U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Michael O’Brien, Perry Miller, and the Intellectual Histories of Two Regions (Guest Post by Mitchell Snay)

[Editor’s Note:  The following guest post comes to us from Mitchell Snay, who is professor of history at Denison University, where he teaches courses in American history from the colonial period through Reconstruction. He is the author of three books: Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Fenians, Freedmen, and Southern Whites: Race and Nationality in the Era of Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), and Horace Greeley and the Politics of Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). He is also the co-editor of Religion and the Antebellum Debate over Slavery (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998). This is the fourth and final of a series of guest posts, curated by Sarah Gardner, collectively entitled “Michael O’Brien, Intellectual History, and the History of the American South,” which has been appearing each Friday for the last several weeks. You can read more about the series here. — Ben Alpers]

I have chosen today to honor Michael O’Brien’s contributions to Southern intellectual history by relating his Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life in the Old South, 1810-1860 to Perry Miller’s two-volume study of Puritan thought, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century and The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. I am not the first to suggest this analogy. C. Vann Woodward once told Michael that he was to Southern intellectual history what Miller had been to Puritanism and it is not beneath me to pick up an intellectual crumb left by Mr. Woodward. Even superficially, there are suggestive similarities between these major works. Both are two volumes and both are long: Conjectures of Order comes in at 1202 pages of text while The New England Mind is a shorter but denser 970 pages. As intellectual histories of an American region, they are both magisterial achievements of research and interpretation.

At first glance , Puritan New England and the antebellum South differ profoundly in chronology, geography, and history. Yet similarities emerge in the histories of Miller and O’Brien. Theology was a preoccupation in both regions and periods. A rejection of individualism and an embrace of communitarianism joined thinkers like James Warley Miles of South Carolina and John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Space considerations permit me only to raise what I consider the most interesting similarities and salient differences between Conjectures of Order and The New England Mind. Since both books are so sophisticated and subtle, the boundaries separating what is similar from what is different cannot always be maintained.

To begin with, O’Brien and Miller faced a similar historiographical challenge. They were writing to audiences skeptical of the intellectual value of their subjects. During the 1920s, the reputation of American Puritans suffered from the charge that they had imposed a “glacial period” on the intellectual life of New England. They were reactionaries out of step with the mainstream of American liberalism. We might all recall the famous definition of Puritanism offered by H.L. Mencken, “the haunting fear that somewhere, someone might be happy.” The stereotype of antebellum Southerners was not so different. From Thomas Jefferson to Henry Adams to Wilbur J. Cash, Southerners were noted for their impulses over their reason, their hearts over their heads. Any intellectual efforts that did exist in the Old South were expended towards the defense of slavery. Not coincidentally, it was once again H.L. Mencken who ridiculed the South as the “Sahara of the Bozart.”

Three other common themes connect these intellectual histories of Puritan New England and the antebellum South. First, both Miller and O’Brien successfully brought ideas out of their regions and placed them within the larger context of European intellectual history. Before the term became popular, these were truly transnational intellectual histories. Miller showed how New England Puritans inherited and maintained the Calvinist principles of the Protestant Reformation. In just one of many examples, O’Brien demonstrated the influence of German thought on Southern literary criticism. Second, each author addressed the role of ideas in the passing of an Old Order. In the late seventeenth century, according to Miller, the Puritan idea of a calling had led to material success and the growing primacy of secular values that undermined spiritual life. In the words of historian Richard Bushman, Puritans became Yankees. O’Brien suggests that the “old, neat congruence of self and society fractured” in the South after the Civil War. Finally, both Conjectures of Order and The New England Mind revealed a similarly dynamic understanding of culture. For Miller, Puritan culture was the product of ideas transformed by the encounter with the New World wilderness. For O’Brien, Southern culture was created through the interaction of national, imperial, and post-colonial identities.

The most salient difference between Perry Miller and Michael O’Brien lies in their different methods of writing intellectual history. Much of this might be explained by simple chronology. Miller published one of his volumes in 1939 and the other in 1953, while O’Brien’s work came out in 2004. Miller was primarily interested in the ideas themselves, especially abstract ideas –their genealogy, creation, and unintended consequences. He believed that ideas had an autonomous life of their own. Miller concentrated almost solely on the production of knowledge by an elite class of ministers. He created a highly sophisticated, unified, and monolithic system of Puritan thought based around the single idea of the covenant, a construct which several critics have suggested might never have existed. Miller also believed that ideas could be the key to understanding social development. A people’s notion of what was happening was more revealing than any objective social history.

In stark contrast to Miller, O’Brien was more interested in intellectual life – the process of producing and consuming knowledge. O’Brien employs a broader definition of intellectual activity that includes reading, conversation, and letter writing. He ranges far beyond theology to include such fields as ethnology, history, and science. His definition of “intellectuals” is more expansive, including women, missionaries, scientists, and even slaves like the poet George Moses Horton. If Miller put Puritan ideas into a formal intellectual structure, O’Brien stressed the fluidity and instability of antebellum Southern thought. As he put it, “paradigms persist, coexist, and come into conversation.” The South itself was a “moving target, a thing in process.” Southern readers, for instance, drifted between an “old world of aristocratic obligation and the new one of bourgeois consumption.”

One other common theme deserves a passing mention, although its full development lies beyond the scope of my comments today. That is the concept of “modernity,” presented by both Miller and O’Brien as a transition between two worlds of thought. For Puritan New England, Miller finds it in the late seventeenth century. The emergence of Newtonian physics and Lockean psychology suggested a world of natural order discoverable by humans. For the antebellum South, O’Brien locates modernity in the recognition, barely visible at the end of the antebellum era, that the world was too complex for comprehension. He deftly shows how Mary Chesnut moved to the brink of literary modernism in finding a literary form that could convey life’s disorder.

In putting Conjectures of Order in conversation with The New England Mind, it has not been my intention to offer invidious comparisons or blame the authors for not writing a different book. Similarly, I think it would be a mistake both to enshrine Perry Miller in a long-gone “Golden Age” of American intellectual history from which we have fallen or to assume that O’Brien’s work is superior because it is newer. Both works should be read as products of their time. I join historian Edmund Morgan’s judgment that The New England Mind was the best American intellectual history ever written. By placing Conjectures of Order at this level , I commemorate Michael’s exemplary skills at reading texts, capturing the nuances of thought , and understanding the creation and demise of cultures.