THINKING BACK: The Perils of Writing History. By C. Vann Woodward. Louisiana State University Press. 158 pp. $12.95.

BOTH AS WRITER and as teacher, C. Vann Woodward is the preeminent American historian of his generation. Now in his 78th year, Woodward can look back on a long career in which he quite literally re-wrote American history; in such pathfinding books as Origins of the New South, The Strange Career of Jim Crow and The Burden of Southern History, he altered forever our understanding of the southern, and thus the American, past. As a teacher he has, if anything, been even more influential, presiding as professor at Johns Hopkins and Yale over the instruction of gifted younger historians who, as his proteg,es, have taken his message into academic departments all over the country. His influence was aptly summarized by two of those former students, J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, in a volume published four years ago in his honor:

"Woodward has directed some forty Ph.D. dissertations, and, as the essays in this book show, he has attracted some of the best students in the discipline during his career. On each of them, as well as on numerous other graduate and undergraduate students who have taken his courses, he has had a considerable, often a profound, effect. Industrious without being joyless, politically active without compromising his scholarly integrity, friendly but not hovering, never patronizing, Woodward by his personal example has affected many friends and colleagues, in addition to his students. The qualities of his written scholarship -- clarity, comprehensiveness, subtlety, and lightness of tone coating an obvious seriousness of purpose -- have pleased and affected more."

All of these qualities are much in evidence in Thinking Back, which is neither a memoir nor an autobiography (though it contains certain features of both) but an attempt at self-explanation, an account of the circumstances in which his books came to be written. "I see myself," he writes, "as undertaking one of the most familiar functions of the historian -- to explain how certain things and ideas came about, and what became of them. Thinking back is, after all, the principal business of historians." But the reader who imagines that this is consequently a book for specialists is quite mistaken; it is both a concise introduction to Woodward's ideas and a meditation on the ways in which we seek to corner that elusive prey, historical "truth."

Revealingly, Woodward has dedicated Thinking Back to his critics, by whom he means not newspaper reviewers but those among his fellow historians who have read his work and responded to it with both agreement and dissent. Woodward sees history not as a process of conclusive research but as an "ongoing discussion" in which the exchange of information, analysis and opinion forces the historian into a constant re-evaluation of his research and judgments. Over and again, as he discusses his own books, he cites subsequent work by others that took issue with him, and often he ends up siding with his critics; in some instances he even becomes his own critic, finding flaws in his books that until now had gone undetected by others.

It seems quite unnecessary to provide a summary, which in any case would be inadequate, of Woodward's work. Suffice it to say that in the 1930s, when he went to the University of North Carolina to work on his first book, a biography of the Populist-turned-racist Tom Watson, southern studies were relatively insignificant in the history departments and furthermore were imprisoned by "a uniquely broad consensus that papered over the breaks and fissures and conflicts in Southern history with myths of solidarity and continuity." It fell to Woodward, himself a native southerner, to expose those myths, to reveal that the history of the South was not a carefully ordered progression from "Old" to "New" in which the alleged virtues of the former remained undiminished, but a rocky process that was rife with conflict and ambiguity -- not merely conflict with the North, but conflict within the South itself and, most important of all, within its purportedly monolithic white majority.

Woodward assumed the mantle of dissenter with considerable zeal, yet by his own somewhat startled testimony he seems to have made no enemies and to have aroused remarkably little dispute. Indeed he goes so far as to say of Origins of the New South, the major accomplishment of his career, that "a source of continued puzzlement and some concern was the silence of negative critics and the failure of serious criticism to appear for years following." This, he suggests with characteristic self-effacement, "was less the persuasiveness of the book than a change in the times, a series of drastic changes." After World War II the South "entered a period of nearly three decades filled with more shocks of discontinuity than any period of its history, with the possible exception of the 1860s." From this he surmises:

"With all that pandemonium of contemporaneous upheaval and daily change of the 'unchangeable' during the fifties, sixties, and into the seventies, what was there left to say about continuity? I know the present is not supposed to affect our reading of the past, but in this instance I think it did. In fact I think it had much to do with the charmed immunity from criticism that Origins enjoyed for so long."

PERHAPS SO; perhaps Origins of the New South was a book for its time, emphasizing conflict and discontinuity in the South's past when so much of both were evident in its present. Perhaps: but a more likely explanation is that in this book as in so many others, Woodward had simply cornered the market on what passes for historical "truth." He did this through the simple expedient of refusing to take at face value the myths with which the South had prettified and clouded over its past, myths it used to justify its present. Though he has often been characterized as a dissenter from the old orthodoxy, it is more accurate to say that he is simply -- though of course there is nothing simple about it at all -- a dedicated scholar who seeks not to bend history to his own uses but to find whatever truths it may contain.

This is not to say that he is a historian without causes. To the contrary, he has a lifelong commitment to civil rights that ultimately led him to write the lectures that became The Strange Career of Jim Crow, a book that found a far larger audience than he had expected, "a wholly new and unique experience for an academic historian -- this particular one, at least." Further, his dismay over the America of the 1950s, a place of "unparalleled power, unprecedented wealth, unbridled self-righteousness, and the illusion of national innocence," produced The Burden of Southern History, in which he suggested that there were lessons for the rest of the nation in the South's story of "misery, invasion, defeat, suffering and humiliation."

But neither of these can be described as a "political" book, because neither attempts to distort history for political ends. Rather, in both books Woodward sought not the confirmation of his own convictions but the lessons of history. In The Strange Career of Jim Crow he learned that institutionalized segregation was not deeply rooted in the Southern past, but a relatively new creation of the early 20th century: a lesson that suggested, to him and others, that what had been imposed could likewise be removed. Similarly, in The Burden of Southern History he demonstrated that the South's experience of deprivation and suffering was far closer to actual human history, and that national hubris -- in which, alas, we are now wallowing as never before -- flies directly in the face of everything history has to tell us.

Woodward offered these lessons and perceptions just as he offers this account of his career: modestly, good-humoredly, without dogmatism or pedantry. He declines to suggest that he has the final answer to anything, knowing as he does that everything changes and that there are no final answers to anything. He is, though he is reluctant to accept the description, an ironist, who believes that "anyone who proposes to enter the study of history in search of truth harboring disdain for the thread of irony had best stay out of the labyrinth." It is precisely because he is so aware of conflict and ambiguity that he sees with such clarity, and offers us the opportunity to understand ourselves through what he has written about us. Like Faulkner, from whom he learned so much and whom he admires so greatly, he speaks not to the regional but to the universal.