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C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian

Author(s):Cobb, James C.
Reviewer(s):Coclanis, Peter A.

Published by EH.Net (July 2023).

James C. Cobb. C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022. 490 pp. $37.50 (hardcover). ISBN978-1469670218.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Peter A. Coclanis, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.


Any shortlist of the greatest American historians of the twentieth century would include C. Vann Woodward. The Arkansas-born historian, who spent most of his career teaching at Johns Hopkins and at Yale, was not only an adroit chronicler of the history of the U.S. South, particularly in the period after 1865, but also a masterful prose stylist, known especially for his adept use of irony in his myriad works. Irony informed Woodward’s life and career as well, as James C. Cobb makes clear in this excellent new biography. One can in fact argue that no other term captures the essence of Woodward so well.

For starters, Woodward was a renowned historian who as a young man disliked history and was bored by, if not dismissive of historians and their work. In his own view and that of others, he was a mediocre Ph.D. student at UNC-Chapel Hill, and reluctant to become a professional historian. Over the course of his storied career, most of his conventional works were under-researched and many of his major arguments were eventually overturned. Friends and foes alike often found his use of evidence strained and his present-oriented interpretations tendentious, however useful politically. He was a poor lecturer, grudging teacher, particularly of undergraduates, and throughout his career worked assiduously to get out of as many classroom commitments as he could. He essentially stopped doing primary research in mid-career and, by modern standards, commonly breached ethical protocols by reviewing the grant applications of friends and colleagues and the books of his former graduate students without hesitation, much less acknowledgement of probable conflicts of interest.

Just to be clear, let me reiterate that, the above considerations notwithstanding, Woodward is considered one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, with which assessment I concur. Why? To cut to the chase, so original and often brilliant were his critical insights, so well-wrought his classic essays and influential book reviews, so crystalline his prose, so important a public intellectual was Woodward that, even after acknowledging his scholarly and professional deficiencies, one legitimately can and should append an interrogatory “so what?” Indeed, Woodward’s keen moral vision and the sense of hope it inspired among many southerners during the age of segregation alone render his scholarly and professional flaws minor, even petty in comparison.

* * *

Comer Vann Woodward was born in eastern Arkansas in the town of Vanndale in 1908. He was of eminently respectable, if not particularly wealthy stock, his family line populated by landowners, merchants, clergy, and educators. His father was an educator at the time of “Vann’s” birth and remained one for most of his working life, although in his later years, after stints at the secondary-school, junior college, and university levels in Arkansas and Georgia, he made ends meet as a sales agent for an insurance company. Vann was an intellectually curious child, who, after graduating from high school in Morrilton, Arkansas, spent two years at Henderson-Brown College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, before transferring to Emory University in Atlanta, whence he graduated with a major in philosophy in 1930. After a short stint teaching English at Georgia Tech, he enrolled in graduate school at Columbia, receiving an M.A. in history there in 1932. He spent the next two years knocking about a bit—travelling to Europe (including a month-long stay in the Soviet Union), returning to Georgia Tech to teach for a time, and, after getting laid off there, working for the Works Progress Administration.

At Columbia, he had developed an interest in studying southern demagogues, and in time homed in on Tom Watson, the Georgia populist firebrand turned race baiter. Woodward started writing a biography of Watson in the years following his M.A. It was his avid interest in finding a way to fund the completion of his study on Watson that got him interested in Chapel Hill—the Watson Papers were housed at UNC—and that eventually led him into the graduate program in history there in September 1934. Employing his own and his family’s educational contacts and networks–cultural capital, as it were –Woodward secured private foundation support for his biography, which, supplemented by funding from UNC, would enable him to complete his biography, and, almost incidentally, to acquire a Ph.D. (“the Cursed Degree,” as he put it). Woodward did the latter in May 1937, submitting his study of Watson as his dissertation, which study was published shortly thereafter by Macmillan in spring 1938 as Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, the first major notch on Woodward’s remarkable scholarly belt.

Woodward’s controversial take on Watson was very much influenced by the economic interpretation of history of Charles and Mary Beard. Woodward’s Beardian tendencies were reinforced by his dissertation adviser at UNC, Howard K. Beale, an eminent Beardian in his own right. Such tendencies led Woodward both to (mis)interpret Georgia populists as “a vanguard against the advancing capitalist plutocracy” and to overstate the inter-racial, class-based, anti-capitalist dimensions of Watson’s populist appeal in the late nineteenth century, before the Georgia pol’s notorious turn toward racial bigotry, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and intense white supremacy later in life. That said, the book was well written and certainly had a dramatic (“tragic”) narrative arc. It was generally well received at the time, and struck a blow against the long regnant, intellectually stifling Lost Cause/Redemptionist view of New South history, in so doing, opening up more interpretive space for others—as well as for Woodward himself– to mount further challenges in the years ahead.

The success of Tom Watson soon brought new teaching and scholarly opportunities to Woodward. interrupted by military service during World War II. Woodward served short teaching stints at the University of Virginia, the University of Florida, and at Scripps College in California before entering the military in 1943, serving in Washington, D.C. as a commissioned intelligence officer with the Navy. While in D.C. his work focused mostly around writing intelligence reports, one of which– on the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines– was published by Macmillan in 1947. By then, Woodward was out of the military and back in academe, having accepted a position at Johns Hopkins in 1946, at which school he would remain until leaving for Yale in 1961.

Woodward’s principal scholarly efforts during the 1940s and early 1950s revolved around the volume that became The Origins of the New South, 1877-1913, a field-defining work if ever there was one. After the publication of Tom Watson, Woodward had begun a few other projects, later aborted—one on Eugene V. Debs and another on New South promoter Henry Grady—before signing a contract with the LSU Press in 1939 to write a synthesis of the late nineteenth-century/early-twentieth-century period for the press’s new “History of the South” series. World War II, along with problems posed by the relative lack of secondary literature on the period in question set back Woodward’s timetable for completion considerably, but when his book finally appeared in November 1951 it proved well worth the wait.

Although still marked—in my view, marred—by the Manichean economic determinism characteristic of the Beardian approach, with crass economic self-interest at once driving and reflected in political behavior, Origins represented a turning point in the historiography. After its appearance, it would prove virtually impossible to retain, let alone to sustain the heroic, heavily romanticized Lost Cause, pro-Redeemer view of the era once so dominant in the literature, specialist and popular alike. Indeed, to Woodward it was none other than the so-called Redeemers, the unscrupulous Democratic elites, mostly merchants and manufacturers, who controlled southern politics in the era after Reconstruction, who bear the brunt of the blame for the region’s protracted economic and political misfortunes. To be sure, they worked in collusion with plutocratic Republican capitalists from the “Industrial Northeast,” who, after being courted successfully by New South promoters of the Grady ilk, in time came to dominate the southern economy (in Woodward’s view at least). Far from redeeming the South, the region’s Democratic elites sold out the southern masses, black and white alike, only to become, ironically, the junior partners of northern capital in the “colonial economy” that emerged and long persisted, so the author argues in his famous Chapter XI (“The Colonial Economy”).

Origins was not only a turning point in southern historiography, but also a critical success, to which its receipt of the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 1952 attests. In some ways Woodward had already laid the groundwork for its success through the publication earlier in 1951 of Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction, which was essentially a spin-off or outtake from Origins, wherein the author interpreted the famous compromise through his familiar Beardian lens. Rather than being a partisan compromise over the presidency and over the removal of remaining federal troops in the South, the real issue in Woodward’s complicated, conspiratorial interpretation was one of competition between northern railroad magnates over the southern railroad route to California, the terms for whose ultimate resolution included the ascension of the Republican Hayes to the presidency, railroad subsidies, internal improvements of various types for the South, enhanced patronage for southern Democrats, etc. In other words, a Beardian feast. Over time, Woodward’s intricate interpretation came in for heavy fire—particularly his rudimentary analysis of the voting behavior of southern Congressional Democrats–but in the short run it served with Origins as another powerful shot against the Lost Cause historiographical bow. And from a twenty-first century perspective, both Origins and Reunion and Reaction—indeed, Tom Watson too– can be seen as works with a sense of political economy that, along with W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction in America, anticipated interpretive lines associated in recent decades with the new history of capitalism.

As Woodward and others worked to tear down the intellectual support for the Lost Cause, parallel developments in the public sphere during the early postwar period were in the process of dismantling the most egregious policy architecture associated with so-called New South: Racial segregation. The key demonstration of this process in the policy realm was, of course, the Supreme Court’s Brown decision pertaining to school segregation (1954). Woodward had played a minor role in the preparation of materials for the challenge to school segregation, but his principal importance to desegregation efforts obviously was via his most famous book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955)—originating in a set of lectures Woodward presented at the University of Virginia in September 1954–wherein he attempted to delimit and delegitimize the policy regime through historicization. Whereas many at the time believed or at least wanted to believe that segregation was inherent to, even constitutive of southern life and mores, Woodward argued in Strange Career that segregation was a relatively recent policy phenomenon in the South, appearing in piecemeal fashion, and never in a general codified way until the 1890s and 1900s. The upshot of this argument, of course, was that segregation was not foreordained, much less inevitable: The South had existed for a long time without de jure racial segregation and could –and, assuming the good will of its citizenry, would– do so again.

At this remove, it is difficult for me, a non-southerner, fully to grasp or even imagine the sense of hope that Woodward inspired among many reform-minded southerners at the time through his effort in Strange Career to unsettle settled history and thereby to destabilize the segregation narrative. The book’s timing was as propitious as its tone measured. Sales were brisk and enduring–the book went through multiple printings and several editions—proving useful, even instrumental to various constituencies working for desegregation, and raising Woodward’s profile both in the historical profession and with the broader public. If subsequent researchers challenged some aspects of his argument, particularly his contention that segregation emerged as late as it did in the postbellum South, the book remains Woodward’s most famous work, a touchstone of activist history, that is, of history that is concerned with the creation of “a usable past,” as the Progressive Era critic Van Wyck Brooks famously put it in 1918. It was largely because of Strange Career that Woodward earned the descriptor used in the title of Cobb’s biography: America’s Historian.

In some important ways, the years 1951-1955 marked the apogee of Woodward’s scholarly career, especially if one adds to the above mix his masterly essay “The Irony of Southern History” which first appeared in 1953 in the Journal of Southern History. In this famous piece, an outgrowth of his 1952 presidential address to the Southern Historical Association, Woodward invokes what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had recently referred to as Americans’ “illusions of innocence and virtue” in making a case for a greater sense of national humility. In Woodward’s view, the South, the only region in the U.S. to have experienced defeat and, thus, to have had “history” happen to—or, perhaps more to the point, imposed upon– its people, might as an ironic result be in position to help America to mature, and thereby, to develop the national humility and broad sympathies needed not merely to survive but to thrive in an diverse and perilous world. If Woodward’s hopes in this regard were not realized—the South has yet to play the role Woodward laid out for it—his essay, a model of the form, is of enduring interest.

Although most of those who have studied Woodward concede that his most important scholarly contributions were made by 1955, they would be quick to add that Woodward would continue to produce valuable work through the remainder of his career, indeed, almost until the time of his death at the age of 91 in 1999. Most of his later writings appeared in the form of essays, published lectures, and reviews, not in research monographs or syntheses, but he also published an interesting memoir/career retrospective in 1986, as well as an edited work for which he would win an unexpected Pulitzer Prize in 1982: His controversial 1981 “blended” edition of South Carolinian Mary Boykin Chesnut’s Civil War era diary/memoir. Woodward’s Pulitzer, many believed, was more a lifetime achievement award than an honoring of his editorially odd rendering of Chesnut’s diary/memoir itself, but it was a Pulitzer nonetheless.

If the latter half of Woodward’s career is sometimes seen as anti-climactic after its dazzling start, such an assessment seems unfair, or at least incomplete. He never did produce a promised general history of Reconstruction, but his essays and reviews were often noteworthy and sometimes “buzzworthy,” as they say: His profound 1958 essay (“The Search for Southern Identity”) exploring southern regional distinctiveness and the implications of its decline, and his insightful (to some, inciteful) essay “Clio with Soul,” which appeared in the Journal of American History in 1969 are cases in point. Regarding the course of Woodward’s career: It is interesting to note that “Clio with Soul” originated as his presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, one of two large, powerful historical associations he presided over in that year (the American Historical Association being the other).

During his “later” period, Woodward trained impressive graduate students both at Hopkins and especially at Yale, where he moved in 1961, succeeding his longtime friend and undergraduate classmate at Emory, David Potter, who had decamped for Stanford. Many of Woodward’s students themselves became major figures in the field of southern history, to which the all-star cast included in a 1982 festschrift in honor of Woodward, edited by two of his former students, J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, amply attests.

If Woodward preferred research and writing to teaching, he clearly had a knack for attracting and training – or at least encouraging and inspiring—talent, and for promoting his students’ careers in enormously helpful ways once they had completed their training. Such help came in a variety of forms: Well-timed phone calls, letters of recommendation, introductions to publishers, and, more controversially, his glowing reviews in prominent venues of books by former students without specifying for readers the nature of his relationship with the author.

When not writing or teaching, Woodward also spent a good deal of his time reading manuscripts serving on professional committees, and participating in editing projects, including co-editorship of the (almost comically) long-gestating Oxford History of the United States series, which originated in 1961. By the time of Woodward’s death in 1999, only four volumes in the projected eleven-volume series had appeared, although five more have been published since then.

Woodward’s preferential option throughout his career was to avoid academic politics, which he generally did, but late in the game he found himself embroiled in several major brouhahas at Yale, each of which is treated by Cobb: Woodward’s stance against “Black Studies” in the late 1960s and early 1970s; his fierce defense of free speech at Yale in the early 1970s, the principal result of which was the inspiring Woodward report of 1974; and his ferocious, incongruous and seemingly out-of-character campaign in the mid-1970s to keep Marxist scholar and Communist Party of the USA member Herbert Aptheker from teaching a course on W.E.B. DuBois at Yale.

As the above activities suggest, Woodward’s career after Strange Career was hardly uneventful, and perhaps not even anti-climactic, at least from the point of view of mere mortals like this reviewer. Later life often seemed to bring happiness to Woodward, along with inevitably, sadness and loss. As Arthur C. Brooks has often noted, happiness later in life frequently comes in the form of meaningful work—in Woodward’s case, writing, teaching, mentoring, etc.—and strong, enduring relationships with family and friends, which Woodward enjoyed. Woodward had married Glenn Boyd Macleod of Greensboro, North Carolina in 1937, and, according to Cobb, the couple had a “mutually loving and appreciative marriage” until Glenn’s death of cancer in 1982. The great tragedy of the Woodwards’ marriage and family life was the death of Vann and Glenn’s much-loved only child, Peter, of metastatic Melanoma in 1969 when he was only 26. Glenn, prone to depression, never seems to have recovered completely from Peter’s death. Indeed, death and loss punctuated Woodward’s later life, with many of his closest friends—Potter, Richard Hofstadter, Alexander Bickel, and Robert Penn Warren among them—dying well before him, and others drifting away.

Late in his career some colleagues in the profession seemed to drift away as well, as Woodward—a lifelong liberal, after a short dalliance in the 1930s with positions further to the left –began to be seen as listing toward the right. As evidence of his rightward tilt, critics pointed to Woodward’s opposition to identity politics and identity-studies units in the academy, as well as what they considered his absolutist defense of free speech. In addition, in making their case, critics brought up Woodward’s acceptance in 1993 of a National Association of Scholars’ memorial award named for conservative philosopher Sidney Hook. To this reviewer at least, Woodward’s stances in the above matters were at once principled and liberal outgrowths of his lifelong commitment to integration and his longtime and well-documented defense of what was once known (without irony) as the marketplace of ideas. It was not Woodward who moved, but others, tending portside, around him.

In C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian, Cobb, one of the most distinguished living historians of the American South, treats all the matters discussed in this review and more, including several examples of Woodward’s social activism. Building on earlier studies by historians John Herbert Roper and Michael O’Brien among others and on the extensive critical literature on Woodward’s scholarship, Cobb has produced a deeply researched, judicious, and eloquent biography worthy of the man chosen for study. Cobb clearly admires Woodward a great deal, but is fair and balanced throughout, never shying away from difficult issues, whether problems in some of Woodward’s work or instances of hard-to-explain behavior by Woodward—his relentless campaign in the mid-70s to keep Herbert Aptheker from teaching a course at Yale, most notably.

As a bit of a coda, intended for readers of the EH.Net site specifically, let me stress that Woodward was not an economic historian. To be sure, he wrote on matters economic, from a Beard-inflected political economy perspective, but he was at heart a traditional historian more at home with literary than economic or even social scientific approaches. He was interested in the work of social scientists—the UNC sociologist Rupert Vance was a major early influence—but felt uncomfortable and a bit impatient with mainstream economic history produced after the rise of the new economic history in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was critical of quantitative techniques, which he admitted to not fully understanding, and never evinced any abiding interest in, let alone sympathy for the use of economic theory or formal methods in doing history. His fundamental doubts about, and possibly even disesteem for, the new economic history come through, for example, in his reviews of Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross in the New York Review of Books in 1974 and of Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract in the New York Times Book Review in 1989. Whether these reviews should be viewed as arch or merely as late examples of Woodwardian irony is for individual readers to decide. In any case, the reviews are part and parcel of what I call–with a nod to Miles Franklin’s ironically titled novel –Vann’s Brilliant Career.


Peter A. Coclanis is the Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and the director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of numerous works in U.S. and international economic history, including The Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Low Country, 1670-1920 (1989); with David L. Carlton, The South, the Nation, and the World: Perspectives on Southern Economic Development (2003); and Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Globalization in Southeast Asia over la Longue Durée (2006); and with Sven Beckert, Barbara Hahn, and Richard Follett, Plantation Kingdom: The American South and Its Global Commodities (2016).

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Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII