The Letters of C. Vann Woodward

The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

The Letters of C. Vann Woodward


The Letters of C. Vann Woodward. Edited by Michael O'Brien. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. 1, 428. $40.00, ISBN 978-0300-18534-8.)

C. Vann Woodward, who died at the age of ninety-one in 1999, was a copious letter writer and saver. Drawing on a vast collection, Michael O'Brien's edited volume illuminates Woodward's development as a scholar, mentor, and formative force in the historical profession and conveys the sharp observations and commentary that distinguished Woodward among the leading public intellectuals of his generation. Artfully crafted, the book also captures the arc of a life that was deeply rooted in the South and shaped by and engaged with momentous developments of the twentieth century.

O'Brien, himself a leading historian of the American South, faced an embarrassment of riches. Woodward's papers, archived at Yale University Library's Manuscripts and Archives Division, are voluminous; starting early in his career, Woodward kept carbon copies of letters he wrote. O'Brien, who copied more than twenty thousand pages (or roughly a third of the collection), estimates that 2 percent of Woodward's letters are included in this four-hundred-page book. Woodward purged the papers of any items he wished to keep private. Consequently, "this volume," O'Brien writes, "is obliged to be a study, not of the full emotional and intellectual experience of C. Vann Woodward, but of the professional life of a historian in the mid-twentieth century and, perhaps, none the worse for that" (p. xvi). It achieves that, and more.

A concise biographical essay introduces the collection. The book, which includes only Woodward's correspondence, is organized into four parts: "Early Years, 1926-45"; "Johns Hopkins, 1946-62"; "Yale, 1962-77"; and "Last Years, 1977-99." The letters are lively, often conversational in tone, and they reveal a keen sense of humor as well as an irreverent streak. Woodward's voice becomes clear and distinctive in the course of the volume, and defining personal characteristics emerge. As O'Brien notes in the introduction, many of the letters selected for the volume highlight Woodward's role as a "literary midwife," particularly from the 1950s forward (p. xxxi). His critiques of manuscripts produced by students, young historians, colleagues, and novelist friends like Robert Penn Warren and William Styron convey an approach that blended a generosity of spirit with a critical eye, offering rare insight into a master of the craft at work.

Part 1, which may as well have been called "Becoming C. Vann Woodward," stands apart from the rest of the book. Beginning with a letter written when Woodward was eighteen, these letters chart years of youthful restlessness, involvement in radical politics and labor organizing, and the reluctant and unhappy pursuit of his Ph.D. in history. Written in the shadow of the Great Depression, the early letters chronicle time spent in New York, for a year of study at Columbia University and socializing in Harlem, and travel to the Soviet Union. In a letter to his friend Glenn W. Rainey after a visit to Moscow in the summer of 1932, Woodward allowed, "If I had not acquired some very capitalistic debts which I must pay off next year, I would have remained in Russia" (p. 22).

While most of the book relies on Woodward's archives, major sources of letters for the first part of the book include the archival collections of Rainey, Woodward's closest friend and political comrade during this time, and Antonina "Nina" Jones Hansell, a divorcee ten years older than Woodward who became his lover in 1933--collections beyond the reach of Woodward's control. …

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