This is the first guest post in a series of reviews written by students who are currently enrolled in Prof. Peter Carmichael’s graduate seminar at West Virginia University. Students will contribute 300-500 word reviews of Civil War classics. Click here for more information on this series. This review of Woodward’s classic collection of essays was written by Ashley M. Whitehead. Comments are strongly encouraged. Read other posts in this series.
Debates concerning the origins and nature of southern distinctiveness have occurred since the antebellum era. Southerners themselves initially cited their region’s political system, which was deeply rooted in the “peculiar institution” of slavery and state-based government, as the South’s most distinctive feature. Historians and southerners writing after the Civil War, including proponents of the Lost Cause, argued that the South’s “innocence, traditionalism, virtuousness, and purity” separated the South from a more modern, “aggressive,” and industrialized North—a proposition that held sway up through the middle of the twentieth century.
However, as C. Vann Woodward notes in his seminal work, The Burden of Southern History, northerners were equally complicit in fostering such views of “southern distinctiveness.” Woodward argues that, beginning with the Lost Cause and sectional reconciliation era of the 1880s, northerners joined the South in celebrations of its regional culture and that they further embraced the idea of southern distinctiveness by portraying the South as a haven and refuge from the disconcerting corruption and rapid modernization of the post-war North.
During the early and mid-twentieth century, Woodward writes, the notion of southern distinctiveness acquired new meaning as Americans began to embrace and promote the idea of “American exceptionalism” on a truly global scale. This so-called “national myth” portrayed America as a global leader that had never known defeat and whose foundations rested upon an eternal commitment to liberty and morality. Woodward argues that, in order to justify this “national myth,” Americans used the South as its scapegoat for its previous moral and political failures, including slavery, civil war, and periodic economic troubles. By “dumping” its historical and moral burdens on the South, Americans thus were able to purge their own (perceived) triumphant national history of its historical baggage; such efforts, in turn, resulted in the increasing differentiation between “mainstream” America and the South and in the perpetuation of the myth of southern distinctiveness. Therefore Woodward argues, in reality, the South is not as inherently unique as we, as a nation, have come to believe; rather, it is the South’s experiences—of defeat and of an imagined separatism—that have made it seem so distinct.
Woodward’s numerous later additions to his original version of The Burden of Southern History provide insightful commentary on how and why our more recent perceptions of the South have changed over time. Woodward writes that, in light of the devastating Vietnam War era, Americans have come to see the South as somehow “less distinct,” and its experiences of failure, moral dilemmas, and economic/political troubles as “more American.” Woodward’s observation is astute, as it reflects the influence that contemporary political issues and national identity crises play in our history as a whole, and our view of the South in particular: The idea of southern distinctiveness surged when America’s burdens became viewed as strictly “the South’s burdens.” Similarly, the South became less distinct and “more American,” (or America, more “southern”) when America began to experience the same “burdens” that previously had been associated strictly with southern history.
Woodward’s brilliant analysis of the South’s history, identity and place in American memory shows that southern history is “messy,” ironic, paradoxical, and a complex mix of “lived” experience, myth, and imagination. Woodward writes that truth and meaning from the emotionally-charged historical debates over the South’s contested history is perhaps best found in the work of the poet or an author such as William Faulkner who might better understand the relationship of myth and reality. Woodward proves himself more than worthy as a conveyor of such truth and meaning. Indeed, Woodward serves as a sort of poet-historian who understands, far better than most writers, the burden of the past on the present, and vice versa.
Future historians might enrich Woodward’s analysis of the nation’s original literary consciousness of the South through further engagement with literature produced in or about the South in both the antebellum and post-bellum years. Such studies would help to clarify the depth and regional breadth of nineteenth-century popular opinion concerning the cultural distinctiveness of the South. Additional scholarship on the differences between geographical and ideological conceptions of “the South” also would help to clarify what, exactly, historians—and the American public—mean when they refer to “the South” and would help to explain how and why those definitions have evolved over time. Finally, historians would contribute significantly to our understanding of the close relationship of history, memory and the perpetuation of what Woodward has called “historical burden” by continuing to evaluate how and why current events and cultural trends have further altered (or not altered) our present-day perceptions of the South.