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Making History

July 2024
8min read


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?

One of the intellectual challenges of this job was to see the extent to which hindsight affected her views—something it was possible to examine by comparing portions prepared as much as two decades apart. I’d like to answer your question by reading a paragraph from my introduction: “The editor...began in a spirit of skepticism, with misgivings that it would become his duty to expose inconsistencies, anachronisms, distortions, hindsights, and special pleadings that would raise doubts about the worth and integrity of a famous book and its author. Well before the completion of the long task, however, a growing respect for the author and the integrity of her work began to replace the original misgivings. Given the kinds of liberties she took in revising and expanding the original Journal...Mary Chesnut can be said to have shown an unusual sense of responsibility toward the history she records and a reassuring faithfulness to her original Journal. It would be a regrettable and most ironic outcome of this effort to reveal the true nature of her work and an accurate text of what she wrote if it all resulted in lowering the esteem in which her work was held.”

You don’t think then that she used hindsight to make herself wise after the event?

No. And most diaries, I think, get some of that before they get into print. But she had gifts as a writer. I think of the diary as a literary work. It evokes the color and the passion, the feelings that climaxed in the experience of the Civil War, more than any one book that I know coming from a contemporary.

Did she consciously select or change materials for dramatic effect? For example, her running story of the failed courtship of her friend Sallie Preston by General John B. Hood—was that intended to parallel his military frustrations?

How consciously I’m not sure. Edmund Wilson called that particular episode a metaphor for the decline of the Confederacy, and I think that she is aware, as a writer, of what she is doing. But I have never, in the diary or in her correspondence, caught her out in an error on this or other relationships.

Your introduction mentions her “abolitionist leanings” and “militant feminism.” Do those qualities make this a particularly appropriate time to get reacquainted with her work?

Those feelings are prominent and conspicuous in the work, and they give a surprising degree of contemporaneity to her attitudes, particularly about the patriarchy that is so dominant. She’s in full rebellion against it.

Did she know that many of the powerful men around her were her intellectual inferiors?

She was thoroughly aware of it. Time after time she says, “If only I were a man.” One thing she wanted very badly, as a cultivated woman, was a diplomatic appointment for her husband to France—or as a second choice, to Great Britain. And she says: “If only Jeff. Davis would appoint me minister to Paris.” She knew her own capacities and had contempt for the men who were in charge.

Did it ever occur to her that her situation was comparable to that of an intelligent black?

No. She had her limitations. She undoubtedly was unsympathetic to slavery—you remember the well-known passage where she calls it a “monstrous system”—felt it was a disgrace, was glad that it was finished. But she never departed from the prevailing attitudes on race.

You said that she herself changed and eliminated some things in her revisions, and that earlier editions were likewise altered. How much did you restore? What standards guided you in re-creating the work?

Mary spoke of herself and her shortcomings and vanities with a great deal of candor, but there are limits, and when those limits are reached, one suppresses. My process was to put things back in when I thought them relevant. When she excludes something I think the reader ought to know to understand a passage, I put it back in. But in this I run head on into the editorial purists’ canon that you respect the writer’s wishes. That’s a literary obligation that I feel very strongly. But I also have an obligation as a historian to tell the reader what happened. And these two can’t always be reconciled. I admit that. So I sometimes simply intrude with things she rejected, mostly material that makes her appear vain, ridiculous, or too ambitious. For example, when she learned that Davis had let her down by not giving Chesnut either the British or the French missions, she was terribly disappointed and admitted it in her original diary, using a quotation from Macbeth: “All my chickens at one fell swoop.” But what she put in the edition she sent out for publication was simply: “My experience is different from other people’s. I find more satisfaction in public life than in private.”

How did you become a historian?

Not exactly by design. I started as an English teacher at Georgia Tech after getting my bachelor’s degree at Emory. Then I got interested in doing a book on Tom Watson [the Georgia Populist leader who began political life as a radical and ended it as an archreactionary]. The materials were at the University of North Carolina, and I got a fellowship to work on them as a doctoral candidate in history. That decided things.

What do you think of the new techniques and approaches to writing history, such as “cliometrics,” the sophisticated use of statistics, or “psychohistory”?

They’re basically just new tools. They don’t change the essential job of the historian—that is, to unearth and interpret the past.

I’d like to get your view on some contemporary events in the light of things you have written. In Origins of the New South you dealt with the abandonment of Reconstruction policies designed to help blacks. Some people think that we are now backing away from the racial liberalism of the 1960’s in the same way. Do you see at present such a retreat?

In the sense that both movements had their peak and their decline, yes. We’re on a declining slope, perhaps, from the crest in the late 1960’s. I don’t, however, feel that there’s been the aggressive renunciation that there was in the earlier Reconstruction. There has simply been a slackening of commitment and a diminishing of attention, not an overt and violent reaction as there was in the 1870’s and 1880’s.

The word “populism” is kicked around a good deal during presidential elections. Do you see a possibility of a contemporary variation of the original populism of Tom Watson?

Well, “populism” ranks with “democracy” as one of those sloppily used words that is so mishandled in popular speech that I don’t think t’s definable at all. It has a specific meaning in American political history as the name of a party. I used to quarrel with Dick Hofstadter about the way I thought he turned it into a synonym for reaction in a nonhistorical way.

How about “consumerism,” or the movement that Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda call “economic democracy”? Could they be portents of a new populism? Are they our “Sockless” Jerry Simpson and Mary Ellen Lease?

That is the acme of anachronism. No. There is a good deal of talk of that kind, but in the society we have it’s largely fantasy, I think. There is some feasibility to the idea of the participation of the worker in the management of his work. But it is, so far as I can see, politically hopeless—just an ideal in some minds—to get back to the period when populism crested in the nineties. You’d have to fit it into a certain historical context that no longer exists.

In The Burden of Southern History, written before the Vietnam War, you indicated that the South was special, among other things, because it had known defeat. In the aftermath of Vietnam, do you think that the country as a whole has learned what the South knew?

Well, the mood is certainly different from what it was in the 1950’s, when those essays were written. We were riding the crest of the euphoria of the victory of the forties. Troubles were undoubtedly coming, and I thought we’d better sober up and confront them. Have we learned lessons from Vietnam? The ultimate ones or the right ones? No, I don’t think so. But we’ve realized that our national power is limited, that we don’t always succeed in our crusades, and that we were much too hopeful about the consequences of a Pax Americana than we had any right to be.

In Reunion and Reaction you sketched the development of an abiding political axis between conservative Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans. Is that gone?

It’s very different now. The old party system has vanished and I think we’re on the eve of some pretty drastic readjustment in the vacuum the parties left. Party history isn’t at the center of things any more; we’re in transit. But the alliance you speak of had a lot to do with our history through the New Deal period.

Party loyalty no longer awakens the passion it did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

No. That era has been laid to rest. People think they’re living in it but they’re not.

You mean it’s a case, as someone has said, of men’s bodies living in one age and their minds in another?

Yes, they learn the wrong lessons and acquire the wrong morals from the story.

Can historians do anything to enlighten them and to help?

They can ply their own trade. And hope for the best. I doubt if they can straighten things out in the world.



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