One of the most exciting moments of my first year as a doctoral student occurred as I sat in the office of my advisor, John Marszalek, and heard him say that his doctoral advisor was Vincent DeSantis. The surge of adrenaline that I felt at that moment wasn’t because of DeSantis, although he was a stellar scholar in his own right, but because I knew that DeSantis’ advisor had been C. Vann Woodward.
Why the excitement? Woodward’s The Irony of Southern History had been the first scholarly history book to grab my attention as an undergraduate. I still have the review of the book that I wrote on lined notebook paper for an Old South course. (Yes, Virginia, we used to have to write out papers and reviews by hand. We were required to use good penmanship, and WE LIKED IT!) I continued to read Woodward religiously as I entered graduate school; in fact, the last seminar paper I wrote at the master’s level was a comparative analysis of the writings of Woodward and Eugene Genovese. I’m pretty sure the paper was atrocious, but it was the most exhilarating intellectual exercise that I had experienced to that point in my graduate career.
Back to that moment in Dr. Marszalek’s office. I realized then that C. Vann Woodward, the historian whose books and essays I had read and enjoyed, was my academic great-grandfather. For many graduate students, that might not have meant much, but to a guy whose parents came from lower-class economic backgrounds without truly having the opportunity to pursue college careers, this academic pedigree meant something special.