U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Michael O’Brien: The Selves, the Places, and the Cultures (Guest Post by Mary Frederickson)

[Editor’s Note:  The following guest post comes to us from Mary Frederickson, who is Visiting Professor at Emory University and Professor of History Emeritus at Miami University of Ohio, where she a faculty member from 1988-2015. She is the author, most recently, of Looking South: Race, Gender, and the Transformation of Labor (University of Florida Press, 2011). This is the third in a series of four guest posts, curated by Sarah Gardner, collectively entitled “Michael O’Brien, Intellectual History, and the History of the American South,” which will be appearing each Friday through the end of March. You can read more about the series here. — Ben Alpers]

During the decades I worked with Michael O’Brien at Miami University we shared many ideas:  thoughts about the South, history, the historical profession, university policy, and worst of all, departmental politics. We also exchanged notes on cats and dogs, gardens, spouses, and even, at times, children. He was a great colleague and a cherished friend. I miss his presence in the world a great deal.

But now that Michael is, I assume, not within hearing range, I will tell you that at times over the years I wanted to “put Michael on the couch,” in the psychoanalytic sense. The intertwining of his personal narrative and the narratives he so eloquently penned seemed both tantalizing and intriguing. He would have scorned at this, for as he once commented on psychotherapy:  “the therapeutic act might cure, but what is the use of a psychologically healthy author?”

Perhaps we can open a conversation about the usefulness of this approach, really an inversion of the 1960’s feminist rallying slogan, “the personal is political” morphed into something like “the personal is historical.” Although I am quite certain Michael would hate this train of thought (and especially despise its being applied to him), he did a lot more than dabble in this type of analysis. A razor sharp judge of character and personality, he could sum up a man in remarkably few words (women usually took more exposition). He described William Steuben Smith as “an alcoholic spendthrift;” another fellow as one who “became very rich and somewhat mad.” He pegged James Henry Hammond as “avaricious, intelligent, constrained, ambitious, sensual, proud, and timid….He whored around,” he wrote, “mostly with his slaves.” Michael even succinctly assessed his beloved Henry Adams as having “an antidemocratic elitism, a preference for the urban, a mysticism about creativity, a myth of the fall, a fear of the future, an exhilaration about technology, and an unease about the death of God.”

The intention here is not at all to sum up Michael, his life or his work, in silver-tongued prose, but rather to argue that there is a deep and compelling relationship between the narrative of Michael O’Brien’s own experience and the histories he crafted. He consistently probed the intersection between the individual and the cultural; the subject and his, or her, world; the personal and the historical. He played with this idea most freely in his article “Of Cats, Historians, and Gardeners,” which begins:  “One warm, rainy, English afternoon, I was sitting in my college room and thinking about death.” He then explores two ways that historical narrative happens:  the first begins with the historian who has “a life, a place, and a texture” and then the history, the writing of which depends on “the lived experience and understanding of oneself” (O’Brien quoting Wilhelm Dilthey, 1910); the second method begins with the history and in so much as is possible, hides the identity of the author in an impersonal voice and the illusion that the past makes the narrative. But in the latter case, O’Brien contends that such an approach is folly for we create the illusion that “we can in some measure be true to something beyond self and prior to self.”

So if in Michael’s case we start with the historian’s “life, place and texture,” we are brought immediately back to the title of our roundtable:  “Michael O’Brien, the South, and Transatlantic Thought” or what could also be described as “O’Brien:  The Self, the Place, and the Culture,” or perhaps more accurately, “O’Brien:  The Selves, the Places, and the Cultures.” This triptych delineates the historian’s life as an independent variable along a virtual y-axis. The second part of our equation here is the history itself, in its simplest form, as time, running along the x-axis, from the beginning to infinity. In a more complex iteration, history includes, as O’Brien put it, “a host of somebodies one needs to know, as a matter of urgent human knowledge.” According to Michael, history itself is “a negotiation between the historian and the people of the past,” He saw this as a dialectically interdependent relationship that takes place continuously between “the historian’s understanding of other persons and their expressions of life” and the understanding and lived experience of the historian himself/herself.

So how did this play out in Michael’s life and work? The many obituaries written following Michael’s death have re-familiarized us with the barest details of his biography:

Born in Plymouth in April 13, 1948, the youngest of five children of John O’Brien, a former sailor from Glasgow, and his wife, Lilian, from Cornwall. A itinerate childhood spent between Glasgow, Anglesey, London and the West Country. Devonport High School for Boys; off to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1966; first visit to the US in 1968; graduation from university, marriage to Tricia Bacon, and a move to Nashville, Tennessee, for postgraduate study at Vanderbilt, all in quick succession in 1969; a Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1976; a quarter century working in America, at Michigan, Arkansas and then, Miami as the Shriver Professor of history. A return to Cambridge in 2001 as a lecturer, then reader, and then in 2005 as professor of American intellectual history. Elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2008. Published a dozen books; scores of articles. Awarded the Bancroft Prize in 2005 and was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer. Died on May 6, 2015.

There is the life in 175 words, but what of the self? Again, the obituaries give us some clues:  in that itinerate childhood, “there were few books; Michael was seven years old before he learned to read.” His “unsettled childhood” produced “qualities of resilience and determination that encouraged self-sufficiency.” He spent many an evening alone and “never lost his sense of being a foreign observer,” in his own family; at Cambridge; in the South; and in his scholarship as a transatlantic scholar of the first order.

Family is key to understanding O’Brien the historian, his family of origin and as he put it: “Those families we marry into, and those we create.” His own family story we have heard about in bits and pieces, his father so often at sea, both literally and figuratively; his mother in constant need of support; the constant moves, separated siblings, his strong older sister, his adventurous brothers, his famous niece. As he wrote, “Mine was a postwar generation, fed stuntedly on powdered milk. In my case, this effect was compounded by growing up in the working class, with its immense, necessary reservoir of stoicism, its skepticism of “them,” its flickering community of strong women and men lost in wars, colonies, and the pub around the corner. . . .” Through all of this, Tricia’s family in Plymouth provided a respite of warmth and love, long before Tricia and Michael became a couple. The books Michael authored, reconstitute hundreds of family stories, and contain scores of references to “family” and “families.” Several begin with sentences like “[a]s many stories do, this one started within the family,” (from Mrs. Adams in Winter), or “One must begin with the Adams family, which, in the way of families, was complicated,” (from Henry Adams & the Southern Question).

An astute observer of family relationships, dynamics, intrigues, loyalties and power, often meticulously reconstructed across many generations, as in the case of the Adamses, O’Brien nevertheless hewed a line much like that he attributed to C. Vann Woodward:  “Of all the pasts, he was least interested in narrating his own. He preferred to be a little mysterious and inaccessible. . . . He was reticent about his own origins. . . . he buried his childhood in a few sentences” (Placing the South, 211). Despite this reticence, O’Brien reveals a tremendous amount about himself in the histories he penned, for as he put it, “self is inescapable (“Of Cats, 53).

Family is one key to understanding Michael O’Brien’s life and work; place is another. How and why did the South become the focus of O’Brien’s academic work? One thing seems to have led to another. In March 1967, he tells us that while scanning the shelves of Trinity Hall’s college library for something to read during spring vacation, he chanced upon The Education of Henry Adams. The book “made a deep impression” and Adams’s notorious slur about the woeful absence of intellect among southerners, stuck in O’Brien’s craw for many years. He bonded with South over the lines: “Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two.” Conjectures of Order would be O’Brien’s eventual response to these dismissive words, which he referred to as “a boulder, barring the way,” to his initial interest in writing about the intellectual culture of the American South. But in 1967 more immediate concerns took precedence, including young love and a marriage engagement. By the following summer, in 1968, the engagement had ended, called off by O’Brien’s fiancé. To recover from this loss, he set his sights on America. His advisor Jonathan Steinberg arranged for Michael to go to Alabama where he worked on a construction crew while living with the family of Joab Thomas in Tuscaloosa. A Harvard educated biologist from Russellville, Alabama, Thomas was an assistant dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. Thomas would later become President of the University of Alabama, but that summer he welcomed Michael into his lively home of four teenaged children. Nestled in this academic family, Michael took in large gulps of southern life, a construction worker by day, guest in a genteel home in the evening. One of the Thomas daughters became a romantic interest. Alabama proved just the antidote for a broken engagement. Back at Cambridge in the fall, Michael finished his last undergraduate year, and in rapid succession, became engaged to Tricia, got a factory job to earn some money, got married, and three days later left Plymouth for Nashville, Tennessee and the Vanderbilt history department.

I surmise that for Michael O’Brien, beginning in the late 1960’s, the South and the working-class of his youth became synonymous. When Henry Adams insulted the South, Michael read it as a slur against the post-war world in which he grew up, a place where men had no intellect, just a temperament. A world without scholars, where intellectual training was rare. A place where few could analyze an idea; a realm void of Hegelian thought. Michael wrote of his deep affinity for the South, arguing that “Columbia, South Carolina, which was burned to the ground by Sherman, makes more sense to someone who, like me, grew up in a Plymouth flattened by the Luftwaffe, who played on bombsites and was taught, from as early as lessons could be taught, what to do upon coming across an unexploded bomb” (Apprehension, 5). To change the historiography of the South, to reconstruct the rich intellectual culture of the antebellum South, to restore the lost scholars, debaters, and authors of a disremembered world, to excavate forgotten literary and historical works, was to demonstrate that a callow working-class youth from Plymouth (and Glasgow, London, and Anglesey) could evolve into a scholar, historian, and author of import and grace.

The final piece of our triptych of the historian’s “life, place, and texture,” is to think about texture. I would argue that the texture of O’Brien’s life was defined by culture, by thick description, exquisitely crafted narrative, by the life of the mind, by a world of men and women who he gave life on the page and then judged according to the ways they deported themselves in public, and most importantly when alone. An unyielding judge of character, O’Brien measured his actors, ranking them according to their sense of morality, their intellect, actions, and shortcomings. Significantly, material wealth did not count for much in O’Brien’s Old South. As much as class impacted Michael’s life, he de-emphasized class and class consciousness in minds of antebellum southerners. As one of his reviewers argued, “O’Brien argues. . . that class had little meaning beyond general groupings. . . [but] southerners by the 1850s certainly employed a language of class . . . and increasingly saw the world in terms of class.” The reason for this, I think, harks back to O’Brien’s melding of working-class Britain and the American South. In his schema, these seemingly disparate worlds became one, a place where regionalism trumped (no pun intended) class divisions, where men were judged by character and intellect, not by what they possessed.

The narratives O’Brien created, the characters he fleshed out on the page, the intricacies of their actions and reactions, the twists of fate that shaped their lives, came to form the texture of Michael’s own life as an historian and a scholar. He gravitated toward individuals like the strong women and lost men of his youth, but he wrote new scripts for them, gave them libraries and tutors, intellectual curiosity, and time to read. He situated them in a time and place that American scholars had pretty much quit caring about and there he created a new infrastructure for understanding the intellectual world of the Old South. As the historian of this world that he knew more intimately than anyone else, he had free reign and full control and in 1200 pages of eloquent prose, Michael O’Brien countered Henry Adams’s notorious slur. We might call Conjectures of Order, The Re-education of Henry Adams.

The transference between working-class England and the American South that occurs in O’Brien’s work allowed him to be, as he put it, “engaged by the United States but not implicated in its ideology.” It was a way to “have one’s American cake and not eat it.” To be interested in the South, he contended, provided “the experience of being Americanized and being anti-American simultaneously.” It was a stance of accommodation and resistance and it suited O’Brien to a T. Michael saw the South as “one of the first victims of American political and cultural imperialism,” and in that, an example, “for good and ill, of how to cope.” For Michael the “alien qualities of American success,” (large refrigerators, picket fences, suburban lawns, especially in the Midwest) were mitigated by the “buried culture of the South.” In many ways, he read (and wrote) the southern story as anti-American. He saw the region as engaged in a continuous “European/southern exchange,” a trans-Atlantic conversation about ideas that, in his words, “have been peculiarly powerful in shaping southerner’ interpretations of their own experience.”

The “life, place, and texture” of Michael O’Brien’s life as an historian, and the self, place, and culture of his narratives shaped new worlds for readers on both sides of the Atlantic. His own journey through life, at times as arduous as that of Mrs. Adams’s winter trip from St. Petersburg to Paris, was also marked by good fortune, an incredible marriage, and some intriguing twists of fate. An historian’s historian, Michael shaped his own life through hard work and a rare devotion to the life of the mind. In reflecting on the historian’s craft in 2002, he posed the question, “Is not [historical] reality diminished if we can gain an entrance . . . only through the tiny door-way of the historian’s self?” “Yet,” he answered, “for good or ill, that is the only doorway we have.” And he added, “Much hinges on whether one wishes to celebrate the good or hide the ill.”

I will leave it there, letting our friend and colleague, who left us too soon, have the last word.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I read this last week and am surprised there are still no comments. This was a really engaging and thoughtful piece that insightfully connected “the scholarship” to “the man” in a way that could only be done by someone who knew him well. Thank you, Mary, for one of the posts I’ve most enjoyed reading in a long while. And thanks to Ben and the USIH blog for the series.

    • Michael, thank you for your kind words. I appreciated the opportunity to write this piece about the intertwining of Michael’s life and work.

  2. As Michael’s elder brother and someone who met Mary at Miami in the 1980s, this blog caused me to reflect once again. On many levels I dearly miss him, intellectually he was a giant compared to his siblings. Sometimes outside of academia this could lead to his ruthless honesty being misinterpreted as arrogance. I have always presumed this is a problem that many academics face. In reality he was a very empathetic human being.
    This blog is a very sensitive and insightful understanding of his life.
    Thank you Mary

    • Owen, thank you for your comment above. So sad about Michael’s death. I remember your visits to Ohio in the 1980’s with such delight. Many good times with Michael and Tricia and you, and later in Cambridge with you and Joan. All best, Mary

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