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The Letters of C. Vann Woodward

The Letters of C. Vann Woodward

by C. Vann Woodward, Michael O'Brien (Editor)

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C. Vann Woodward was one of the most prominent and respected American historians of the twentieth century. He was also a very gifted and frequent writer of letters, from his earliest days as a young student in Arkansas and Georgia to his later days at Yale when he became one of the arbiters of American intellectual culture.

For the first time, his sprightly, wry


C. Vann Woodward was one of the most prominent and respected American historians of the twentieth century. He was also a very gifted and frequent writer of letters, from his earliest days as a young student in Arkansas and Georgia to his later days at Yale when he became one of the arbiters of American intellectual culture.

For the first time, his sprightly, wry, sympathetic, and often funny letters are published, including those he wrote to figures as diverse as John Kennedy, David Riesman, Richard Hofstadter, and Robert Penn Warren. The letters shed new light not only on Woodward himself, but on what it meant to be an American radical and public intellectual, as well as on the complex politics and discourse of the historical profession and the anxious modulations of Southern culture.

Editorial Reviews

James C. Cobb

“These selections strike me as smart, appropriate, and—in so far as possible with so guarded a correspondent as Woodward—strikingly evocative of his temperament and mindset as both evolved and persisted over time. O'Brien has given Woodward’s letters the respectful, measured treatment that they deserve.”—James C. Cobb, author of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity
James T. Kloppenberg

“Readers interested in the struggles over civil rights, academic freedom, or the inner workings of the historical profession will find this book riveting. . . . Writing in 1972 to a much younger Michael O’Brien, Woodward described himself as a ‘Liberal Conservative Populist Marxist,’ and all those dimensions of his ambivalence unfold through these expertly edited and annotated letters.”—James T. Kloppenberg, author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition
David W. Blight

“In this age when letter-writing is dying, Michael O'Brien's collection of Woodward's letters is a treasure. O'Brien beautifully demonstrates how Woodward used letters as a ‘medium of observation and criticism’ and a probing of his own ‘identity.’ This book is personal (Woodward's famous ‘ironic subtlety’ in full array), but more so, it is a sublime literary display of the craft of history from inside the process of a man devoted to taking scholarship to the public.”—David W. Blight, Class of 1954 Professor of History, Yale University, and author of American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era
Wall Street Journal

“These letters offer a colorful chronology of the events and associations, personal and professional, that made C. Vann Woodward a formative presence in Southern and American history.”The Wall Street Journal
JM Northern Media - New England Book Festival

Won an Honorable Mention for the 2013 New England Book Festival given by the JM Northern Media Family of Festivals, in the Compilations/Anthologies Category.
Times Literary Supplement - Tom F. Wright

‘Woodward was a consistently first-rate correspondent, and these letters offer an eloquent insight into the writing of history as an ongoing, collaborative project based around candid exchange.’—Tom F. Wright, Times Literary Supplement

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.30(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.50(d)

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THE LETTERS OF C. Vann Woodward

By Michael O'Brien


Copyright © 2013 Michael O'Brien
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18534-8


Early Years, 1926–45

1. To Claude Outlaw

Morrilton, AR
February 20, 1926

In those days old chap we were just a pair of dreamers—or that is we were in that very sentimental age of adolescence which we are now but barely passed—nevertheless I spent then the most happy, beautiful and complete days I ever hope to spend—we did not consider the realities for we new (sic) nothing much of them. We had I believe the true spirit of adventure. You know we got more genuine enjoyment out of a stroll in the moonlight, or the speculation upon a new character in town, than we can now out of dozens of dances, etc. We were both dreamers by nature and found in each other a rare similarity of mind, which we enjoyed for a time, then our interests grew apart and so did we. We began to learn of the world and our natures hardened into the cast that surrounded us—Oh, I don't know, that is just my little diagnosis of the case.

CVWP, 39/473: TLS

2. To Hugh Allison Woodward

Atlanta, GA
Sunday evening [Spring 1930]

I thought it would probably be very gratifying to you to learn that your son would not be in any immediate danger of swelling the ranks of the Bowery bread-lines next year as a climax of his very liberal education, and also to the Mater in that she may now feel perfectly free to purloin your patch pants and donate them to Uncle Billy's progeny; for you see the fact is it looks as though I will not have to call upon you or the Salvation Army either for my support.

I have just finished typing an ingratiating letter to Professor Perry of the Tech English Department, accepting a position as an instructor of English at The Georgia School of Technology (best known, possibly, for my famous sketch of its geneology appearing in the Atlanta Journal). I'll confess that it was a considerable surprise when I received a note last night, announcing that one of the professors that had been with them for three years has suddenly decided to leave for Harvard to complete his graduate work, leaving a position vacant. Perry said it was open to me if I were still available. So, since I was simply overburdened with availability, I pondered over his offer for a matter of probably two seconds and finally came to the decision that I would accept. Apparently he does not intend to fill Rainey's place, so I shall be the only man added.

You really are not in a position to realize how extraordinary his offering me the position really is. I believe I have told you about some of the men with whom I was competing for the place. All of them with either more experience, or more preparation in English than I have had. If he really did know how little I had actually studied in the English department here at Emory, I am afraid all would not be so well. It's a stroke of my purest luck.

I have busied myself during the last week with an effort at landing a position as an instructor of English in Germany, as I mentioned when I saw you last. I would have been perfectly content with that, or that is the prospect of it. It would have given me my year abroad, exempt from expense, with a pretty intimate opportunity for close insight into German life. I still intend to make the European venture; probably in some other way. That way would have left me penniless and necessitated another year's teaching in America before I could continue my study. I hope to save a good deal out of the rather generous salary paid at Tech.

Please start making plans now for getting the Mater off to Atlanta for every one of the Grand Opera performances. We can't afford to let her miss a one. Aunt Mayme is expecting to entertain her. Tell me at once whether or not to make the reservations.

CVWP, 60/732: TLS

3. To Glenn W. Rainey

Oxford, GA
[circa. June 1930]

A rather stupefying convalescence from the slight illness I was bothered with in Atlanta combined with a slight dose of ennui, which I feared even more, has kept me from writing you sooner. I have about recovered from both now, thanks to the constant application of electric fans and a copy of Tristram Shandy, which, by the way, I simply insist on your reading immediately. As long as my appetite and capacity for books continues at its present rate I shall be able to weather the dullest season. Reading is good for that if for nothing else, in case you are called on to defend a ravenous appetite, as I frequently am.

Howard Odum is here visiting his brother for a while. I walked over the other day and had a good talk with him. He really does wean the alarming number of prize calves he claims to. I was expected to stand about admiringly while he went through the process. I am afraid I did it none too gracefully. He appeared very much interested in my plans and talked a good while about them. In spite of our unanimous opinion of his address the other night, I still can not help being impressed by the largeness of the man at closer quarters. Whatever the quality of his work may be, the man is possessed of a remarkable energy and genuine disinterestedness. He told me of the books he is working on. The Black Ulysses story it seems, is to be a trilogy, the last book of which is to come out soon. It sounds even more promising than the first, about which I am still unqualifiedly enthusiastic. It will be called "Feather in the Wind." It is to treat of the present day Negro in contrast to his Grandfather, and is to be told in ghost stories. The trilogy is to be bound in one volume.

He is now at work on another trilogy on the South, the first volume of which is completed. Walter Lippmann liked it very much he said. Mencken wanted a couple of articles from it, but he is hesitating because he has treated the South a bit harshly and is apprehensive about introducing the trilogy via the Mercury. It seems that he and H. L. are quite chummy, and see each other pretty often. He believes that H. L. is still our greatest critic, and has done more for the South than any other of the literati. He is rather enthusiastic and a bit surprised over the "Treatise on the Gods," said it was his crucial test and that he was satisfied with it. I suggest that you get it before emulating the adolescent Shelley.

I shall be in Atlanta about next Thursday and will call you up as soon as I arrive. I shall expect you, and I hope Ernest too to return with me for a visit. Please put your affairs in order. You really must not disappoint me. I am going to leave for New Orleans about the middle of July so this will be the best, and possibly the only time.

A letter from Pete recently. He is rabidly engrossed in searching out the Dark Lady in the Chivers saga. He seems to have made himself quite an indispensable part of the expedition of pedants from Duke University.


4. To Glenn W. Rainey

New Orleans, LA
22 July [1930]

A disappointment was in store for me here, in the last place I should expect any degree of disappointment. It seems that the whole colony in the Vieux Carre, who made up all my acquaintances and friends, have bodily migrated to cooler or more lucrative climates. A letter from Price was awaiting me, saying that he was 65 miles from the railroad in the Painted Desert and expected to be there indefinitely. There is one chap left here, a Mexican artist, but alas, he is prosaically married to a woman who will not let him drink—My old haunts, the Quarters Book Shop has been taken over by a crew of homosexuals and rabid intellectuals who disgust me.

This by no means ends the list of my disappointments. For instance, some damnable fiend, imbued with civic pride has replaced those priceless old gas street lamps which simply made the quarters by night with glaring, unwinking electric globes. I walked the streets the first day I was here hunting the fiend with a knife. Then too, they have painted those old pillars which supported the French market orange and Green!! Sapristi!!

I believe now that I shall return tomorrow or the next day—provided I do not ship out on a coastwise boat, a thing I am a little tempted to do. I observe discretely that I am becoming less the incurable romantic I was once upon a time.


Saw a notice of the trial of the 6 assassins in the paper here. Keep up with it, and tell me about it when I return.


5. To Glenn W. Rainey

Atlanta, GA
October 1, 1930


An incident occurred yesterday which you only have an ear for. An accident two blocks from here happened, in which a Negro was seriously hurt. A large crowd gathered about the man. An ambulance arrived, a way was cleared for the stretcher bearers who no sooner found that the man was black than they folded up the stretcher, got back into the machine and drove off. The Negro lay there until a colored ambulance arrived. The whole meaning of the incident, however, was more in the faces of the crowd. Their reaction stirred me considerably. I simply had to tell someone about it.



6. To Glenn W. Rainey

Atlanta, GA
January 24 [1931]


A letter from Rick today assures me that the trouble of the world and me is due purely and simply to Romanticism and Rousseau. He promises to pray over my condition with his own saint, Irving Babbitt, who, he adds, is the greatest American, and will be remembered along with Aristotle. The dear fellow has gone stark Humanist—raving, and probably dangerous. He is leaving the field of Fine Arts (what a loss) and is devoting his hours to meditations on the inner check, looking under his bed every night for the shades of Rousseau. Furthermore he is taken to reading papers on Browning to Ladies Sewing Circles—he even enclosed a clipping from the paper to prove it. May God help him! Better had he taken the cloth!

I have about decided that I shall accept the Tech place if it is offered to me for the next year, tentatively, in my own mind at least. I don't know what to think of myself for not stepping out next year upon some determined course of study or activity. But so it is. I am no less provoked with myself than you are about me. Maybe I shall see the light before it is too late. I am going to go somewhere for study this summer. Probably New York or abroad. But now that I am planning to be here next year, you must redouble your determination to come to Tech. Write Perry as soon as you can. It is possible that there will be another vacancy besides Jack's, but there are several applicants already. I hope we can make it together.

I went out to see the Hartsocks as soon as they returned from Florida. Mrs. Hartsock looks much improved, while Mr. Hartsock seems to be doing some business. He told me that he could settle Ernest's bill with Neff right now if he wanted to. He does not seem to want to. If he does not adopt a different tone with Neff I am afraid he is going to have trouble with him. The sale of the books seems to be keeping up strongly. I talked with them about disposing of the letters, MS., etc., and they said they were willing to keep it at Emory. I am going to take it out there next week. I attended a meeting of the Writer's Club recently, at which What's his name, the Oglethorp man had considerable to say. I find it difficult to look on him with out a turn of the stomach. Otherwise I suppose he is quite reputable. The anthology of Ga. verse he has put out seems to [be] a creditable work. Whatever reasons he might have of his own, he is doing quite well by Ernest. He is having a bronze bust made of him, instead of simply the mask. I am glad of that, and I know you are. Glenn, I have been thinking of attempting that biographical sketch of him. What you think. Should I wait? And am I the one to do it. I know there are others much better qualified to do it, among them being yourself. I would hate to make a mess of it. I shan't do that, either.



7. To Glenn W. Rainey

[Atlanta, GA]
February 19, 1931

The reading of your letter demonstrated to me that I am not yet incapable of feeling a sense of guilt at neglecting my correspondence. It was good of you to write me about my grandmother's death. You knew something of how I longed for her release from it all. When I got the message, and indeed until I reached home, I was calmly contented that it happened when it did, that is before the summer months, which were worse on her. But as soon as I entered the house I felt strangely guilty for my attitude. Mamma's distress, while perfectly natural, came as a surprise to me, and added another shade of guiltiness. My sympathy for her was frankly greater than my grief, which is more than I had anticipated. Then, since the barbaric custom of sitting up with the body had to be conformed with, I insisted on doing it myself rather than having some outsider. I have never overcome an animal awe for the dead which worked on me dreadfully that night. Another vestigial emotion in me is my inability of associating, without considerable effort, the personality that I knew in life with the dead body. That had also been my experience in Ernest's death. It is perhaps the thing that horrified me most about it. Your escape of the physical horror of the thing probably explains your personal feeling about it. I am afraid that for me there will always be the pictures that I associate with the death.

I talked with Mrs. Hartsock yesterday. Musser was here last week but I failed to see him. Mrs. Hartsock said that he had completed a biography of Ernest which he was planning to publish soon. She read the manuscript and seem to be satisfied with it, although there were some things which she seemed to feel doubtful about. It is to be largely an appreciation and critical evaluation, with a minimum of biographical material. I wish, of course that I had been able to see the manuscript. Mrs. Hartsock says that he is to return during the latter part of March, and if the book is not published by that time I hope I will be permitted to read the manuscript. I suppose you would agree with me that Musser is as well qualified to do the work as anybody, that is in view of his poetic ability and appreciation of Ernest's work. But I know that you will also share my apprehensions in another direction. I read two letters of condolence which he wrote Mrs. Hartsock, and they seem to me to be on a normal and genuine tone. If the biography is of the same quality we have nothing to fear. (Parenthetically, I might add that he visited your friend, Mr. Jackson, while in the city.) He also told Mrs. Hartsock that he hoped to go through the unpublished manuscript sometime with a view of making up a posthumous volume. I really hope he will attempt this, but I do not believe there will be nearly enough to make up a volume.

Your idea of my coming up there next year is certainly tempting enough. It would be great to be with you, and I rather believe I should like the place. But, Glenn, I don't believe I shall make the step. I told you, I believe that I had applied for the Rosenwald scholarship which is headed locally by Dr. Alexander. I talked to him pretty frankly about my lack of direction and my hesitency of obligating myself, too frankly I am afraid. They might give it to me however. He talked like he would. Even then I don't know whether I should accept it. As the Germans so picturesquely put it, Ich habe kein Sitzfleisch. I have asked Dr. Perry to recommend me for reappointment for next year. Perhaps another year here would not be bad for me. The work seems to take less and less time, which leaves me leisure for a rather prodigious amount of reading that I am doing. If I do return, I shall probably spend the summer in New York or Germany studying. That's rather vague, but it's the best I can do it present.

I believe you are doing exactly the right thing in remaining there for another year. You guessed correctly last Christmas that I thought you were making a mistake by coming back to Tech. Your largest opportunity lies there I am sure. I was more surprised that you had not joined the Socialist party before, than that you were thinking of it. Even as a purely political move I do not think you are making a mistake, though there is some question about that. At least you will be able to say in the words of Will Rogers, when he lost his famous campaign of '28, "as for me I had rather be right."


Excerpted from THE LETTERS OF C. Vann Woodward by Michael O'Brien. Copyright © 2013 Michael O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Michael O’Brien is professor of American intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

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