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Thinking back: the perils of writing history.

Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History.

Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History. C. Vann Woodward. LSU Press, $12.95. The work of C. Vann Woodward has dominated the historiography of the post-Reconstruction South for so many years that it is difficult now to imagine the field without him. But there were, of course, earlier historians of the "New South'; and Thinking Back, Woodward's reflections on his own scholarly career, provides a provocative reminder of the powerful assumptions that his work attempted to reverse.

In the 1930s, when Woodward was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, there were few dissenters from the long-held assumption that what defined Southern history was its "enduring and fundamentally unbroken unity, solidarity, and continuity.' Crises and disruptions there had been, to be sure: the Civil War, Reconstruction, economic dislocations. But the South had survived them all with its basic values and its most important institutions essentially unchanged. The "New South' in particular--the South that emerged from Reconstruction and began to rebuild--represented the restoration of the old planter aristocracy and its values after a tragic interlude of exploitation by outside forces. Underlying many such accounts was an approval of the South's "solution' to its social and racial dilemmas.

Much of Woodward's work during the nearly 50 years since he published his first book has been devoted to challenging this belief in "continuity.' His Origins of the New South, which appeared in 1951 and remains the dominant work in the field today, argued that the South that emerged from Reconstruction was, indeed, a new society--no less oligarchical and conservative, perhaps, than the society it replaced, but deeply committed (unlike the Old South) to modern, commercial values, and dominated by a new class of leaders. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, published in 1956 (and once described by Martin Luther King Jr. as "the historical Bible of the civil rights movement'), maintained that Southern segregation was not the result of an unbroken tradition; that for a time in the late nineteenth century there had been a certain flexibility in race relations; that only the passage of Jim Crow laws around the turn of the century had made the system "rigid and universal.'

Woodward is frank to admit that it was not only the evidence that led him to such conclusions. It was also his sense that the "continuitarian' view of Southern history was paralyzing to reform and to his hope that a new picture of the past might prove politically liberating. If laws had entrenched segregation in the past, then new laws could help to destroy it in the future. Looking back now, Woodward concedes a number of important points to subsequent critics (the most important of whom are not romantic defenders of Southern traditions but more radical observers who believe Woodward has underestimated the persistence and strength of racism and reaction in the region). But he remains largely committed, as do many younger scholars who have followed the path he blazed for them, to his belief in discontinuity.

Woodward has been accused, he says, of being a "presentist, a moralist, an ironist, and a one-time activist, of being a chronicler with a weakness for history-with-a-purpose and one influenced by a theologian [Reinhold Niebuhr].' He has faced "the still graver charge of being a historian, presumably dedicated to fact, who is inspired by fiction [by the works of Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren].' He himself declines to pass judgment on the accuracy of such charges. But those who have read and profited from the remarkable work of this great historian will agree that many of them, happily, are true.
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Author:Brinkley, Alan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1986
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