C. Vann Woodward and Me by Dr. Bertram Wyatt-Brown

Introduction: Guest Blog—Dr. Bertram Wyatt-Brown

I do not have the silver tongue—or pen, or keyboard, as it were—that my Bowtied colleagues are blessed with, and thus cannot write the introduction our most recent contributor deserves; we will simply settle for what I am able to present here in my limited impression of eloquence.  Fortunately, this man needs no introduction among these pages.  Rare, indeed, would be the dedicated reader of this blog who did not know the author of the landmark Southern Honor, even when he or she desires to confine their perusing to the expedited meat of Honor and Violence in the Old South.

I do not know said contributor, but I have met him, which is to say I have accosted and fawned over him at the Southern Historical Association’s Annual Meeting.  While his accolades are well known to readers, his demeanor—humorous, humble, and remarkably appreciative of a younger generation—is evident in a conversation of a few minutes and worth mentioning alongside his historical contributions.  As impressive to the editors of this blog, given our name and penchant for southern haberdashery, is his ability to wear what can only be described as an industrial sized bowtie the way in which the good Lord intended it to be worn.  Few men have the panache to set trends in both fashion and historiography.

This contribution is special beyond its author, however, for it is not his scholarship which is presented but his reminiscences.  Here is a great Southern historian telling the story of another great Southern historian.  Would that we could all be so lucky; I can see JHW’s eyes flash as he imagines what he will write about Dr. Jim Cobb in 50 years, or what MCH will say of Inscoe.  Before those stories are told, however, and ruin autobiography as an appreciated means of storytelling, we offer Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s memories of working with C. Vann Woodward.  In the words of one of my personal favorite Southern historians: “Ladies and gentlemen, A great American, on a great American.”


C. Vann Woodward and Me

My association with C. Vann Woodward began in 1957. I was then at King’s College, Cambridge, where I had been elected to an undergraduate honor society which met in the Gibbs Building next to the famous Chapel. The first duty of an initiate was to write a paper for reading to the members. I had chosen the Southampton Insurrection of 1831. I am happy to say the contents of that paper, based on some Lost Cause style authors, has disappeared. It was god-awful. But while searching the stacks at the Cambridge University Library, I happened upon Woodward’s Harmsworth Lecture, “American Attitudes toward History” at Oxford in 1955. I thought, here was a historian who wrote like a great novelist.

Woodward himself once wrote that Southern history, most especially, was burdened by “prose so pedestrian, pages so dull, chapters so devoid of ideas, whole volumes so wrong-headed or lacking in point” that he had despaired. He could have broadened his indictment to the entire academic history enterprise. I had once been an English major but had only returned to my first love, History, the previous year, repelled by the arrogance of literary critics like F. R Leavis of Downing College, Cambridge. The wild-haired, tiny lecturer was a once powerful arbiter of literary taste. I was deeply impressed with the complexity and suppleness of Woodward’s style. At once I determined to study under his direction at Johns Hopkins University. Luckily, the ambition worked out. I began my studies at Baltimore in the fall.

That first year was none too easy. Woodward proved to be a formidable and distant mentor. He was also a very hesitant and unimpressive classroom performer. Held just after lunch in a sunny room, his lectures could put students like me to sleep. Making matters worse, I had not had American History since prep school. It was well taught but years in the past. I once went up to Dr. Woodward after a lecture to say that I was amazed to learn that there had been a two-party South before the Civil War. The look I got suggested that he was dumbfounded. To visit him in his Gilman Hall office was a descent into an earthly Hades. A timid knock on the door, a hasty search in the gloom for a chair–he had only a desk light for illumination with shades drawn. And then a gush of incoherent words spoken out of nervousness was sure to follow. A friend, Jack Key, once confided to me as we approached Woodward’s door, “I’ve got to see God now.” I commiserated. But that was the limit of a negative side.

At seminar Woodward was brief, incisive, and tough in critiquing the research papers. But he was always fair. Sheldon Hackney, one of his distinguished Yale students, wrote me the other day and observed, “I always thought his curious style of classroom and other behavior gave way to greatness when he critiqued the written work of his students. That was his real strength.” Compliments might come hesitantly from his lips. Yet the constructiveness of his remarks set us on the right path. Above all, he was particularly open-minded about the subjects of our papers. He hoped to instill an intellectual autonomy. That first semester, however, had me finally begging him for a topic. I knew too little to find my own. He suggested “The Civil Rights Act of 1875.” Woodward had been rightly skeptical that its passage was truly a memorial for the recently deceased Charles Sumner. This was at a time when the 1957 Congress was passing the first such reform since the end of Grant’s term. The result, proving his doubts, was an in-house “Honorable Mention” for my paper. Among the first of mine to be published, it later appeared in a scholarly political science journal.

Some years further into my graduate studies, Lily Lavarello, the History secretary, was bustling almost breathlessly down the corridor. Like a bailiff about to deliver a court-order summons, her purpose was to pass on a faculty order, the Big Moment of Truth. She announced that by the following week we had to present our dissertation topics and defend them. Panic all around! Some, like me, had not progressed as fast as we should have. Owen Edwards, a fellow student, remembers that on a late night at the Gilman Hall library, he heard a shriek of delight. I emerged triumphantly from the E stacks to show him a copy of the Life of Arthur Tappan, written by brother Lewis in 1870. I gushed that everything in the work indicated that Lewis was modestly attributing great abolitionist doings to his taciturn, retiring but zealous brother, a wealthy merchant of Manhattan. Here was a chance to set the record straight. The next morning, a bunch of us piled into my four-door, second-hand 1951 Chevrolet and headed for the Library of Congress Archives. Eureka! Heavens be praised. I found virgin material. The Lewis Tappan papers had not been exploited earlier. In a state of overwrought enthusiasm, I produced a truly forgettable prospectus. It was entitled, “Lewis Tappan and the Pillars of the House Dividing.” As the assigned student critic, David Hackett Fischer was comparatively merciful.

Vann Woodward, ever the Southern gentleman, never had much good to say about abolitionism. But he did not deviate from his policy of encouraging freedom of thought. When in later years as an adviser myself, I conscientiously imitated his strategy. Let the student pick his or her subject. Dr. Woodward would never have forced us to work on a project designed to aid his own researches. Some professors are prone to do just that.

And Woodward could unbend. There was a fall cocktail party that he and his gracious wife Glenn gave at their Roland Park house. On one memorable summer day, the temperature had risen in the un-air-conditioned library. Dr. Woodward overcame his usual shyness and crossed from his office to our desks to see us all sweating over our studies. He asked if anyone knew where we could find a nearby swimming place. Dave suggested Oregon, an abandoned but water-filled iron quarry outside town. We swam out to a float. On that watery platform, an informal seminar began. Dave Fischer, Willie Rose, Charlie Dew, and I had joined our suddenly more approachable adviser. Dave charmingly recalls how he remembered that a student of the great Mark Hopkins of Williams College, had thought the ideal means of instruction to be a log with Hopkins on one end and the student on the other. As it was, we were on a raft floating in a clear pool with Vann Woodward at one side and the graduate students at the other end. As I recollect there or later, one of us, probably Dave, mused, “What if that float had sunk and all of us drowned? Where would American History be thereafter?” The conceit is clear in both senses of the word. But the biggest loss, we all agreed, would have been Vann Woodward himself. I was his last student at Hopkins to receive the PhD. He had decided to leave Hopkins to accept a generous offer from Yale.

I fast forward to a later date. In his final years, Vann, as I could now call him as a dear friend as well as constant counselor and recommender, mellowed. For years he had written letters for my and others’ grant applications, had sought to help when I desperately had to find a new position, and had kept a lively interest in our lives, and most especially in our scholarly output. That was especially true when our first daughter died at age seven in 1971. He had lost his only son Peter to cancer in the summer of 1969.

Woodward was so pleased whenever his students presented him with their latest books. When I finished Southern Honor in 1981, he recommended that I send it to Sheldon Meyer at Oxford University Press. Sheldon forwarded the proofs to Vann not long before the OAH meeting in Philadelphia. We accidentally ran into each other in the hotel lobby. He greeted me warmly and said, “Bert, I think, you’ve done it.” It was the proudest moment in my life. It was especially gratifying because I had unnecessarily worried about how he would take my direct slap at his major themes in the opening pages. I challenged his idea of Southern historical irony. Moreover, I quarreled with his views about a section with abrupt moments of discontinuity in its history. It was my opinion that white Southerners had no sense of irony. Nor did they generally question their cherished beliefs. Of course, there had been catastrophic moments in Southern history, as he observed. Nonetheless, structures of custom and tradition remained in tact. This cultural mind set permitted few signs of introspection. That was the character of the ancient ethic of honor. He scarcely minded at all.

By letter later on, Woodward warned me not to get my hopes up too high. I would win no major awards. Originality of thought, he advised, would not garner prize-worthy applause. He was almost right. The book was fortuitously a finalist for the American Book Award and the Pulitzer in 1983. But the harsh criticism that he predicted did appear.

I have to conclude with just a word about my Southern Historical Association Presidential address in 2000, “Tom Watson Revisited.” It played off Woodward’s open-mindedness about his critics and dissenters like me. It runs like this: “Long before the Yale professor died in November 1999, I had begun some research into Tom Watson’s life. I knew Woodward would not mind such an intrusion on his biographical domain.”1 In fact, he prized the rapier parries of debate about his publications. In the Journal of American History, he published a memorable article. “The Strange Career of [Jim Crow] Critics,” as he called his detractors. It bore the subtitle, “Long May They Persevere.” How pleasing it would be, he thought, to remain in the public and professional eye.2 That is the marvelous thing about Vann Woodward. He himself had once been a challenger of outworn racial assumptions and accepted views of the Southern past. He had even had an early taste for militancy. With greater maturity, though, he recognized that reform was far wiser than revolution. While critical of Black Separatism, he became a public historian helping to awaken a national conscience on matters of racial fairness and advancement. I quote from a recent message from Dave which sheds further light on Vann’s exceptional perceptiveness about life and its sorrows. “I always felt something else too, a sadness in him. I knew very little of his own private world, and thought that melancholia was a condition of many thoughtful southerners. But there was also something else–a kindness in Vann–a very decent and kindly and caring man–and that is the way I remember him.” This side of Vann is what so many of us will never forget.

Some of Vann Woodward’s ideas were later proved problematic. Yet he realized that over the course of time Clio is a muse that seems to turn ephemeral and ghostlike. Then, history is promptly re-framed and perhaps re-mythologized. The repudiation of the old and installation of the new are designed to suit the tastes of the upcoming generation. Historical truth, he recognized, is never fully captured. Woodward’s deep understanding of human nature and the human past, his willingness to consider fresh approaches and ideas, his complexity and subtlety of mind, and his magical gift with words should continue to inspire us all, both the old and the young.

Dr. Bertram Wyatt-Brown
Author of Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South

1.  C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (1938; New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 1963).

2. C. Vann Woodward, “Strange Career Critics: Long May They Persevere,” Journal of American History 75 (December 1988):857-68.

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6 Responses to C. Vann Woodward and Me by Dr. Bertram Wyatt-Brown

  1. Angela says:

    What a post! Fascinating from the first word to the last. Thank you for sharing Dr. Wyatt-Brown. And thank you, Bowtied and Fried, for the diversity of topics you seek out and post in this corner of the web. Your interesting essays, cultural polls, book reviews, and personal posts (like the one above) make this a blog of tremendous academic value and entertainment that I know many enjoy reading.

    • RCP says:

      I’ll bet you say that to all the bloggers.

      • Angela says:

        Ha, let me assure you, I do not! I was literally laughing out loud in my office during parts of this post–it was great fun and incredibly interesting. And when I said that I enjoyed it from the first word to the last, RCP, that included your first words…

  2. MCH says:

    Absolutely fascinating. This sort of accessible linkage–equal parts nostalgia, biography, and shared experience–between the past and present of southern history is precisely what makes the annual SHA meeting like Christmas come early for graduate students. Simply stated: Bert is the man.

  3. welborntiger says:

    Oh! To have been on that veritable Noah’s Ark of modern Southern historical study! I’m nearly lost for words (an infrequent occasion for sure) as to how I can express my appreciation for this subject, its author, and the glimpse it provides of the historical profession at its finest. Having joined my fellow Bowtied contingent in the accost of Dr. Bertram at the 2010 Southern, I corroborate all of the kinds words and favorable impressions gleaned from this chance (and all-to-brief) encounter. Between the two of them, Dr. Woodward and Dr. Wyatt-Brown produced works that serve as pillars of Southern historiography. But even more than that, their works represent historical writing at its interesting, engaging, and enlightening best. Not only through their works, but through their teaching, mentoring, and generally gracious interaction with both established and fledgling scholars, the authors have bequeathed a Southern historical canon worthy of emulation. Thank you Dr. Bertram!

    p.s. Per usual, RCP has woefully sold himself short regarding his prowess with the pen and poignancy of mind! Should I ever garner an introduction, you’re the man for the job! Well done, sir, well done.

  4. MCH says:

    Upon reading this again, I was immediately struck by the presumption that none of my advisors will ever invite me on an impromptu rafting trip. That, and how long it would take the police to show up if RCP, welborntiger, and myself were ever spotted together in an abandoned mine facility.

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