There have been many fine interpreters of the southern experience in this passing century, but in my book only two colossi: William Faulkner the storyteller and C. Vann Woodward the historian.
I had read and admired Woodward's great books a long time before we became friends. But in the mid-1950s, when he was already a big if distant part of my education in the realities of southern history, his best-known book was so little known in England as to lead to a comic scene. My friend Willie Morris walked into the Oxford University Press bookstore on the High Street in Oxford, where we were students and Woodward had recently been the Harmsworth Professor of American History for a year. Willie asked for a copy of "The Strange Career of Jim Crow."
"I say," the clerk at the counter called out to a colleague in the rear. "Do we stock the life of a certain Mr. James Crow?"
This Englishman could be forgiven, but few sentient southerners of my generation would have made the mistake. It is fair to say that "The Strange Career" was not merely a work of revisionist history but a work of redefinition, and a crucial one.
Beneath his quiet demeanor--the former Yale history professor who died last week at 91 was so soft-spoken in manner that he approached inaudibility at a mere breakfast table's distance--Woodward was a resolute upsetter of the applecarts of conventional wisdom about the southern past; and the prime example is that short book about "Mr. James Crow."
I first heard of Vann Woodward from "Speck" Caldwell, a popular teacher in the history department at Chapel Hill who had been Woodward's friend when both were PhD candidates in the mid-1930s. Three lures, according to Speck, had drawn Woodward to Chapel Hill from Arkansas by way of Georgia: Fletcher Green, one of the finest of southern historians; the university's reputation for adventurous inquiry into regional shibboleths; and, perhaps above all, the voluminous papers of Tom Watson in the Southern Historical Collection.
Watson had been a brilliant Georgia newspaper editor and U.S. senator around the turn of the century, but a tragic figure: a man of generous views and some breadth of vision (even about race) who had later soured into a racist and antisemite. Speck Caldwell, who had a fabulous memory, served as Woodward's classroom note-taker while Woodward himself delved into the Watson papers at the library. The result was a doctoral dissertation that soon became the classic biography "Agrarian Rebel." But for timely impact, nothing Woodward wrote, even such arguably stronger works as the Watson biography, quite touched "The Strange Career of Jim Crow." It was a book about which, with typical modesty, he came to have second thoughts. But for most readers it became formative and final.
What was strange about Jim Crow's career, Woodward argued, was its astonishing novelty in historical time. Southern segregation, whose typical apologists spoke of it in hushed tones as hallowed, ancient and ageless, all but co-eternal with the cosmic order, had in fact been a recent contrivance, not lacking its freakish features.
Woodward's researches suggested that for at least a decade after the Civil War, the South had been more fluid in its openness to alternative political and legal arrangements than myth suggested. Social custom and attitude were one thing, of course. But the system of formal legal and political discrimination had sprung up during a short period, the 20 years or so between the "reaction" (against Reconstruction) of 1877 and the year of the Supreme Court's tragic ratification of segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896. It had sprung up in large part because the rest of the country had simply lost interest in the wellbeing of black people and the will to enforce their constitutional rights.
Thus the true story of Jim Crow was not a story of eternality; it was a story of backsliding, when the national government had abandoned southern black people to their own meager devices. The unmistakable and implicit message of Woodward's book was that what had been jerry-built in the space of a few decades could be dismantled at least as quickly. This message was important, and to many of us encouraging, in the 1950s, when the nation was at last mustering its will to make good on the promises of the 13th and 14th Amendments and the diehards were digging in on every hand.
Yet for all his iconoclasm, there was a further paradox about Vann Woodward. He who so effectively demolished regional superstitions was a southern patriot to his core, albeit of an odd sort. He distrusted the American myth of exceptionalism, the view that by some providential election Americans had been chosen to be the moral instructors of fallible humanity. Southerners, he told us in several powerful essays, were in a position to know better. The South had known defeat and tragedy, the evil of slavery and racism, poverty and humiliation; and that experience should have immunized us against hubris of "the city on the hill" variety. It was a powerful counter-myth for many of us, and became very much a part of our identities.
Yes, historians no less than other storytellers give us myths to live by. The question is always whether they are realistic, grounded in sure knowledge of the human condition, and benign in their consequences. For me, Vann Woodward's invariably were.
The writer is professor of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee University.