The wit and wisdom of a master
By William S. McFeely
September 5, 2013
The Letters of C. Vann Woodward, Edited by Michael O’Brien, Yale University Press, 480 pp., $40
I cannot pretend to be objective about this book. I was in the first seminar C. Vann Woodward taught after coming to Yale. That was just the beginning. Once I got over being his terrified student, my life and Vann’s were entwined until his death. He wrote a lot of letters. From the 96-box collection of his papers in the Yale library, Michael O’Brien has chosen 294 of them, arranged chronologically and written between 1926 and 1999, the year Woodward died at age 91. A professor of American history at Cambridge, O’Brien deemed his selections worthy of being in print, rather than simply available for scholarly research, for their intrinsic value as “engaging epistles.” That they are.
O’Brien’s 36-page introduction—the grace of its prose worthy of its subject—is a learned and excellent intellectual study of the preeminent historian of the South. It is particularly useful because Woodward only rarely tells us in his letters about his writings, which so altered our view of the region. O’Brien early on includes several long letters to Woodward’s close friend Glenn Rainey, a Georgia poet and historian. Interesting in themselves, they suggest the theme of the book: the importance of, almost his dependence on, the friends to whom Woodward writes his intimate, witty letters.
Woodward was a long time getting to history as he searched for his place in the academy. Once there, he was the consummate historian, totally loyal to the calling. Yet there was a single photograph on his office wall—of William Faulkner. In the early days, when he was trying out disciplines, Woodward was a master’s student at Columbia and got to know Harlem. In a letter to Rainey, he gives an account of an unlikely adventure—playing Simon Legree in a Harlem Experimental Theatre adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If writing was his strength, speaking was not, and Woodward as actor is just one of his many surprises.
The letters give rare insight into the evolution and complexity of Woodward’s thought. In 1955, when he was the Harmsworth Professor at Oxford, he wrote candidly to two fellow southerners and historians of the South, George Tindall and Dewey Grantham. To Tindall, he ruminates over ideas that were to appear in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, which became the bible of the civil rights movement. To Grantham, Woodward, always the southerner, is troubled by the moralistic nationalism of some of his countrymen in their criticism of the segregated South: “To my mind, the Southerner’s not for burning, only cauterizing, maybe, or purging by the flame. I’m quite ready to apply the blowtorch in spots. But I’m not ready for a general conflagration.” (Woodward’s The Burden of Southern History had yet to come.) Other letters give a rich look at some of the mid-20th century’s brightest minds. The eminent historian Richard Hofstadter was not only a close friend but also the recipient of Woodward’s learned comments on his writing. These letters, like those to other prominent intellectuals, will send 21st-century scholars burrowing in the archives for more.
O’Brien’s notes are excellent and never intrusive. They are scarcely needed for context; Woodward tells his correspondents in clear and succinct prose what he is writing about. Only rarely do both letter writer and editor let us down. In May 1959, Woodward and accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss had dinner together and then retired to a private residence where Hiss gave astonishingly candid responses to prying questions. The resulting memorandum—not a letter—appears to be a transcription of their conversation, but O’Brien does not offer even a conjecture as to how Woodward came to have it. Did he have a tape recorder? And just what did Woodward think of the evening?
Woodward is a good storyteller. He was the marshal at a June 1958 graduation ceremony, which he describes in a letter to an Oxford friend, Herbert Nicholas: “As you know, there is still a slight tendency to defer to Old World precedent, particularly in ceremonial and ritual matters. But at Johns Hopkins University under the Milton Eisenhower regime there is a gratifying effort to keep abreast of the march of time.” Honorary degrees were to be conferred on President Dwight Eisenhower and visiting British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. “At 10:40 A.M. the President and the PM leave the White House, having put in a hard morning at negotiating treaties, swapping H-bomb secrets, etc., pop into two helicopters … and off they are whisked to Baltimore,” landing “at precisely 10:55.” Degrees conferred, Macmillan’s speech given; “Managed to slip the PM … a whiskey … then back to the waiting copters…. One hour and thirty-five minutes, portal to portal!”
Occasionally Woodward disguises deep personal tragedy, as in a chatty letter to Willie Lee Rose. One of his favorite students, she was at the height of her career when she suffered a debilitating stroke. His cheerful news of Rose’s fellow students, to which he knows she cannot respond, hides his sadness. Woodward had more than his share of this. Cancer seemed almost epidemic in his circle. He was devastated when his only son was struck, and it is poignant to read his many stoical mentions of Peter’s death. Intimate friends were immensely important to Woodward. When his brilliant, controversial friend, Yale law professor Alex Bickel also died of cancer, he wrote, “Sometimes I thought I would have hated him—had I not loved him.”
O’Brien is a sly editor. Aware of how Woodward cherished his privacy, he nevertheless includes remarkable letters the historian wrote to his former lover, Antonina Jones Hansell. (Woodward, after all, had kept them.) To “Nina” he is astonishingly candid, both before and after his marriage, which “has not been a very exciting or stimulating arrangement—and perhaps it should not be,” he writes. “I had once fancied that such a fine fierce fellow as myself demanded a mate equally independent and bent on her own high destiny.” But he had chosen a different kind of girl. His 1937 marriage to Glenn MacLeod lasted the rest of her life. When she died, in 1984, he wrote a touching note to his old friend, civil rights activist Virginia Durr, saying simply, “I still love her.”
You can now read scholarly work on the South that does not refer to Woodward, once impossible to do. He was aware of becoming “old hat,” mentioning it in a generous 1995 letter to Edward L. Ayers, a historian in the business of revising the master. The publication of Letters might just remove that hat.
William S. McFeely is the Abraham Baldwin Professor of Humanities, emeritus, at the University of Georgia. His Grant: A Biography received the Pulitzer Prize.