostly happy economic success, with segregation as an unfortunate by-product. Woodward rejected that assessment and presented the 1870s and ’80s as a period in which the so-called Redeemers, the Southern wing of the Democratic Party, triumphed by reinventing white supremacy and allying themselves with Northern industrialists.

But the work that made Woodward one of the country’s most famous liberal intellectuals was “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” (1955). That book was published at a moment when white Americans had begun seriously to wonder why they allowed the injustice of racial segregation to persist in a country supposedly founded on the principles of political liberty. “Strange Career,” which began as a series of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1954, held that Jim Crow laws were not the organic and sadly inevitable outgrowth of slavery’s abolition, as many Americans, including venerated historians, assumed. Segregation laws were rather the inorganic and historically aberrant innovations of populist politicians and their supporters, imposed mainly in the 1890s. Laws separating the races, Woodward contended, were a recent invention and could not reasonably be thought of as “immutable ‘folkways’ . . . impervious alike to legislative reform and armed intervention.”

The clear implication: Segregation could and should be torn down by force of law.

The lectures, delivered four months after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education pronounced racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, were rushed into print as a book.

We learn from Mr. Cobb that Martin Luther King Jr. did not, as is frequently claimed, call “Strange Career” the “historical Bible of the Civil Rights Movement.” But he did relate the book’s central argument in a way that showed he had read it. “Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War,” King told Montgomery, Ala., at the end of a three-day march from Selma. “There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian C. Vann Woodward, in his book ‘The Strange Career of Jim Crow,’ clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.”

For all Woodward’s brilliance as a historian and facility as a writer, his economic analysis was Marx-inflected and rather muddled. “Origins of the New South” in particular was deeply influenced by Charles Beard, who interpreted historical events as the outcomes of brute economic interests. It did not seem to occur to Woodward that, for example, Southern leaders might have favored free trade because it brought industry to their states; their antiprotectionism, in Woodward’s exposition, had to be part of a deal involving economic imperialism, whatever that meant. Even so, he was right that segregation was a recent invention, and that the South would not flourish, economically or culturally, as long as it remained in place.

The prospect of reading 400 pages about the life of an academic historian, I have to say, did not fill me with eager anticipation. The book is too long. Nonetheless Mr. Cobb, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Georgia and the author of a superb book on Southern identity, “Away Down South” (2005), comments intelligently on Woodward’s many scholarly works and essays. He is particularly sensitive to the ways in which Woodward, in writing about historical events, was also working out his own loyalties as a Southerner.

Woodward remained a committed liberal all of his life—which, in a sad commentary on the state of American higher education, is what got him in trouble. He opposed black separatism even as American universities went mad over racial identity; and he continued to support free speech even as campuses everywhere began imposing speech codes. In 1991 Woodward published a favorable review of Dinesh D’Souza’s “Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus” (1991) and expressed alarm that the modern academy was betraying the civil-rights movement. The response, even among some of Woodward’s friends, was scathing. He may have been the “conscience” of his profession—but not when he said what nobody wanted to hear.

Barton Swaim is an editorial-page writer for the Wall Street Journal.

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