U.S. Intellectual History Blog

S-USIH Member Spotlight: Mike O’Connor

Long-time USIH blog readers know Mike O’Connor. Mike was one of the original members of the blog team. His first post (a CFP relay) came in February 2007, shortly after our 1/25/07 founding. It was followed by several others, including our first book review. Mike chaired the Fourth Annual S-USIH Conference in 2011, and is one of the cofounders of the Society. He no longer blogs here but, after finishing his book (which will receive a roundtable here at some point), he’s recently taken up short-form writing again at his own site, eight hundred words. I asked Mike to tell us about his new creation and how it relates to his old, and continued, interest in USIH work. Here’s his response:

David Hollinger has noted that these days the preponderance of intellectual history is political in nature. Though he appeared to be concerned about this fact, I find that it fits my proclivities quite nicely. My first experience with blogging was as one of the founders of the original USIH site. There I found a group of people who, like me, found their interest in intellectual history to be intimately intertwined with their thoughts on political history, contemporary politics, the political implications of culture and even political theory. The work that S-USIH promotes and sponsors tends to draw few distinctions between the political import of historical writing and the scholarly interpretation of contemporary politics. I appreciated that commitment and hope to embody it at my new site.

I eventually stopped writing for S-USIH only because I needed the time to finish writing my book. When that work was published this year, I started a Facebook page to publicize it. I began to notice that most of my posts were a bit too long for that format. Everything that I wanted to say just took too many words. As a graduate student, I wrote a column in the school newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin. Without my realizing it, the experience had really shaped my writing. I had reached the point that anything I wrote, no matter what it was supposed to be, was really a column. Many of my old USIH blog posts, I could see in retrospect, were written in that format as well. I concluded that if I wanted to write columns, then I should actually write them, as opposed to misshapen instances of other formats.

In the past, one would have needed to find a magazine or newspaper to sponsor such an endeavor. Today the web allows anyone to do it. So I started eight hundred words with the hope that it would give me the structure and discipline to put out a column once a week or so. The page’s title comes from the word count I did of some random column in the newspaper after I got the idea to put up the site. I later discovered that this particular column must have been an anomaly, as most opinion pieces appear to be closer to one thousand words. But I liked the sound of eight hundred words, so I stuck with it.

To me, the most engaging part of a regular column is that one learns of a given writer’s particular preoccupations not from reading any particular piece of writing, but from the accumulation of information that trickles in week after week. So at this early stage I actually relish being able to say that I don’t know exactly what the site will look like. I expect it will focus more on contemporary politics than a history site would, and more on scholarly issues than a typical newspaper column. (My first column was about the critical reception of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge.) My book deals with the American debate over government intervention in the economy. That subject is still near and dear to my heart, and I never stop seeing examples of it in contemporary political discourse. So I anticipate that eight hundred words will draw attention to that continuing story as well. And I will no doubt promote and publicize whatever else I (and others) might be doing, as well as ride my various hobbyhorses.

I hope that those who are interested in the S-USIH blog would also like eight hundred words. The site is still pretty new, so readers should feel free to comment or write me to suggest directions or improvements that they might want to see. Thanks!


So go check out eight hundred words! Leave comments on his posts, or send him comments independently.