The Ongoing Burden of Southern History: Politics and Identity in the Twenty-First Century South by Angie Maxwell, Todd Shields, and Jeannie Whayne

By Roper, John Herbert, Sr. | International Social Science Review, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

The Ongoing Burden of Southern History: Politics and Identity in the Twenty-First Century South by Angie Maxwell, Todd Shields, and Jeannie Whayne


Roper, John Herbert, Sr., International Social Science Review


Maxwell, Angie, Todd Shields, and Jeannie Whayne, eds. The Ongoing Burden of Southern History: Politics and Identity in the Twenty-First Century South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012. xix + 208 pages. Hardcover $42.50.

Honored almost to the point of embarrassment, the Arkansas-born humanist and American historian of the twentieth century C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999) was an ironic blend of insider and outsider. He grew up privileged in a very poor region and was both conversant with great novelists and poets and fiercely loyal to Clio's Muse. He was a scholar activist whose work was acclaimed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Selma March, yet he was also celebrated as a scholar's scholar who trained some forty-one historians at The Johns Hopkins University and at Yale University. In the present volume, edited by political scientists Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields and historian Jeannie Whayne, the contributors reflect on Woodward's work, moving beyond a review of old and new literature to highlight the connections to contemporary scholarship. Above all, they acknowledge Woodward's lasting impact on the fiftieth anniversary of his seminal collection of essays, The Burden of Southern History, originally published in 1960, has passed a fiftieth anniversary.

Most true to the nature and characteristics of the historian Woodward is Robert McMath, a historian at the University of Arkansas specializing in southern agrarian movements. McMath examines the flagship essay of Southern History, "The Irony of Southern History," and parallels it with another essay on "The Populist Heritage and the Intellectual." Above all, McMath recalls usefully Woodward's twinned and twining but somewhat paradoxical directives for such study, that one should take seriously the complaint of those in a social movement but remain detached from advocacy for their specific political remedies; and that one should not belittle their very real sense of grievance, but avoid pumping for their partisan platform. To these vital perspectives McMath brings the political scientist's concept of "contentious politics," in which partisans contend against their foes, especially if the opposition seems to them entrenched in the major political parties and in dominant financial institutions. McMath then looks at the current Tea Party social movement, taking seriously its heartfelt grievance against globalized banking and finance and also taking seriously the way both leading Democrats and leading Republicans support macroeconomic policies that hurt the small businessperson, especially in the rural South.

Most entertaining, and most fully based on research in Woodward's papers at Yale University and transcripts of interviews stored at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the essay, "The Therapist of the Public Mind," by James C. Cobb, a trenchant and at times hilarious social and cultural historian at the University of Georgia. Cobb draws on a note by Woodward to his dissertation advisor that he on occasion intended to be a therapist for a public much troubled by social affairs, especially race relations and specifically the long-enduring attachment to Jim Crow. He shows, in a cleverness worthy of the master ironist Woodward himself, that Woodward's concept of a unique "burden" in southern identity became nothing less than a personal burden for the man who found his own first work--on reflection in the smoking ruins of urban unrest in the period 1968-1974--to be overly optimistic and whose revisions and reconsiderations in that period and thereafter are uniformly in this volume judged to be overly pessimistic.

Leigh Ann Duck and Patrick Williams score valid points about what Woodward did not do. Duck, a literary scholar at the University of Mississippi, marks it that Woodward in these few essays describes white men, telling us nothing about women, and nothing about blacks, thus perpetuating in his description of southern identity chauvinist and racist exclusion. …

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