C. Vann Woodward, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and a contributing editor to The New Republic, is the leading liberal historian of the South. For three decades his encyclopedic knowledge and detailed historical investigations have produced works that have set the pattern for subsequent historians.

Woodward accepts the title “liberal,” if somewhat reluctantly:

In the years of struggle over race relations, starting long before the Civil Rights Movement got underway and continuing through its course, the term liberal was all but unavoidable for someone with my views. Admitting a wide span of differences among those who wore it, the identification was clear enough for the issue at hand and could be worn with honor. I am not about to disavow it in that connection. . . . Worn by a Southerner, however, the identification drew one into some strange company and implied a heritage that I could never reconcile with my own views of past or present.

Thinking Back is a reflection on each of his published books. Since Woodward has so often given novel interpretations to Southern history, he has been the subject of a great deal of professional criticism. That criticism plays a major role in his new book, in which he acknowledges that “the subjects I chose to write about have usually been of a controversial nature,” and concedes, “Criticism is the life of the trade in historical ideas and at least half the fun.”

One brief passage in Thinking Back may give an insight into Woodward’s revisionist mind. It has to do with his being offended at the term “Sunbelt” applied to his native South:

To begin with meteorological foundations, the South enjoys more inches of rainfall per year than any other region in the country. The more precipitation, the more clouds and the less sun. It could more appropriately be dubbed the Cloudbelt.

I have no idea why Woodward finds this argument convincing. Anyone who has spent a summer in the South knows perfectly well why it is called the Sunbelt. But it does give some insight into his revisionist thinking. Having looked back over his published work, one gets the impression that the professor must lie awake at night trying to figure out what commonplace notion he can challenge next.

It is generally conceded that Professor Woodward’s most important book is Origins of the New South (also published by LSU Press), which covers the history of the South from 1877 to 1913; however, his book which had the greatest impact was The Strange Career of Jim Crow. This little book had its origin in a series of lectures at the University of Virginia in the year 1954, following hard on the heels of Brown v. Board of Education. Woodward acknowledges that this book probably had a wider reading than all the rest of his books put together.

The book contended that racial segregation, as a legal requirement, was not always part of the South, as many have thought. In fact, Jim Crow only emerged in the late 1800’s and became thoroughly entrenched in the early part of the 20th century. A casual reader might take away the impression that there was some degree of harmonious racial cohabitation between whites and blacks before, say, 1890. In the 1950’s, neither advocates nor detractors of the civil rights movement could avoid realizing the implications. The Strange Career of Jim Crow helped to earn Professor Woodward the title of a historical “presentist,” or a man who writes history with a purpose.

Woodward denies the charge and sees himself as a traditional historian. In fact, he has generally avoided quantitative history or psycho-history. The bulk of his work has consisted of digging into archives, newspapers, and documents of the past. Indeed it was this digging that brought him to the conclusion that the notion of the solid, unified South of the post-Civil War era was largely a myth.

Woodward’s book may not be for everyone. For those interested in history and American historiography, it is an important work and, as Woodward recognizes, unique. It exhibits the vitality that has been characteristic of his writing, and it offers needed insights into his career and thinking.

Why write a book for such a selective audience? Perhaps the book is ultimately a statement of faith. Many of the historical subjects Woodward has examined in his career, Tom Watson, Lewis H. Blair, and George Fitzhugh, all had one common trait: In their last years they renounced the cause they had stood for all their lives. Tom Watson, for instance, had been a progressive-minded leader of the Populist movement from the 1880’s on. A defender of racial equality early in life, he became, in the end, a strident racist.

At 78, Woodward may be trying to tell us that he has not reneged, he has stayed the course. A liberal he was, and a liberal he remains. Of course liberalism implies more than racial tolerance (otherwise most conservatives would be liberals), but that is a question he never addresses.


[Thinking Back, by C. Vann Woodward (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) $12.95]