U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Michael O’Brien, Women’s Informal Writing, and the Compass of Antebellum Southern Intellectual History (Guest Post by Steven M. Stowe)

[Editor’s note: The following guest post comes to us from Steven M. Snowe, Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University and former editor of the Journal of American History. He is the author of Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters (Johns Hopkins U Press, 1990), Doctoring the South: Southern Physicians and Everyday Medicine in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (UNC Press, 2004), and the forthcoming Keeping the Days: the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women and the Problem of Historical Empathy. This is the second 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]

This is about reading Michael O’Brien’s work as an intellectual historian of the South by considering the meaning – and the pleasure – he discovered in finding new minds worth knowing.  In his crowning work Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 (2004), O’Brien strayed from what he considered to be the “core activity of an intellectual historian, the close reading of intricate texts.”  He moved in a new direction among texts toward those that were less complete, less finished, more everyday; texts he approached less through close reading than by reading them through the lives of their authors.  O’Brien’s growing interest in the work of women writers in the antebellum South, especially their informal texts, brought him to this point.  His engagement with women’s writing, I think, sheds light on the southern intellectual past he studied, and, at the same time, illuminates the intellectual ground on which he stood as a historian.[1]

The turn to women’s writing is not foreshadowed in O’Brien’s earlier work in the 1970s and early 80s.  Here he had been drawn to twentieth-century thinkers, men who made expansive claims about southern thought and identity, and who were in positions to be outspoken, even reckless, about their claims:  assertive Agrarian thinkers like Allen Tate and Donald Davidson, the extravagant journalist Wilbur Cash, and the novelist Thomas Wolfe, a man electric with southern myth and self-fashioning.  Though much later O’Brien said he had thought about including writers Caroline Gordon and Lillian Smith in his first book, The Idea of the American South (1979) he admitted that he did not push himself very hard.  The intellectual energies that interested him in the 70s and 80s were those that proclaimed­ the South as an idea and a place for ideas, energies that pulled themes and arguments together in a public way – centripetal energies, as he put it, linking intellectual identity to qualities deemed “southern.”   He engaged in this in part because he was not a southerner.  “[T]his is an outsider’s book,” he wrote, looking back on it a decade later.  He was an Englishman, and the status of an outsider “is claimed and assumed on the very first page.”  Southern thought’s centripetal tendencies intrigued him because he stood apart from the claims “southernnesss” made on southerners.[2]

As they did not in O’Brien’s earlier work, women writers appear throughout Conjectures of Order.  Some of the antebellum women are well known (Louisa McCord, Augusta Evans, Caroline Hentz, Mary Chesnut), some less so (Elizabeth Ruffin, Jane North, Louise Davis Preston).  O’Brien was candid about being a late-comer to women’s history.  As he remarked years later about the 1970s, “frankly, doing women’s history did not occur to me, and I had never heard of gender….”   He did include one woman, the pro-slavery advocate Louisa McCord, in his 1982 collection of essays by antebellum southern intellectuals.  This was a volume entitled (with words borrowed from Lord Byron) All Clever Men, Who Make Their Way.  In addition to missing the irony (as he later acknowledged) of putting McCord in with the men, he singled her out for some gratuitous fun, lampooning a passage in one of her dramas (he later apologized).[3]

There must be many explanations for why O’Brien did not take up women writers until the 90s.  I see an intellectual reason.  O’Brien cherished what he called a “cosmopolitan” spirit underlying the best work in intellectual history.  This spirit, or ideal, fostered a creative, centripetal energy, a sense of a community of careful, thorough, well-prepared historians conducting archival research, closely reading texts, sharing with and critiquing each other.  The quality of such cosmopolitan work, untainted by partisanship and special-pleading, pulled together many individual projects over time into a broad understanding of the past free from narrow politics and academic fashions.  It is a powerful ideal, modest and sustaining.  But for O’Brien it was challenged in the early 1980s, as his career was taking off, by the rise of multicultural studies. This was problematic for him, in part, because despite having progressive aims that he supported, multiculturalism in the academy seemed to easily give way to the fracturing, centrifugal force of partisanship.  Multiculturalism was open to the worst kind of presentism, a partisan drive “to kill those pasts which cannot be seen as contributory to the present.”  Such partisanship also raised unrealistic expectations for what intellectual work could be expected to do in the indifferent or even hostile world that surrounded the academy.  O’Brien was wary, for instance, of any academic claim that “ascribes to literary texts an implausible social power” to effect moral ends; he thought historians made poor moralists.  Even after he had become less alarmed about multiculturalism, he could still cast doubt on it, wondering if it was not simply a “bastard form of cultural nationalism, which I see as authoritarian, while masquerading as descriptive.”  Although O’Brien expressed his deepest skepticism in terms of a multiculturalism broadly defined, much of what he said also fit the study of women and gender.[4]

So how was it, then, that his growing willingness to focus on women overcame his skepticism of multiculturalism as a fragmenting intellectual force?  There were biographical reasons, no doubt, reasons having to do with the fact that by the late 80s he shared many of the progressive views typical of the academic atmosphere in which he worked.  He once described himself as an “English Fabian Socialist” more than a little exasperated with the American conservative mainstream.  He allied himself to modern feminism, too, in ways that opened him to women’s studies, participating in scholarly groups, notably one he founded, the Southern Intellectual History Circle, where colleagues, especially female colleagues, were well-versed in gender studies and persuasive in arguing for their value.  Here, too, he met literary critics who studied women writers and were adept at gender analysis that asked different – less cautious? – questions of historical texts.[5]

All of this helped shape the more focused intellectual reasons behind his growing interest in women’s history in the antebellum South – reasons anchored in his research.  For one thing, he began to tune into certain antebellum women of the educated class who clearly were as deeply read and intellectually incisive as the men.  Literary genres differed by sex, and as he gave more attention to women thinkers, O’Brien gave more attention to areas of thought where women authors were many – poetry and popular religious writing, for example, not to mention literary genres traditionally considered marginal by many intellectual historians – the diary or journal, and epistolary writing.

In turn, his interest in gender opened up new interpretive paths in his study of nineteenth century views of sexual difference that he explores in Conjectures of Order, as part of his discussion of the romantic fascination with the “types” of humankind and the belief that male and female had different natures which “occasioned an interdependence rhapsodic in its beauty.”  O’Brien was particularly drawn to women writers who lived in this world but challenged it.  So we see the southern-born abolitionist Angelina Grimke linking enslaved black people to white women by way of their governed bodies, and we hear her realize that, as a woman, “The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own.”  And we hear Louisa McCord, that advocate of an ordained, dependent womanhood, privately telling a male correspondent that the separate spheres of women and men were after all a “concocted falsehood” that everyone agreed to accept in the name of keeping society stable.  Antebellum views of sex and gender were thus far from simple.  They were neither a centrifugal force undermining elite power, nor a body of thought bolstering men’s dominance.  Rather, views of sex, especially as inscribed by women, gave intellectual culture a distinctive shape and flexibility.  As he grasped this, then, O’Brien discovered – and demonstrated – that gender-inflected history was much more than a centrifugal force reducing the cosmopolitan ideal to fragments.[6]

At the same time, the sense antebellum southerners had of women’s difference prompted O’Brien to think of a female intellectual as a particular kind of outsider; an outsider, let’s say, in insider’s dress.  “Insider/outsider” are my terms, not O’Brien’s, but I think they represent how he further perceived women intellectuals standing on a distinctive intellectual ground in the Old South.  Upper class women knew “the talk” of upper class power, but did not, could not, or did not wish to, seize it with the blind certainty that belonged to men.  Women obviously contributed to elite influence and self-regard, but, unlike men, they were good at looking askance at their class’s power, good at creatively taking their eyes off the ball, a move most of their men considered fatal to their class’s control of the game.  Women’s intellectual realm was an angle of vision, not a competing vision, just as women’s history, and questions arising out of an analysis of gender, was an angle of vision.  Himself an outsider to the South, O’Brien knew very well that while some might think of outsiders as people standing around on the margins of a culture, it is far more fruitful to see them as actively expanding our understanding of what a culture is.  He came to understand intellectual women as having such a role.

Indeed, the significance of O’Brien’s turn to women is evidenced in a central argument he makes in Conjectures.  Between 1810 and 1860, the argument is, southern thought made the turn toward modernity, a shift from “a late Enlightenment, to a Romantic, then to an early realist sensibility.”  The “modern” is found on the romantic-realist divide.  He deftly characterizes modernity’s assumptions about reality this way:  “[the belief] that mind helped to form reality, but dialectically; that blending mind and emotion was the essence of life….that freedom was insecure and that mastery was incomplete, but necessary; that God was real, but difficult to comprehend;…that much depended on keeping your nerve, on the adequacy of the will.”  In this vision of the emerging modern sensibility, O’Brien relies again and again on certain individuals, especially as he brings his study to a close.  Though all intellectuals swam in the new stream, only a few realized how new it was, and how momentous.  Among these, O’Brien highlights two men and two women, all younger writers:  the essayist James Johnston Pettigrew, the historicist William Henry Trescot, novelist Augusta Evans, and diarist Mary Chesnut.  Their responses to modernity differed, and this says much about it and about the southern intellectual class.  As O’Brien sums it up, “Evans said, Go for God and duty.  [Pettigrew] urged, Try the South and the warmth of belonging.  Trescot argued, Cold power is the only reality.”[7]

And Mary Chesnut?  O’Brien sets her apart from the other three; he does not characterize her with a sentence.  Like an Augusta Evans heroine, Chesnut learned what curious, thoughtful women find out:  that the “starting point is doubt, loneliness, awkwardness,” and that the challenge for a woman writer was to find strength and creativity in these.  It is Mary Chesnut whose eyes opened widest to the onrushing failure of the Confederacy and to the vast opening to modernity beyond.  By 1865 her writing showed her to be fully swept up in the new times, living “urgently in a present that raced catastrophically by her.”  She came to understand “that there had never really been a choice, that the world had never made much sense, that mere strength of will could not ensure efficacy.”  She saw modernity’s face.[8]

O’Brien takes the title of his final chapter, where modernity thus presents itself, from Chesnut:  “Cool Brains.”  Cool brains, Chesnut wrote, are what southerners needed now that they had chosen war and lost.  I think O’Brien liked the phrase “cool brains” precisely for its modern resonance, the organ-within-the-skull standing for thought; coolness made desirable.  He was one of the first scholars to think hard about Chesnut’s most famous text, her diary, as, in fact, an amalgam of immediate and retrospective writing that takes most of its power from the former.  He turns to Chesnut repeatedly as the writer who both rides the power of the immediate and interprets it.  He was attuned to Chesnut’s own commentary on woman’s world, which dropped into her pages with a suddenness that might embarrass a less agile reader.  He sees her as the outsider with an insider’s stakes whose words tracked modernity’s daunting possibilities for being real.

O’Brien came slowly to his appreciation of Chesnut.  She first appears in his 1982 essay collection All Clever Men, with a walk-on part in his introduction to the essay by Louisa McCord.  Chesnut is merely “McCord’s friend,” a “lighter spirit” than McCord whose readable but light-weight diary is a foil for McCord’s weightier writing.  Like other scholars of that time, the late 1970s, O’Brien had become acquainted with Chesnut by working with a published volume of the diary soon to be revealed as deeply flawed by the modern editor’s interventions.  A few years later, with a true edition of the diary now available, O’Brien discovered a new Mary Chesnut (as we all did), and discovered a new way to write about her, which, I think, carries a hint of how he came to imagine women’s world.  For one thing, O’Brien seems unusually informal, even intimate, when writing about Chesnut.  His opening words of a 1989 essay on Chesnut, bring us close to her even before she’s introduced:  “She knew the value of solitude for a writer, though she was very fond of society, whose brittle tensions were much of her subject matter.  She liked to sit in her own room, designated and guarded as a retreat, which looked out on pleasant fields; there she would write….”[9]

And write she did, come the war.  Chesnut could be breezy.  She could be brittle.  At times, she might have invented the term “snarky.”  She liked her “amusing” planter class, and she liked to be amused.  But O’Brien saw beneath this, to the many passages in her diary where Chesnut wrote herself past cleverness and cynicism.  She wrote scenes that were “fragmentary, intentionally so.  People say things.  Often it is unclear who is speaking.  One quotation does not always follow logically from its predecessor.  Voices are not always answered.  The profound and trivial lie next to one another, unreconciled.”  Rather than see this as a lesser kind of writing – lesser than men’s – O’Brien holds it up as the very imprint of the modern sensibility, written from woman’s world not beholden to male logic, written in a diary, no less.  The diary form was fragmentary, perfectly so.  “Mary Chesnut understood narrative,” O’Brien writes of her modernity.  “Her voices were artful, their incoherence intended.  Why?  Because, finally, she had concluded that the world had not added up to a smooth story with an ordered moral.”  She did not trust the old order, O’Brien observes.  “She did not even trust herself.  But she knew that these skepticisms did not disavow the vitality of life.”  The center might not hold, but Chesnut pulled from the wreckage of romanticism modernity’s one gem-like promise:  “Life and art might persist, even when power and philosophy failed.”[10]

Chesnut’s friend McCord did not cross over into the modern sensibility.  The failure of the planter class’ power and philosophy in the Civil War was devastating, and McCord could not find the post-war words for modern life.  Not, at least, in her formal thought.  But O’Brien’s interest in Chesnut as a modern writer became, in Conjectures of Order, linked to an interest in informal writing in general.  There was the diary, of course, but personal letters, too, and different sorts of “private papers” where a writer writes in a first-draft mode, less defensive, more experimental.  McCord appears in Conjectures of Order not only as an author of social criticism and poetry, but also as one who wrote from woman’s experience in this first-draft style; if not “modern,” she gestured toward it.  O’Brien gives much attention to McCord’s correspondence with and about her father, a man of imposing authority with a taste for cruelty. Here McCord’s critical logic is far from formal.  It is fraught with emotion and mixed in its judgment.  O’Brien treats this correspondence with the seriousness he formerly gave only to McCord’s published essays.  Her informal writings are a “stark commentary” where meaning surges beyond the artifice of her public work.  It is writing that plainly shows the “hard assessment of woman’s difficult lot and man’s brute insensibility.”[11]

Women like McCord and Chesnut were of the slave-owning class O’Brien knew well; they were educated, well-read, attentive to worlds beyond their South.  But, again, as women they were a certain kind of outsider as well.  They were outsiders who shaped an intellectual culture but not with the full array of men’s worldly powers.  Women were uniquely placed to criticize men, and some did, yet they faced the abyss if they pushed men too far.  Women belonged, and they did not belong, and they wrote in ways men did not.  All of this, O’Brien came to understand, did not put women on the margins of intellectual history, but rather expanded our sense of where and how the life of the mind works.

O’Brien’s sense of this is perhaps better seen not in Conjectures of Order but in a volume of women’s diaries he edited, which, for me, is his most open-ended, and most heartfelt, engagement with women, informal writing, and intellectual life. The four diarists in this volume, all single women, are hard to picture in the same parlor.  True, Elizabeth Ruffin and Jane North could have conversed easily with Mary Chesnut, though North in particular seems ill at ease with the bright surface of social talk.  The third diarist’s identity is unknown, though this did not prevent O’Brien from including her in the volume.  In fact, he seems to enjoy her personal mysteriousness as adding to the reasons for reading her.  “So,” he writes, pondering what we can suppose about her from her diary, “she was youngish and single, perhaps thirty or so.  But she felt time slipping away.  She looked at a friend in her early twenties and already possessed of two children, and felt a twinge of aging.  She noted a few gray hairs, some rheumatism in her shoulder, and a little myopia.”  The fourth diarist, Ann Hardeman, a Mississippi woman in her mid-50s, is even more rough-cut, a Methodist who read her Bible and sometimes the newspapers, and who wrote down her cares and worries, saying all things simply: Went to town yesterday.  Felt unwell today.  Mr. Allison visited us.  “What [Hardeman] intended for her journal is obscure,” O’Brien wrote.  “What she did in it is less so.  Above all, she denoted and erased her loneliness.  Her journal is a history of how and why that loneliness increased almost beyond her endurance.”[12]

O’Brien read these diarists as giving unique form to the life of mind by inscribing the immediate moment.  We trade intricate thought for texts where thought is edged with the distractions of feeling, another way of conjecturing order.  O’Brien confessed that he had been unsure what such writing would show him, but it turned out to be something so essential that it took another confession to admit it:  he learned “that thoughts exist in more than books, that there are more thinkers than those who claim the title, that much of value can be caught in fragments of diaries, letters, and bits of fugitive paper.”  In such writing, “A certain skepticism is lost, a certain directness gained….I came to like these diarists, to sympathize with their lives, and to feel their predicaments.  I do not know that any act in my scholarly life has given me greater pleasure than editing these pages.”[13]

In the decade after the publication of Conjectures of Order, O’Brien let it be known that he was no longer a historian of the South.  He was intrigued by, if not altogether comfortable with, global and transnational approaches to intellectual history, and he set his sights on a wider swath of American thought, extending from the eighteenth century.  He was also, as he remarked in 2013, looking forward to new engagement with “the close reading of intricate texts.”  But women’s intellectual lives, and the “bits of fugitive paper” their writing attunes us to, stayed with him.  Perhaps O’Brien’s finest piece of writing, his last full-scale book, a “literary experiment,” as he put it, was about a woman, Louisa Adams, her dramatic journey across Russia in 1815 to join her husband, the American diplomat  John Quincy Adams, and about the diary she kept of this dramatic journey.  There were many kinds of fugitives here to be traced, found only in the traces of Louisa Adams’s thoughts.  Hers was not an intricate text, perhaps, but it uniquely mingled things known and things conjectured, hoped for and believed in.  Things in the past that “certainly or probably happened,” which may be the best we historians can say.[14] 


[1] Michael O’Brien, “A Retrospective on the Southern Intellectual History Circle, 1988-2013,” paper presented to the annual meeting of the Southern Intellectual History Circle, Mercer University, Macon, Ga., February 21, 2013 (typescript),26 (hereafter Michael O’Brien is cited as MO).  See MO, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 2 vols. (Chapel Hill, 2004).

[2]  MO, The Idea of the American South, 1920-1941 (Baltimore, 1990, with a new preface; originally published 1979), xi.

[3]  Ibid.  See MO, All Clever Men, Who Make Their Way: Critical Discourse in the Old South (Fayetteville, Ark., 1982).

[4]  MO, “Response to My Critics.” Mississippi Quarterly 58 (Winter 2004-Spring 2005), 208; MO, “Our South or Theirs?” The Southern Literary Journal 44 (Spring 2012), 147; MO, “Response to My Critics,” 211.  For O’Brien on the cosmopolitan ideal, see his “On Transcending the Mollusk: Cosmopolitanism and Historical Discourse,” Gettysburg Review 1 (issue 3, 1988): 457-68.

[5]  MO, “Retrospective,” 10.

[6]  MO, Conjectures of Order, 215, 257, 273, 284.

[7]  Ibid., 7, 1161.

[8]  MO, Conjectures of Order, 1166, 1161-62.

[9]  MO, All Clever Men, 19, 339; MO, “The Flight Down the Middle Walk: Mary Chesnut and the Forms of Observance,” in Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan Donaldson, eds., Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts (Charlottesville, Va., 1997), 109.  There is a remarkably similar opening to his book about Louisa Adams, which begins: “She was in a hurry, because anxious.  And she disliked partings, all the business of embraces, regrets, and promises.  So she began the journey and left the city without ceremony….” See MO, Mrs. Adams in Winter: a Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon (New York, 2010), 3.

[10]  MO, Conjectures of Order, 1193, 1196.

[11]  Ibid., 284.

[12]  MO, An Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South, 1827-1867 (Charlottesville, Va., 1993), 19, 41.

[13]  Ibid., xv-xvi.

[14]  MO, “Retrospective,” 26; MO, Mrs. Adams in Winter, xvi.