The September 9 Chronicle of Higher Education carried brief excerpts from the newly published Letters of C. Vann Woodward (Yale Univ. Press). The letters cover over 70 years in the life of one of the most prominent historians of the last century, and the excerpts suggest that he was an exceptional letter-writer as well.
Not surprisingly, many of the excerpts deal with race, civil rights, and liberalism in the 20th-century United States: issues of interest to most of our members as citizens, and to some as professional Americanists. Many also touch matters of professional interest to historians of any time and place. I was particularly taken with Woodward’s reflections (in a letter to Ed Ayers) on how to approach “out-of-date” scholarship, and on history writing as a (quoting Ayers) “collaborative, cumulative enterprise” stretching across decades. But even more intriguing was his comment that, whatever limitations he might now see in his early works, “I could not have written different history in that time. And frankly, I am glad I did not try.” Not a bad goal to shoot for—and an interesting quest to read about.