One of my great strokes of luck was to have known Vann Woodward for a very long time. Forty-six years ago—1954, to be exact—Rose and I had a lunch of crab cakes with Vann in Baltimore, where he was teaching at Johns Hopkins, and for me it was love at first sight. Needless to say, I was not alone in my intense admiration. It was not difficult for anyone with normal human responses to fall under the spell of this beguilingly soft-spoken man, who understood so much about so many matters, and imparted his generous wisdom with so little pretense and such good humor. I say good humor guardedly; while geniality was certainly his dominant mood, he was not put here on earth to spread sweetness and light, as can be demonstrated by virtually every one of his distinguished works. I always awaited with keen pleasure, when I was with him, the withering diatribes that so accurately skewered their target, usually some wretched and worthless politician who posed a momentary danger to the Republic.
Role model is a term of which I’m not particularly fond but I’ll use it anyway. Consider, if you will, Vann’s amazing physical self, living to the age of ninety-one with such undiminished energy, the mind capable of turning out powerfully discerning and imaginative books and essays that appeared for well over two decades after most of his contemporaries had vanished into the coffins of their Barcaloungers. Who wouldn’t want to emulate a man in whom such a mysterious life force seemed to mock triumphantly all our notions about age and aging? Once, not long ago, I tried to fathom the secret, or secrets, of Vann’s tireless vitality so humiliating to those of us in our sixties and seventies. For many summers, Vann came up for brief visits on Martha’s Vineyard. He and I always scheduled a single long walk together. A couple of summers ago we slogged along the beach in the hot sun for over an hour. As usual he kept up with my pretty steady pace, and at the end of the hike he was scarcely winded despite his eloquent, nearly non-stop analysis of the odious tactics of Kenneth Starr, whom he called, I remember, “a Christian terrorist,” and “a demonstrable moral imbecile.” Back at the house, we had noontime drinks and I then plunged into my inquiry. “Vann,” I said, “how do you do it? This vigor.”
“Part of it may be this,” he replied, indicating his vodka Martini.
“No, seriously,” I continued, “is it your diet? Are you really careful about what you eat?”
“Not particularly,” he said, “a certain amount of animal fat everyday.”
“Then surely,” I persisted, “it’s exercise.”
“So you exercise regularly?”
‘Yes,” he said, “regularly every summer I take this walk with you.”
His fellow historians and his students are better equipped than I am to describe and celebrate Vann’s contribution to the study of history and to our culture, a gift which is clearly monumental. As for myself, I could not have written much of my work without Vann Woodward’s books as guideposts to my own historical awareness. Although Southerners of different generations, or nearly so, we both grew up in states, Arkansas and Virginia, where segregation was a grinding and sinister reality; both of us were from families in which the ownership of slaves had left the stain of remorse. This shared background provided each of us with a reason to try to divine the origins of an appalling dilemma that burdened the society where we were reared. When I first read The Strange Career of Jim Crow, I experienced what some call an epiphany; at last I could discern the provenance of that demented structure of laws which throughout my lifetime had kept a race of people in a virtual replica of bondage. Vann’s book was in effect the essential missing link that bound the present to the past. His vision clarified for all time the moral and political breakdown that made a mockery of emancipation and the principle of liberty and justice for all. For one who, like myself, was trying to decipher the conundrum of race and the cruel bequest of slavery, it was a revelation.
Vann’s spaciousness of mind—he was, of course, the epitome of the liberated Southerner—allowed him to chastise the citizens of his native region but he was ever mindful of its sometimes nearly unbearable contradictions. He knew better than almost anyone the power of the traditions that shaped the souls of Southerners, the load of panic, fear, and mistrust that history itself had imposed on Southern minds. Nothing better demonstrated his understanding of this tortured ambiguity than the reflection he made to me soon after he returned from the famous march on Selma in 1965, when he’d joined with other historians to express solidarity with the growing Civil Rights movement. Toward the end of the procession, the marchers had been set upon by a huge mob of Alabama rednecks, screaming and jeering, their harm and vicious intent forestalled only by the presence of the National Guard. “I was shaken up badly,” Vann said. “But you know something? I looked into those raging white trash faces and I saw myself there, if things had gone another way for me. Part of my heart went out to those people.”
It was a remark I’ve never forgotten, and I’m still not sure whether Vann was aware of how those few wrenching words captured the essence of his own tragic and majestic view of the Southern experience.
I’m only sorry that during his last days I failed to visit him more often in the rather dismal place where he lodged. I say this with the deepest regret if only because, if I had done so, I would have been able to pay back Vann in kind for all the attention he paid to me years ago, in New Haven, when I was locked away on a mental ward. Except for Rose, no one visited me more faithfully or often during those many weeks, and I would await his presence eagerly, looking forward to the hour or so when he would sit in my room, chatting in his soft voice about books and politics and the desperate mediocrity of certain public figures and other poignant topics. Vann did most of the talking; indeed, he was forced into a monologue for I was virtually mute, and I’ll always recall how his gentle murmurous voice was a growing consolation, reaching out to me through the fog of my madness. There was such reason there, such calm wisdom, such humor, such sanity. And now, reflecting on those therapeutic hours, I think I can understand how his being there may have worked upon me an effect not dissimilar from that which his noble body of work has had upon the world at large. That is, a voice sane and logical, eloquent, balancing despair with hope, bringing order to the madness of history, teaching us how to live at peace with great events.