(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

C. Vann Woodward, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale, is best known for his work in Southern United States history. His books on the region are devoted to its culture and its prominent figures such as Tom Watson and Mary Chesnut. His Origins of the New South (1951) won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 1952, and an edition of Mary Chesnut’s diary won the Pulitzer Prize for 1982. Among his works outside regional history, the most notable is his account of World War II’s greatest sea battle, The Battle for Leyte Gulf (1947). During the late 1970’s, Woodward turned his attention to more broadly conceived subjects, and The Old World’s New World represents an endeavor to explore a subject both broad and complex. As he explains in the preface, the reactions of Europeans to America, and specifically to the United States, have interested him for several decades. Opportunity to assemble his ideas on the subject arose from invitations to deliver lectures. The book is a product of the American Lecture Series sponsored by the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press in 1990, though it draws upon lectures delivered on other occasions, one in 1978. The lectures, extensively revised for publication, form chapters that explore one thematic facet of the reactions of Europeans to America.

Woodward’s tone is that of an assimilator and explorer, one who is content to survey and elucidate the subject for the reader. Only on occasion does one detect the urbane humor of the seasoned lecturer, as when he calls attention to an ironic absurdity in the sources he cites. Thus he quotes, without comment, the words of a French Marxist who somberly lamented as late as 1988 that haute cuisine, fine wines, and Marxism do not survive transoceanic voyages.

European literature on the New World spans more than two centuries and includes myriad titles. In his survey of the unwieldy mass of sources, Woodward limits himself to written commentary, but he includes some writers who never visited America. Thus he cites the opinions of writers like Samuel Johnson and G. W. F. Hegel, who were content to assail the New World from afar. The greatest attention, however, is accorded those writers who traveled or lived in the United States and left thoughtful accounts in journals or books. Among these, perhaps the foremost are Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique (1835, 1840; Democracy in America, 1835, 1840), Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, (1782), and James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth (1888). Very early commentary dealt with the New World as a whole, but by the end of the eighteenth century the greater part centered on the United States as the first established republic, with the largest number of ties to Europe. Typically, those writers and critics who visited the nation saw only a limited portion. Few of the visitors ventured south of Richmond or west of Chicago. They concentrated on the Eastern Seaboard, New England, and New York; they missed the deep South, the Gulf coast, and the far West.

While Woodward includes among his sources a limited number of Eastern European and Russian works, by far the largest number of citations are to British, French, and German writers. It appears that staunchly Catholic nations such as Italy and Spain took little interest in developments in the United States. The reactions of European visitors are extremely diverse, despite the Western European emphasis, for each traveler had individual interests and sometimes a particular preconceived thesis to flesh out. What they had in common, Woodward discovers, was the assumption that they were entitled to advise and enlighten the new nation. Since they largely conceived of the Untied States as a younger version of Europe, they assumed the right, as representatives of an older and more mature civilization, to advise and at times admonish a youthful offshoot.

In presenting European views, Woodward employs a dichotomous approach that exerts some control over his unwieldy sources and conveys a balanced tone. While each chapter is capable of standing alone, repetitious use of sources, a similar subject matter, and this dichotomous approach serve to link them and to achieve a cumulative, unified effect for the book. For every positive account of any subject, quality, or idea found in the New World, there was a corresponding negative interpretation. Woodward skillfully assembles the contrastive views and often clarifies the writers’ individual interests, perceptions, or prejudices. For example, a desire to discredit the new democracy colored the entire account of the New World offered by the caustic British Tory Sir Lepel Griffin. On the other hand, Marxists of the late nineteenth century saw the opportunity of establishing a Marxist utopia in the New World and thus extolled it as a...

(The entire section is 1995 words.)