Dewey W. Grantham (1921-2004)

Paul Conkin, March 2005

Dewey Wesley Grantham, the Holland N. McTyeire Professor of History Emeritus at Vanderbilt University, died on August 26, 2004. He was one of the most distinguished professors ever to teach at Vanderbilt. He served the American Historical Association as a member of its Council from 1969–71, on the Board of Editors of the American Historical Review from 1975–77, and as chair of the Committee on Programs in 1973. He was equally active in the Organization of American Historians (Executive Board and Committee on Programs) and the Southern Historical Association (Executive Council and as president in 1966–67).

Grantham was born in the small village of Manassas, in southern Georgia, in the deep, dark, impoverished South of 1921. He lived through almost revolutionary changes in that South, and contributed to what he believed to be the most progressive changes. He suffered the Great Depression as a young man, and served as an officer in the Coast Guard in the greatest of all wars. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Georgia just before his military service, and in 1946 began his graduate study at the University of North Carolina in what was then the strongest history graduate program in the South. In near record time, he completed his PhD in 1949. As did so many others, he worked with Fletcher Green, a by now almost legendary mentor of graduate students. Here he also became a participant in a close, intense circle of graduate students, an intellectual community that remained vital to him until his death. Typical of so many graduate students in the decade after the war, Grantham was fascinated with the history of public policy, of what governments do and how politicians operate.

After brief teaching stints at what was then North Texas State College and North Carolina Women's College at Greensboro, Grantham moved to Vanderbilt University in 1952, where he remained for the rest of his career. He moved up from assistant professor to one of Vanderbilt's most eminent endowed chairs. He helped build, for the first time, a strong history graduate program at Vanderbilt. He generously guided the work of dozens of appreciative graduate students (myself included), and directed over twenty PhD dissertations. His seven major books and his numerous fellowships and awards (Social Science Research Council, Guggenheim, Huntington Library, the National Humanities Center, Fulbright-Hays lecturer), soon established him as one of Vanderbilt's most honored scholars. His campus awards were numerous, capped by his election as chair of the Faculty Senate.

The central subject of Grantham's scholarship was the South as a distinctive but troubled section of the United States. He never quite said it, but implicit in all his books was his belief that the South badly needed federal patronage in order to converge in many areas with the North—to become as prosperous, to gain as much public order, to achieve a two-party system and broad political participation, to gain the same level of public services, particularly in education, and, by far the most difficult, to gain equality for blacks.

Except for two closely related textbooks, all Grantham's books would involve the South as a part of a larger nation. His first book, Hoke Smith and the Politics of the New South (a winner of the Charles S. Sydnor Award) helped set his agenda as a historian. This would be Grantham's only book based largely on documentary or archival research. His textbooks The United States since 1945 (1975) and Recent America: The United States since 1945 (1987) were at the other end of the spectrum. His most distinctive scholarship was in between, or what I will call mid-level synthesis. This includes The Democratic South (1965) and his two most ambitious books, Southern Progressivism: The Reconciliation of Progress and Tradition (1983) and The South in Modern America: A Region at Odds (1994), the last being a summation of his life's work. The same approach informed a collection of essays, The Regional Imagination: The South and Recent American History (1979), and The Life and Death of the Solid South (1988).

Nothing is more difficult than such mid-level synthesis. Grantham first tried to understand progressive reforms in 13 states, over a period of two decades and beyond. Then he dared encompass the history of the whole South for more than a century. In order to do succeed at such ambitious projects, Grantham had to read practically every scholarly book and article on his subject. From all this work, from all the conflicting interpretations, he very carefully extracted his story, broad, always balanced and fair, and, as the reader soon senses, as close to the truth as one can get, at least at the present stage of scholarship. As in his life as a whole, he was always generous to the scholars whose work he used, gentle in noting points of disagreement, and modest in his claims. He offered no striking new theses, argued no personal interpretations, and rarely injected himself into his histories. He resolved many interpretive battles by creating bridges between alternatives, frequently cited divergent but unresolvable differences, and always ended up with a very fluid, believable whole. The completed work easily obscured all the hard work, the reading and digesting of what soon became an almost overwhelming amount of scholarship in his field. I am not sure anyone can really continue this approach in the future, at least with the integrity Dewey Grantham brought to it. Time does not permit. And few will do the hard work.

— Paul Conkin, Vanderbilt University