Making History

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Seated in his study in a pleasant brick house only minutes away from the Yale campus, where he is Professor Emeritus of History, C. Vann Woodward is so soft-spoken and understated that it is easy to forget, momentarily, the position he occupies in his profession. At least five major boohs published since 1938— Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel; Reunion and Reaction; Origins of the New South, 1877-1913; The Strange Career of Jim Crow; The Burden of Southern History —have established him as the unchallenged leader among historians of the American South, and they represent only a portion of his total work. His many honors include the past presidencies of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Southern Historical Association. He has taught and lectured at colleges far and wide, large and small, including a year as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford.

Woodward is a Southerner—in his speech there is still a light tang of Arkansas, where he was born, and of other Southern cities where he studied. He is a paradoxical one, too—aware of the strength of regional culture but likewise of the need for a national and even a transnational viewpoint in a shrinking world. He is a liberal touched with pessimism about the possibilities of human nature. He is a meticulous scholar who also loves and understands literature and its embodiment of values that cannot be footnoted. These ironies are not lost on him and are fully described in his own richly reflective writing. He has, in his works, touched on the passions of race, class and section, the lust for power, the anguish of defeat. He knows that good history cannot ignore the dark center of human experience but that it needs to handle its materials with some humor, some grace, even some hope.

He has just completed a new edition of the diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose husband, James, was United States senator from South Carolina from 1858 to 1860. Chesnut left Washington to become a member of his state’s secession convention and thereafter its executive council. At the war’s outbreak he became military aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard, and later to Jefferson Dams, and was finally made commander of South Carolina’s reserves. Mrs. Chesnut’s diary, which appeared in two previous editions, is regarded as the classic insider’s account of daily life in the highest circles of the Confederacy. It is rife with scenes of ambition, intrigue, romance, pride, and growing despair.

Why did you decide to do a new edition of the Chesnut diary?

Twenty years ago I was down at the University of South Carolina and looked at it in manuscript and realized what an opportunity it was. I didn’t realize then how many versions there were—something one wouldn’t have known from the two already-published editions. I told myself: “I must do that,” and talked to the family about it. But it wasn’t really until Edmund Wilson’s essay in Patriotic Gore came out that I became anxious to see it redone. He only knew the bad edition of Ben Ames Williams, in 1949, but just from that he said that the work was a classic that ought to be better known. I had to keep postponing the job, and five years ago the family came to me and said: “If you can’t do it, who can?” And I said then that I would.

What was wrong with the early editions?

The first, in 1905, carried the names of two Southern women, Isabella D. Martin and Myrta L. Avary. They were nominal editors only. Someone in the publishing house picked what he wanted to use, divided the entries into chapters and gave them titles, rewrote the introduction, composed footnotes, and hastily copy-edited the result, which appeared under the title A Diary From Dixie. Ben Ames Williams learned of Mrs. Chesnut from, that volume, used her as a figure in a Civil War romance entitled A House Divided, and then—after discovering her manuscript version of the 1880’s and some fragments of the original journal—decided to prepare a new edition, also called A Diary From Dixie. But he was a novelist, and when he didn’t like the way she wrote things, he rewrote them, without any warning to the reader.

You indicate that Mary Chesnut rewrote some of the entries twenty years after the war. Does that weaken the historical value of the work?