By Sean Wilentz
The New Republic September 6, 2014
The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Edited by Andrew Schlesinger and Stephen Schlesinger (Random House) and The Letters of C. Vann Woodward by C. Vann Woodward, Edited by Michael O’Brien (Yale University Press)
Historians do not rank high in the American literary canon. The Library of America has enshrined the works of two nineteenth-century master historians, Henry Adams and Francis Parkman, and it includes a volume of W.E.B. Du Bois’s selected writings (from which his most important historical work, Black Reconstruction in America, is lamentably missing). Otherwise the only historian who makes the cut is Barbara W. Tuchman, a worthy addition but more of a storyteller than a scholar. That Tuchman’s best writing concerned European history makes the absence of other historians even more glaring. American letters involve Americans explaining their country to each other and to the rest of the world, and such explaining is the American historians’ chief endeavor. But their prose gets neglected, presumably because, with rare exceptions, it lacks literary distinction. In this way the nation’s cultural legacy, and its historical memory, is egregiously diminished.
The publication of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s and C. Vann Woodward’s selected correspondence encourages a reassessment of historians’ place in the literary pecking order. I can think of no other American historians, apart from Henry Adams and George Bancroft, whose letters have attained the dignity of book-length publication. But something meritorious—historical and literary—was going on in the writing of American history during the mid– to late twentieth century. Schlesinger was a public figure and a participant in historical events as well as a historian, and Woodward also helped to make history as well as record and interpret it.
Apart from Bancroft—who may have been his distant ancestor, and who served as secretary of the Navy under James K. Polk—Schlesinger was, in his participation in politics and government, sui generis, and his letters thus acquire a wider value and appeal. Yet Schlesinger never thought of himself as anything other than a historian. He completed his most enduring work during the fifteen years before John F. Kennedy’s election to the White House deflected his academic career. His important writings on contemporary politics, above all The Vital Center, published in 1949, were fundamentally historical treatises. His dense network of friends and correspondents always included other broadly engaged historians, at home and abroad.
Woodward’s political contributions were less conspicuous than Schlesinger’s—he would have shuddered at the thought of an office in the White House—but what he did may in time be judged even more important. Having one of his books proclaimed by Martin Luther King Jr. “the historical bible of the civil rights movement”—as King did about Woodward’s study of the origins of racial segregation, The Strange Career of Jim Crow—certainly puts Woodward in a class of his own. Like Schlesinger, Woodward was an intellectual as well as a scholar, writing for a wide range of publications, not least this magazine, where he was for many years a contributing editor. Chiefly, though, Woodward wrote as a member and, eventually, a leader of the historians’ guild. From his base at Johns Hopkins and then at Yale, he always heeded and addressed the continuing debates among his fellow professionals, especially in his chief field, the history of the American South. More definitively than Schlesinger’s, his is the correspondence of a working historian.
Along with Richard Hofstadter, Schlesinger and Woodward were among the most influential and certainly the best-known members of an extraordinary generation of American historians, by which I mean historians of the United States and its colonial antecedents. Born between 1900 and 1920, the cohort included, among other luminaries, David Herbert Donald, John Hope Franklin, John Higham, Edmund S. Morgan, David M. Potter, and Kenneth M. Stampp. They shared neither a common subject inside American history nor a single point of view. All of them wrestled creatively with the legacy of the so-called Progressive historians who preceded them, including Charles A. Beard, Vernon L. Parrington, and Frederick Jackson Turner. That wrestling opened lines of investigation and reinterpretation that changed fundamentally the way historians and their readers think about the American past.
Whereas the Progressives described the country’s development in terms of stark opposing dualisms—agrarian versus industrial, liberal versus conservative, the frontier versus the rest of the country—the new generation contemplated those dominating ideas and ideals that submerged social and political conflict. Whereas the Progressives wrote facilely at best about history’s psychological and irrational dimensions, the new generation was fascinated by what they perceived as anxieties over shifting group status, about inner conflicts that goaded important individuals, about the political style that Hofstadter dubbed “paranoid,” and more.
Most auspiciously, the new generation faced up to the centrality of slavery and racial conflict to American history as the Progressives, almost uniformly, had not. Leading Progressive historians, such as Beard, did not endorse the pro-Confederate Lost Cause school that in his day dominated the writing of Southern history, but they did sweep slavery under the rug as a moral and political problem. In Beard’s case, this meant assimilating the plantation regime to the broader category of “agrarian” America, lumping slaveholders with frontiersmen, commercial wheat growers, and hardscrabble dirt farmers as a single interest—and all but ignoring the slaves. Other historians contended that slavery was moribund in 1860, and described the Civil War as a tragic, needless conflict fomented by sectional demagogues. The new generation began punching holes in all of this sophistry in the late 1940s; and the publication of Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution in 1956 ended the studied avoidance of slavery and its cruelties by serious historians.
Interestingly, Schlesinger and Woodward had less to say directly about slavery than others in their cohort; and they did more than most to salvage the valid aspects of the Progressives’ work, even as they rejected the Progressives’ basic approach and conclusions. In Schlesinger’s case, this chiefly meant following in the footsteps of his father, the great Harvard historian from whom he got his name. Young Arthur, as he came to be called (not always kindly), abjured the Progressives’ simplified dualisms and their tendency (Parrington excepted) to dismiss ideas as a vital force in history. He recoiled from the kind of thinking that led the elder Arthur to assert that radical political appeals during the American Revolution amounted to mere “propaganda.” Yet he appreciated his father’s emphasis on the importance of economic class interests in American history. That emphasis became fundamental to the younger Schlesinger’s conception of what would become his grandest theme—the political and intellectual vicissitudes of American liberalism, as developed in The Age of Jackson and in the three volumes he completed of The Age of Roosevelt.
Woodward made his reputation above all with his masterwork, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913, in which he demolished the Progressive idea of a unitary “agrarian” South in conflict with an industrial North during the decades after Reconstruction. The South, too, was divided, as Woodward demonstrated, into contending classes of New South industrialists, old-fashioned planter oligarchs, and struggling small farmers, not to mention the division along the color line; and the struggles among these forces led to sharp discontinuities in a region widely mistaken as timeless. Yet Woodward never abandoned the Progressive idea—for him, a central idea—that Northern industrialists and railroad men, in pursuit of their individual as well as class interests, were responsible for the transformation and the exploitation of the South during the late nineteenth century. In the 1940s and 1950s, when some of his own generation began embracing the idea that political consensus rather than conflict chiefly defined American history, Woodward found the out-of-fashion Beard, he later wrote to a younger historian, “the most congenial spirit around.”
These important vestiges of Progressive history, including the primacy of economic and political conflict, may help to explain why, in their very different ways, Schlesinger and Woodward became involved so consequentially in the politics of their own times. It certainly helps to explain why they almost always wrote history with an eye on the present—too much so at times, their critics claimed—in pursuit of what the Progressive-era critic Van Wyck Brooks called a “usable past.” While fully cognizant of the perils of presentism and distortion, and although happy enough to concede when those perils got the better of them, both Schlesinger and Woodward believed that a rigorous historicism need not preclude turning to history for enlightenment about contemporary dilemmas and conflicts. Woodward once told me that a usable past is preferable at least to the alternative. Schlesinger would have agreed.
Both men, more than most historians, had conscious literary aims, as well as close connections to novelists, poets, and critics. Schlesinger, raised at the acme of the American academy, was drawn early on to men in and around Harvard whom he thought wrote exciting prose, including Perry Miller and, above all, the historian and critic Bernard DeVoto. The seeming effortlessness with which Schlesinger described the rise and fall of Jacksonian politics or the coming and early years of the New Deal, balancing narrative and analysis, exact human events and sweeping historical trends, owes a great deal to DeVoto. In the 1940s and 1950s, Schlesinger was a Cambridge satellite of the Manhattan literary scene, hobnobbing with Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, and the writers in and around Partisan Review. In 1949, he chose to publish in Partisan Review, and not in an academic journal, what would become a classic essay attacking the idea that the Civil War was a needless conflict, and insisting that its root cause was the moral problem of slavery.
Woodward, raised in Arkansas, his father a public school administrator, was no wunderkind. After rattling around in and out of the academy during his twenties, he decided to devote himself to writing and teaching history in the late 1930s, about the time he published his first book, Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel, a biography of the Populist radical leader-turned-racist firebrand. But growing up amid the Southern literary renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s—shaken by the work of William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and Thomas Wolfe, not to mention such critics as John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate—Woodward saw clearly how much the South, whose history he aimed to explain, was receiving its most brilliant treatments in fiction and poetry.
Serious Southern writing was clambering out of the defensiveness of the late nineteenth century, and without the old romantic plantation masque—and on that account it was fraught with how the past haunted and even mimicked the present. So Woodward saw himself as a serious writer, alert to mood as well as metaphor, working, at the very least, in dialogue with other writers. “History is not truth,” he liked to quote from Robert Penn Warren. “Truth is in the telling.” And Woodward, truth be told, took inspiration from novelists and poets as much as he did from historians, and sometimes more. Warren, whom Woodward met in 1932, became his lifelong friend and intellectual companion. Woodward allowed only one adornment in his book-lined office at Yale: a photograph of Faulkner.
A writer’s formal style, of course, need not carry over into his or her correspondence. Schlesinger’s collected letters rarely describe a scene and rarely sum things up with an epigram, two features of his historical writing. Woodward’s dry, often sardonic wit comes across in his correspondence better than his ability to probe character, ambivalence, and irony. But the letters do convey the authors’ distinctive personalities; and they reveal two powerful historical imaginations groping through the fog and the storm of American life in the second half of the last century.
The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. begins the day after the Nazis surrendered in May 1945. Posted in Paris and working with the Office of Strategic Services, Schlesinger, age twenty-eight, had been up all night carousing around the city in celebration of V-E Day. “So much for the end of the European war,” he wrote to his parents. “I hope we are not such damned fools as to permit another.” Yet as far as the prodigy Schlesinger’s career as a historian is concerned, this volume of letters begins in medias res. His first book, a study of the Jacksonian-era reformer and intellectual Orestes Brownson based on his Harvard senior thesis, had appeared seven years earlier. In the spring of 1944, before he departed for Europe, he finished revising the manuscript of The Age of Jackson; he closes his V-E Day letter with an apology to his father, who was proofreading the galleys, for “having to sit down and read that damn book again.” The book appeared later that year, and in May 1946, a best-seller in its eighth printing, it received the Pulitzer Prize. Talk about starting at the top.
Nearly as strikingly, young Schlesinger’s stalwart New Deal liberalism, anti- communist as well as anti-fascist, was also firmly established. “The spread of the totalitarian police state on the Soviet model is most alarming,” he wrote to his family two weeks after V-E Day. “Tito’s Yugoslavia is no more of a democracy than Hitler’s Germany.” That Schlesinger escaped even a dalliance with Marxist politics in the 1930s made him unusual for his cohort of liberal intellectuals. (Woodward had a short but intense flirtation with Russian communism, to the point of traveling to Moscow in 1932; Hofstadter was very briefly a member of the Communist Party.) But how Schlesinger arrived at his liberal politics so early cannot be traced in his published letters, any more than they can in his published journals, which begin in 1952.
One thing that can be traced, easily, is Schlesinger’s voracious social appetite. Schlesinger’s social whirl, chiefly in Georgetown and New York, was fizzy in its sophistication and urbanity. During his salad days, living near Georgetown with his young family, Schlesinger frequented the famous dinners at Joseph Alsop’s house; a string of snippets from 1946 reports him breaking bread with, among others, Averell Harriman, Clark Clifford, Henry Cabot Lodge, and not-yet-congressman Jack Kennedy, whom Schlesinger sized up as “very sincere and not unintelligent, but kind of on the conservative side.” More than fifty years later, Schlesinger would be writing the same kind of letters to and about political and journalistic celebrities ranging from William F. Buckley Jr. to Tina Brown.
Historians are not expected to be out and about like this. How Schlesinger managed to research and write his great histories while also writing tens of thousands of letters, a copious journal, and countless political speeches, while also teaching, lecturing, and reviewing movies as well as books, while also helping to raise a family, while also, atop all that, attending to a crowded schedule of meetings, rallies, luncheons, and soirees, almost defies belief. But frivolity and extracurricular activities—what he once described to his passionate but evidently platonic intimate Marietta Tree as “my usually pointlessly active life”—exacted a cost. After President Kennedy’s murder, Schlesinger wrote historical memoir, biography, and some important occasional books (none better than his skewering of multiculturalism in The Disuniting of America in 1991), and he edited some excellent volumes and series on American political history, but his writing of serious history dwindled, and he never completed his magnum opus, The Age of Roosevelt, breaking off at the third volume, which ended in 1936. Call it joie de vivre or excessive indulgence: Schlesinger’s diversions certainly undermined his craft, leaving one of the monumental works of American history truncated.
And yet, just as certainly, had Schlesinger confined himself to the archives and to writing history in his study, the work he did complete would have suffered—or would never have appeared at all. His most auspicious public engagements were not frivolous at all. His political commitments in particular were utterly serious, and they inspired some of his very best writing. Even if he had written nothing about Jackson or Roosevelt, Schlesinger would be regarded as a significant American political thinker, most importantly for The Vital Center, which as much as any book defined the terms for liberal anti-communist politics in the cold war era. And that book grew from Schlesinger’s involvement in founding Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 as a counterweight to the pro-Soviet elements within the Democratic Party led by Henry Wallace. Schlesinger’s reform activities, along with his working for and with Adlai Stevenson, were of a piece with his historical writings, informing as well as informed by his studies of political ideas and reform politics from Jackson’s day to FDR’s. (His admiring writings on his friends the Kennedys were of a different order: odd combinations of personal memoir and history, deeply colored by perceived loyalty—less works of history than historically informed primary sources to be consulted by future historians.)
Schlesinger’s joy in politics was visceral as much as it was intellectual, his New Dealer’s principles reinforced by his excitement at the rough-and-tumble, the chicanery and the deal-making, the wild cast of characters he encountered on numerous campaign trails and inside the White House. There is an Olympian strand of American liberalism, particularly evident among university professors, which abhors the cut-and-thrust of partisan democratic politics, and disdains the personalities and the gamesmanship associated with pol-crowded taverns, convention halls, and smoke-filled rooms. Schlesinger, though, reveled in all of it, in the present as much as, imaginatively, in the past. “I must say,” he wrote in his journal in 1960, “that I adore sitting around hotel rooms with politicians and newspapermen exchanging gossip over drinks.” Drawn to politics, Schlesinger understood how it actually works far better than his bien-pensant colleagues.
In editing their father’s letters, Andrew and Stephen Schlesinger have decided to focus chiefly on his “intellectual and political development as one of the nation’s leading liberal voices.” The richest portions of their selection have to do with Schlesinger’s activities as a campaigner for and adviser to Stevenson and Kennedy, along with his sharp reflections on issues of the day. There are long letters on strategy and tactics, like one to Stevenson prior to the presidential campaign in 1956, in which he bluntly and astutely assesses the shifting political situation, and suggests how the candidate might change his image and get the public “to see you as a happy warrior, not as a brooding Hamlet.” There are letters containing useful political intelligence, such as one to Kennedy in 1960 about Eleanor Roosevelt’s favorable opinion of him—“impressed by his modesty and his willingness to listen and learn”—all based on a dinner conversation with Roosevelt’s daughter, Anna. (Translation: Kennedy’s recent charm offensive to win over Mrs. Roosevelt had worked.) There are letters of flattery and of clarification, of pacification and of outrage.
In all, these letters provide a fascinating perspective on the struggles and strains inside the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the 1950s and 1960s, which triumphed with Kennedy after failing with Stevenson, and was undone by the staggering events that bridged Kennedy’s assassination and Richard M. Nixon’s election in 1968. Schlesinger, to be sure, was not often at the very center of decision-making. He sometimes described himself as a “free rider” in politics; when he served JFK in the White House, where proximity and access are all-important, his office was in the East Wing and not in the West Wing. Yet to watch history unfold through the letters of a historian who at least was on the scene is as dramatic as it is rare.
Thereafter, though, Schlesinger’s connection to politics became far more distanced. (The editors omit, perhaps mercifully, whatever letters Schlesinger wrote about Edward M. Kennedy’s uncertain and divisive bid to wrest the Democratic nomination away from Jimmy Carter in 1980.) The correspondence accordingly become less weighty and more strictly advisory, from a needling letter to Daniel Patrick Moynihan while Moynihan was serving in the Nixon White House, down to a detached one to Al Gore in 2000 counseling the vice president on what to say if he won the recount battle in Florida and what to say if he lost. The correspondence also becomes more miscellaneous: a letter to the director John Huston on nuclear disarmament, and another to Bianca Jagger on Yeats’s poetry, appear alongside running assessments of the political scene written to the likes of George Kennan and Bill Clinton.
What’s missing is much that conveys Schlesinger’s grappling with ideas, either about politics or history. Early on, there is a long and thoughtful letter to Rebecca West in sharp response to a defense that West had published of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The letter provides a concise history of American liberal anti-communism and its philosophical bearings, in sharp opposition to McCarthyism. But most of the letters speak about positions rather than ideas, strategies rather than substance, policies rather than principles. Having read a fair amount of Schlesinger’s still-unpublished incoming correspondence, I would think that there is more of greater substance to be unearthed. Isaiah Berlin’s letters to Schlesinger, for example, are filled with high-spirited transatlantic gossip, but also include discursions on history and historians. Had the editors included just a few more of Berlin’s letters than they do, as well as Schlesinger’s responses, the depth of Schlesinger’s thinking would surely have received more of its due.
Likewise, there is a paucity of correspondence between Schlesinger and other American historians. Now and then the name of a historian pops up, notably in a letter to Eugene Genovese, written in 1978, in which Schlesinger simply avows, contra Genovese’s Marxism, that freedom cannot exist without private property. There are a few generous letters to inquiring students and laymen in which Schlesinger expounds his broad views of what history can teach and how it ought to be written (joining “analysis and narration in a consistent text,” he told one young woman from Portage, Pennsylvania). A letter to the faux historian Gore Vidal, which does nothing to enhance Schlesinger’s legacy, reveals that Schlesinger thought very highly (or so he said) of Vidal’s wretched, historically obtuse novel about Abraham Lincoln, which several notable scholars, including Woodward, would soon eviscerate. Otherwise this selection from the correspondence of one of America’s greatest historians contains almost nothing about the writing of history. Neither Woodward’s name nor Hofstadter’s appears in the index. Historians and their readers meanwhile have the consolation of The Letters of C. Vann Woodward.
“The poor, poor old south,” Woodward wrote to his friend Glenn Rainey in 1933, as he was starting what would become his book on Tom Watson, “I write and snatch a blotter to save MSS from briny ruin of a heart wrung sob.” Living in Georgia, at twenty-five, Woodward had no clear vocation beyond completing what he initially imagined would be a book on Southern demagogues. Deeply and more than a little self-consciously immersed in great literature—the letter talks about Laurence Sterne and the “godlike” Proust as well as Faulkner—Woodward’s sarcasm bespoke the double irony of being a young sophisticate stuck inside the drowsy, sentimental region that was also his great subject. “The fact of the matter is that nobody should write about the South right here in the middle of it all. He should get a room on the Loop or overlooking the elevated on Third Avenue where the mere mention of whip-poor-wills would make him snigger and give him the critical jitters.” Apart from some relatively brief sojourns, though, Woodward would escape the old Confederacy for good only in 1946 when he joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins, before he moved to Yale sixteen years later.
The travails of the Southern writer heading North toward home is a familiar theme in modern American letters. But the other major historians in his cohort who had roots in the deep South, David Donald and David Potter, did not write chiefly about Southern history; and so Woodward became the Southern scholar who did the most to settle his region’s past accounts with the present, free of moonlight-and-magnolia myth as well as Progressive simplification. To the extent that literary modernism, as in Faulkner’s fiction, arose from twentieth-century collisions of the provincial with the cosmopolitan, Woodward was a historical modernist, poised between the alibis and Lost Cause eulogies of his native South and what he regarded as the arrogant piety and hypocrisy of supposedly All-American Yankeedom.
Edited by Michael O’Brien, the eminent Cambridge historian of the American South, this selection from Woodward’s correspondence winds his experiences around the central theme of Southernness, both as an ascription and a historical problem. The early letters, prior to Woodward’s formal entry into the historical profession, describe an ambitious but aimless young man’s vocational uncertainty, coupled with deep alienation from his straitened Methodist and Confederate-honoring upbringing. The letters speak candidly of Woodward’s restlessness and lack of direction—“as the Germans so picturesquely put it, Ich habe keine Sitzfleisch,” he tells Rainey in 1931—only to become obsessed with his research on Tom Watson. He reports with passion on strikes and communist manipulation and brutal racial murders.
Wherever young Woodward went, he gravitated to smart or at least interesting outsiders, and he enjoyed his share of escapades. In 1932, during a brief year’s stay in New York spent studying (indifferently) for an M.A. at Columbia, Woodward met the beautiful Harlem Renaissance playwright Regina Anderson “and in a moment of weakness and inebriation told her she had no living rival outside of William Shakespeare.” This obliged him to take a part—“the only white one”—in a Harlem Experimental Theater production of Anderson’s play Underground, a rewriting of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, playing “Simon Legree turned wrong-side out to prove with flesh and blood, a goatee and a broad ‘a’ that after all slave owners were not all bad but slavery was a degrading institution and the emancipated people should forgive the people of the South and that democracy is the best of all possible forms of government provided the Negro is not disfranchised and he must be given the vote or something terrible is likely to happen.”
The high jinks ended once Woodward finally heeded his vocation. With Tom Watson, Origins of the New South, Reunion and Reaction (on the machinations that led to Reconstruction’s downfall), and The Strange Career of Jim Crow, he reached the top of the historical profession. Through the 1950s, well placed at Hopkins—no longer in the Confederate South but not quite in the North either—Woodward acquired new academic responsibilities as well as honors; he began mentoring exceptional graduate students, including James M. McPherson, Willie Lee Rose, and Bertram Wyatt-Brown; and he greatly enlarged his circle of intellectual peers. In O’Brien’s collection, letters to Woodward’s faithful Southern companions give way to correspondence with the likes of Richard Hofstadter and David Riesman—as well as Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, in a mutually admiring exchange initiated when Johnson masterminded passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1957.
This is not to say that Woodward’s letters ever lost their mordant humor. But the rise to academic eminence did have its downside. As O’Brien astutely remarks, in the 1950s Woodward became “an organization man,” taking on assignments and leadership posts in a plethora of learned societies, serving on numerous editorial boards and prize committees, and lending his time and effort to civil rights organizations ranging from the ACLU to the NAACP. “And where, you might legitimately inquire, has my leave for research gone to,” he writes to his wife in 1960, after three painful paragraphs about fresh and onerous “developments on the professional front.”
So different from Schlesinger in so many ways—not least in their presence, the tall, tweedy, silver-maned Woodward, reserved but sly, towering over the diminutive, balding, ebullient Schlesinger in his natty Gentleman Democrat bowtie— Woodward’s professional conscientiousness led to a curious parallel in their respective careers. Schlesinger disliked the sorts of professors whom he once called “pure academics” for what he perceived as their air of unreality, their complacency, their pomposity. Woodward, a friend whom Schlesinger greatly respected personally and intellectually, was no “pure” historian, Schlesinger thought, but a worldly and witty intellectual as well as a scholar—yet he willingly served the boring American academy, in sacrificial labors that made him, Schlesinger said, “a kinder, gentler, and nobler figure.”
If Schlesinger’s distance from university life contributed to the curtailing of his scholarly achievements, Woodward’s immersion in the academy (as well as his political involvements) had similar effects. Woodward’s most lasting contributions to historical writing appeared between 1938 and 1951. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, published in 1955, was a model in the usable interpretation of the past, and was the most widely influential book he ever wrote, but it reached nowhere near the scholarly level of his earlier work, and its conclusions soon required major modifications by the author. For some time thereafter Woodward worked hard on a major new study of Reconstruction, a sort of historical prequel to Origins of the New South, but it never got written. Not unlike Schlesinger’s, Woodward’s chief contributions during the long second half of his career consisted of essays, reviews, lectures, memoirs, and editorial work.
But there were invaluable aspects to Woodward’s distractions, in and out of the academy. His civil rights work, which began in the 1930s, led him to enlist the help of John Hope Franklin in fully integrating the annual meetings of the Southern Historical Association in 1952; and soon thereafter Thurgood Marshall recruited Franklin and Woodward to offer historical tutorials to his team of lawyers as they were bringing school desegregation cases into the federal courts, all of which eventuated in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. Woodward’s resistance to the nationalist lurch of the civil rights movement beginning in 1966, as well as to the New Left’s turn to revolutionary politics, led many critics to label him unfairly as a reactionary curmudgeon. In fact, in his own contrarian way, he was fighting, most unfashionably, for integrationist and liberal principles that he had championed practically his entire adult life.
Woodward was unstinting in his generosity in reading others’ manuscripts and tendering detailed and candid criticisms, some of which O’Brien has opportunely included. To Richard Hofstadter on his evolving manuscript about the “paranoid” political style, he calmly delivers strong objections about how the manuscript treats the radical Populists: “Lumping together the Antimasons, Know Nothings, APA, KKK, and Mc C with the Pops seems to me to obscure some distinctions. . . . The Pop crank is the Pop frustrated, where the rest of the gang start out cranks at the beginning.” To Eugene Genovese, after reading a draft of Roll, Jordan, Roll (while on vacation in Guadeloupe), concerning Genovese’s ideas about the power of paternalism in the slave South: “Your distinction between ‘direct relationship’ of individuals and a relationship between races is most important. Still, as you admit, there was a lot of overlapping. The extent of that is the argument between us.”
To read these letters and others—to Stanley Elkins on his controversial analogizing of the Southern plantation and the Nazi concentration camp, to William Styron with some passing objections about the stunning, “skin-prickling” manuscript of The Confessions of Nat Turner—is to see some of the most consequential history and historical fiction of the last half-century taking shape. It is also to see a powerful historical imagination grappling with challenging historical and quasi-historical texts. Some of the disputations, notably the one with Hofstadter about Populism, turned into public debate. Woodward’s abiding playfulness sometimes tempers and sometimes sharpens his criticism. “The fourth rum punch. Low sun through the bougainvillea and acacia,” he writes to Genovese from Guadeloupe. Then, reflecting on Genovese’s description of the layers of ambiguity in the slave’s vernacular profession of “de kindess, suh” to the paternalist master: “One more rum punch and I will be prepared for whatever comeuppance you will deal out to ole massa. After all, he in de cole, cole ground.”
Woodward’s full correspondence, as well as Schlesinger’s, recounts the creation and sustenance of interlocking friendships, in which intellectual admiration turns into affection, and the life of the mind becomes an intensely human affair. There is much more of this in The Letters of C. Vann Woodward than in The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., but there is still much to be learned in the published (as well as the unpublished) correspondence of both men and their friends. With those letters, an extraordinary group of American historians fashioned a community, in which they goaded, queried, challenged, corrected, and cheered each other on, enlivening the numbingly solitary existence demanded by historical research and writing. A different kind of letters collection—combining, say, all of the letters written among Woodward, Schlesinger, and Hofstadter—would bring that community to the fore, and in so doing sharpen our understanding of the historians individually as well as collectively.
One such letter, from Woodward to Schlesinger in March 1961, says a lot about the way both men thought and wrote. With his colleagues John Morton Blum and Edmund S. Morgan, Woodward had contracted to write an American history textbook, and they had engaged Schlesinger, the dogged FDR liberal, to write the chapters covering the New Deal to the present. Just as he was beginning his work at the Kennedy White House, Schlesinger sent his drafts to Woodward and received this reply:
My wife was disturbed the other night by gleeful chortles, frequent yips, and occasional cries of Give ‘em Hell, Arthur! They were coming from me reading your textbook chapters. I only hope, Arthur, that you are not really as confirmed a partisan as your admiring reader. But I confess there are times when I wonder. Never mind.
After a few lines of minor criticism, Woodward exhorted his fellow partisan in his new job, “the more sober in the knowledge that but for a handful of votes a Russell Kirk or a God-knows-who would be sitting there instead.”
A very different letter, written by Schlesinger in 1999 and now housed in the Woodward papers at Yale, arrived at Woodward’s deathbed:
Your preeminence derives partly from the superb quality of your historical writings. But it derives as much from your human presence. You are the conscience of our profession. . . . You have upheld the standards of the historians’ craft against the nostrums of the passing day, and you have inspired younger scholars to do their resolute best to grapple with the mysterious past.
When the deal goes down, maybe the only thing as grand as receiving such a letter is having the cause and the grace to write it.
Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University and is currently writing a book on the history of anti-slavery in the United States.