C. Vann Woodward, 91, a Southerner by birth, upbringing and temperament who became a Yale University history professor and perhaps the nation's leading authority on the history and culture of the South, died Dec. 17 at his home in Hamden, Conn. He had a heart ailment.

Dr. Woodward, an Arkansas native who retired in 1977 as the Sterling professor of history at Yale, was a brilliant writer, master storyteller and prize-winning historian. His awards included a 1952 Bancroft Prize for his book "Origins of the New South, 1877-1913," and the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for history for "Mary Chestnut's Civil War."

He gained national recognition in 1938 with his book "Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel." The book, based on Dr. Woodward's doctoral dissertation, was a biography of a Georgia populist politician who was widely regarded as a lifelong racist demagogue of the worst sort. Dr. Woodward showed that Watson, far from being a traditional racist, had once called for the participation of African Americans in the political and economic reform of the post-Civil War South.

This intellectual bombshell foreshadowed much of Dr. Woodward's subsequent work. With his Bancroft Prize-winning book and his 1951 book, "Reunion and Reaction," Dr. Woodward told stories of blacks playing active roles in Southern politics after Reconstruction, and of many Southern whites working with blacks on economic issues.

In the early 1950s, he was consulted by lawyers arguing cases against segregation laws before the federal courts who were searching for proof that segregation was not "from time immemorial."

In 1955, Dr. Woodward published "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," which addressed those issues and has been called one of the leading books on American history. Earlier this year, the Modern Library included "Jim Crow" on its list of the 100 best English language nonfiction books.

Dr. Woodward seemed to go against all conventional historical thinking, maintaining that racial segregation was something that originated only in the 1880s. His work seemed to revolutionize Southern history.

Of course, reaction set in. Other historians, of all political stripes and regions, took Dr. Woodward to task for overemphasizing events that proved his case and for ignoring many problematic events. Dr. Woodward, in later editions of his books, addressed that criticism. But subsequent academic debate did little to deflect the main thrust of his theses.

A measure of the regard in which he was held by his profession was the fact that in the late 1960s he was elected president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. And after retiring from Yale in 1977, he was chosen to edit the monumental and historic multi-volume Oxford History of the United States.

In addition to his own historical research and writing, he was an enthusiast of his calling in general. He was a noted mentor of young historians, with his students including James M. McPherson and William S. McFeely, both of whom are the authors of best-selling and prize-winning histories of Civil War topics.

Another former student, Sheldon Hackney, a history professor and past president of the University of Pennsylvania, said Dr. Woodward "came to history out of a desire to understand himself and created a whole new way of understanding the late 19th-century South."

Hendrix College, awarding Dr. Woodward an honorary degree in 1986, hailed him as "the 20th century's most eminent and influential historian of the American South."

Dr. Woodward was a popularizer of history in the best sense of the term. A writer with unquestioned literary flair, he championed the ideal of the historian as storyteller and cautioned against the discipline's growing penchant for specialization and its increasing attraction to academic jargon.

In 1986, he published a semiautobiographical work, "Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History," in which he wrote of the interrelationship of past with present and how history is unavoidably colored by historians themselves.

Dr. Woodward also participated in the political actions of the day. In 1965, he took part in the civil rights march on Selma, Ala. Last year, he was one of 400 historians to sign a petition calling for the acquittal of President Clinton on impeachment charges.

Comer Vann Woodward was born in Vanndale, Ark., and grew up in Morrilton, Ark., a small town on the Arkansas River about 50 miles north of Little Rock. Early influences were his father, Hugh A. Woodward, a schoolteacher and administrator and local Methodist church leader, and an uncle, Comer, a Methodist minister and sociologist, both of whom fought segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.

Dr. Woodward was a 1930 philosophy graduate of Emory University in Georgia and received a master's degree in political science from Columbia University in 1932. He was awarded a doctorate in history from the University of North Carolina in 1937. During World War II, he served in the Navy in the Office of Naval Intelligence and as a public information officer.

In the 1930s, he taught English at the Georgia Institute of Technology before losing his job over his involvement in civil rights. He served on the history faculty of Johns Hopkins University from 1946 to 1961, then went to Yale. Over the years, he also taught at the University of Virginia and in England at the University of London and Oxford University.

His wife, the former Glenn Boyd MacLeod, whom he married in 1937, died in 1982. His son, Peter Vincent Woodward, died in the early 1970s. He leaves no immediate survivors.

CAPTION: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian C. Vann Woodward's work, which went against conventional thinking, helped redefine Southern history.