Comer Vann Woodward (1908–1999)
Comer Vann Woodward was arguably the twentieth century’s foremost Southern historian. Although published in the 1950s, his Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 and The Strange Career of Jim Crow remain vital interpretive narratives.
C. Vann Woodward was born November 13, 1908, to Hugh (Jack) and Emily (Bess) Woodward in Vanndale (Cross County). During Woodward’s youth, his father was a school administrator in Wynne (Cross County), then Arkadelphia (Clark County), and subsequently Morrilton (Conway County). Woodward graduated from high school in Morrilton in 1926 and enrolled at Henderson-Brown College, a small Methodist institution in Arkadelphia. After two years, he transferred to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, graduating in 1930 with an AB in philosophy. Inspired by his uncle and namesake, Comer Woodward, and a social philosophy honed during his undergraduate experience, Woodward emerged from college determined to combat racial and class injustice.
Woodward spent a year teaching English at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, then earned a master’s in political science at Columbia University in New York. Back in Atlanta in the fall of 1932, after a summer touring Europe and the Soviet Union, Woodward became embroiled in a campaign to fund the defense of Angelo Herndon, an African-American communist arrested for publicly protesting the famous Scottsboro case, in which nine black men were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in the rapes of two white women; the defendants were convicted on the basis of flimsy evidence and were given inadequate counsel during their trial. His support of Herndon earned Woodward notoriety as a social rebel. It coincided with Depression-related financial retrenchment at Georgia Tech, bringing the termination of thirty faculty positions, including Woodward’s.
His livelihood derailed, Woodward moved in 1933 to Oxford, Georgia, where his father was the dean of Emory Junior College. Considering but quickly dismissing the idea of writing a novel, Woodward got a Works Progress Administration (WPA) job conducting a sociological survey in rural Georgia. Disheartened by the conditions he witnessed, Woodward concentrated his talent on writing a history that might embolden the South to address its bedeviling issues: race and class.
Interested in the use of these issues by Southern demagogues, Woodward soon focused on Tom Watson of Georgia, a subject whose heirs granted access to their collections of personal papers. Having written four chapters of a Watson biography, Woodward obtained a research grant that enabled him, in 1934, to enroll at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and complete the project as a doctoral dissertation. By his own admission, Woodward’s sole focus at Chapel Hill was finishing the manuscript. Woodward later credited his dissertation supervisor, Howard K. Beale, with making him a better scholar and writer. At Beale’s urging, Woodward sent the manuscript to Macmillan Publishers, which accepted it, and Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, published in 1938, launched his professional writing career.
On December, 21, 1937, Woodward married Glenn Boyd MacLeod. While he taught at the University of Florida, the editors of the multivolume History of the South selected him to write the volume on 1877 to 1913. World War II interrupted his research. Woodward entered the navy and was assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence, where he wrote in-house histories of Pacific battles. After the war, he got the last of these declassified and published as The Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Discharged from the navy in 1946, Woodward accepted a position at Johns Hopkins University. He stayed until 1961, then moved to Yale University. He retired in 1977. The years at Hopkins were Woodward’s most productive, beginning in 1951 with the publication of the long-awaited History of the South volume titled, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913. This work reframed the study of post–Civil War Southern history. In it, Woodward advanced revisionist interpretations of the Compromise of 1877 (a monographic treatment of that topic, Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877, also appeared in 1951); the South’s late-nineteenth-century economic and political transformation; and the emergence of Jim Crow segregation. Origins remains a key source for students of the post-Civil War South.
Origins secured Woodward’s position in the pantheon of Southern historians, but he was far from finished. In 1954, he delivered a lecture series at the University of Virginia. Published the next year as The Strange Career of Jim Crow, it exploded in sales after Martin Luther King Jr. said it was the bible of the civil rights movement. In it, Woodward contended that racial segregation did not emerge immediately after the Civil War ended slavery. Rather, race relations evolved during the generation after Reconstruction until Southern state and local governments codified systems of racial segregation. Strange Career is still a significant text in courses that study segregation and the Civil Rights Movement.
After Strange Career, Woodward’s scholarship focused primarily on essays and edited works. His most celebrated essays, published in 1960 as The Burden of Southern History, grappled with the South’s distinctiveness and approaches to class and race issues. The principal example of his editorial output, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
Woodward also received recognition from his peers. He served as president of the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Historical Association.
Woodward died on December 17, 1999, at his home in Connecticut, but the tributes to his scholarship and contributions to the historical profession continue into the twenty-first century. Yale University Press published a collection of his letters in 2013, and in 2020, Oxford University Press published The Lost Lectures of C. Vann Woodward.
For additional information:
Boles, John B., and Bethany L. Johnson, eds. Origins of the New South Fifty Years Later: The Continuing Influence of a Historical Classic. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.
“C. Vann Woodward, 1908–1999: In Memoriam.” Journal of Southern History 66 (May 2000): 207–220.
Cobb, James C. C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022.
———. “‘On the Pinnacle in Yankeeland’: C. Vann Woodward as a (Southern) Renaissance Man.” Journal of Southern History 67 (November 2001): 741–768.
Green, James. “Past and Present in Southern History: An Interview with C. Vann Woodward.” Radical History Review 36 (1986): 80–100.
Kousser, J. Morgan, and James M. McPherson. Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.
O’Brien, Michael, ed. The Letters of C. Vann Woodward. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
Ring, Natalie J., and Sarah E. Gardner, eds. The Lost Lectures of C. Vann Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
Roper, John Herbert, ed. C. Vann Woodward: A Southern Historian and His Critics. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
Thornton, J. Mills, III. “C. Vann Woodward: November 13, 1908–December 17, 1999.” Civil War History 46 (2000): 337–340.
Brady M. Banta
Arkansas State University
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As I read Woodward’s essay on working with Mary Chesnut’s writing, I wished that he could have read The New Purchase(1843/1855) by Baynard Rush Hall, founding professor of Indiana University. Hall’s book is all of those enigmatic genres and styles, and much decried, misunderstood, neglected, and overlooked. To redeem him, as he is one of my favorite Hoosier writers (and he was in a sense), I wrote a biography, Baynard Rush Hall: His Story (2009). My work has been just as much ignored as his. Neither of us being, I suppose, a Mary Chesnut. But Woodward would have found a southern thread in The New Purchase, and my book, and maybe would have enjoyed it.
(2015) I found a copy of The Strange Career of Jim Crow in a used bookstore in the early 1980s. It was my first exposure to the origins of that system. I was uplifted and felt I had found the keys to the kingdom of learning about racism, which I could never understand as an African American. I had no idea that Dr. King had promoted the book highly. I knew it was impossible, but I would have loved to meet Woodward as a student of his. Dr. King mentioned Woodward in his Montgomery speech after the Selma March. I saw it this year.