U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Mind and Place: Michael O’Brien and the American South (Guest Post by David Moltke-Hansen)

[ Editor’s note: The following guest post comes to us from David Moltke Hansen, Independent Scholar and Founding Co-Editor of the Cambridge University Press series Cambridge Studies on the American South. This is the first in a series of guest posts, curated by Sarah Gardner, collectively entitled “Michael O’Brien, Intellectual History, and the History of the American South,” which will be appearing today and on the following three Fridays. You can read more about the series here. — Ben Alpers]

The label southern intellectual historian only really fit Michael O’Brien for the first dozen years of his career. That claim needs explanation and then analysis. Most people rather understood the label as reasonably descriptive from the time O’Brien began publishing—this in a field that the profession doubted existed until a quarter of a century later. Then Conjectures of Order appeared, O’Brien’s two-volume study of intellectual life in the American South between 1810 and 1860. This magnum opus resoundingly proved the subject’s richness. Yet it also slyly challenged many of the claims of the South’s intellectual life to regional distinctiveness and separateness.

How became clearer after the multiple awards and accolades that the book won. O’Brien bemused many colleagues then by announcing his intention to leave southern history for other climes and a different range of engagements. He did so when receiving the Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award at the November 2005 Southern Historical Association Meeting in Atlanta and again at the February 2006 Southern Intellectual History Circle Meeting at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge. Not only did he step down as founding organizer of the latter group, he also relinquished his chairmanship of the Southern Texts Society, which had published original source material for nearly fifteen years, first with the University Press of Virginia and then with the University of Georgia Press. The news surprised, even stunned many southernists.

Early on, O’Brien accepted the importance of the South as a powerful identity confronting, when not justifying, southern writers between the World Wars. His first book treated the Vanderbilt agrarians and others who made the South matter to the nation and the wider world. That region was a rhetorical space, one layered with history and myth, full of moral challenge and dark compulsions.  Yet it had a real as well as an ideal geography. Both proved evanescent.

O’Brien started to look back to the time when the South first appeared as a political construct and an intellectual enterprise. What he learned fundamentally changed his understanding of what he needed to accomplish. He found that intellectuals from the South Atlantic states pursued cosmopolitan European culture in the 1810s, ‘20s, and ‘30s, but so did people from remote Arkansas in the 1830s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. That scholars did not integrate such facts in their analyses at first perplexed him. Then he came to realize that southern intellectual historians did not have the wealth of readily accessible published primary texts that amateur and professional scholars of New England had produced together in the last decades of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th. Neither did southernists share the subsequent, rich New England-centered discourses on texts born of local writers.

The problem identified, O’Brien decided to pursue the model of earlier generations of Puritan studies. He brought together scholars to talk about the South’s intellectual life and to publish relevant primary texts not already available in book form. These efforts began a decade before they bore fruit in continuing organizations, the Southern Intellectual History Circle and the Southern Texts Society. O’Brien followed the earlier scholars of Puritanism in another way: he focused on intellectual producers and productions, not consumers and consumption. Consequently, his work seemed old-fashioned, despite his inclusion of women and manuscript, as well as printed materials. His precision proved correct: he wrote of intellectual life in the South rather than crafted an intellectual history of the region.

Conjectures of Order reflects on the challenges to intellectual life and production in a substantially rural but rapidly growing region with a widely scattered population significantly shaped by slavery. The focus, however, is rather on people in networks centered on cities, publications, and institutions with strong inter-regional and international connections. In this O’Brien anticipated scholars such as Jonathan Wells, Johanna Shields, Beth Schweiger, and Daniel Kilbride, who have further examined the roles of southern urban professionals and other middle class townspeople and their European travels and connections.

In one sense Charleston served as the antebellum South’s chief intellectual center, but in other senses New York, London, Paris, and Gottingen proved crucial. Rather than a region apart, the South grew as a section enmeshed in ties and tensions that the region in no way defined or even much influenced. Having reached this conclusion, O’Brien transformed the South he studied from an idea, a culture, and a preoccupation apart into another place for study of provincial intellectual culture and production in a metropolitan world becoming increasingly Victorian while beginning to move towards modernity and modernism. That shift changed him from a southern historian of intellectual life into what his training at Cambridge had prepared him to become: an intellectual historian of the emergence of (proto-)modern sensibilities and preoccupations, in the American South among other places.

Some southernists noted O’Brien’s shift of interest away from their favorite topics — race, regional identity and distinctiveness, plantation culture, and the like. His preoccupation with thinkers and thought seemed to beg the question: why do these topics matter to the larger society — to the readers and listeners, students and congregants rather than the generators and distributors of ideas and texts? He answered, in effect, consider how the Puritans first mattered and came to matter again, after being entombed by history.

Why would the son of a British pubkeep choose to spend as much time as O’Brien did with people whose politics and orientations in many ways seemed alien and appalling to him? Those people’s intellects, educations, and capacity for irony and self-expression appealed, but that does not adequately explain. O’Brien developed two fundamental justifications. On the one hand, as a historicist, he focused on contextualizing and understanding, not moralizing about, his subjects (except the intellectually dishonest, sloppy, and treacly, whom he especially abhorred). On the other hand, the people he studied gave him access to much that had come to matter to him. Their insistent thoughtfulness and commitment to the life of the mind helped O’Brien explore dynamics and developments that increasingly engaged him as he turned from questions of a regional identity’s intellectual reflections and ramifications to explore instead modernity’s provincial emergence, trajectory, and impact.

This very personal mission made O’Brien a subject of curious and sometimes dismissive reflection by scholars who did not understand: his preoccupations over the last two-thirds of his career were not primarily southern, but intellectual. The South served as a place of inquiry — an intellectual, even more than a physical geography requiring attention – but not as a defining context. The point brings one to consider the relationship of the life of the mind to the mind of a place. Despite recurrent interactions with Wilbur J. Cash’s Mind of the South, a work that early drew his attention and vigorous demurrers, O’Brien did not much believe that places have minds or mindsets that define how people think, at least not on the scale of a region or sub-region. Neither did he ever accept the stereotypes that claimed the attention of William R. Taylor in his 1961 book, Cavalier and Yankee, one of the most influential works on antebellum southern thought and identity available to O’Brien as a student.  At a Southern Intellectual History Circle meeting in Gainesville, O’Brien also famously and vehemently rejected the notion, put forward by David Hackett Fischer, that British folk cultures undergirded and explained the South’s cultural distinctiveness.

Instead, O’Brien insisted, the South’s pell-mell development brought multiple influences to bear. These influences, however, were often trans-Atlantic or, in other instances, national or classist, not regional. O’Brien remained skeptical that honor culture, as analyzed by Bertram Wyatt-Brown, peculiarly or particularly inflected southern life. And he always insisted that the region’s master class proved too diverse in its origins and orientations to permit formation of the shared, hegemonic mind that Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese sought. Neither did he spend much time reflecting on the interactions of people and cultures of African and European origins. While interesting, those relationships did not shape most of southern white intellectual life, as he understood it through the periodicals, books, correspondence, and diaries he perused.

Of course, African Americans as well as European Americans produced all those forms of documentation. While the content and the emphases might have reflected distinctive engagements of African Americans, however, in O’Brien’s view the genres and range of intertextualities in these works also largely drew on broadly Western influences and norms. That noted, O’Brien paid more attention to southern African American writers and writings than many readers have appreciated. He also considered occasions when blacks expressly, not just implicitly, figured in southern white thought. What struck him as he did so, however, was how most of the time whites in the South considered subjects engaging New Englanders and the British and did so in often similar ways. To him noted Civil War memoirist Mary Boykin Chesnut seemed much more interesting as a proto-modernist than as a witness against slavery (a claim he thought her overall mindset did not sustain).

Most southernists, once upon a time anyway, chanted the mantra, “location, location, location,” but not O’Brien. In his eyes, even in his early years, context never equated to place. Networks, currents, intertextualities, institutions, and other influences at once framed and sustained intellectual life. Gradually, they became for O’Brien the stuff of intellectual history, wherever pursued. The consequences of such an attitude became clear when O’Brien received the Bancroft Prize for Conjectures of Order. Introducing him, Eric Foner, the Master of Ceremonies, observed that, until O’Brien’s door-stop of a book had arrived, he could maintain the once easy assumption that the intellectual history of the South was an oxymoron. He said that, perhaps in jest, but after over a quarter of a century of efforts by O’Brien to prove the assumption wrong.

Members of the Southern Intellectual History Circle knew this work and grappled with its consequences while adding notably to it. Yet most other southernists had little sense of the gradual accumulation of texts and studies that enabled O’Brien’s master work. This was because O’Brien insistently had followed his muse far away from the deep wells of southern history, to the region’s borders and thousands of miles beyond. In effect, O’Brien had carried forward preoccupations that seemed and seem normal to scholars of both the nation’s founding and the colonial period. Yet they did not drive historians writing on the antebellum South.

Focus on the peculiar institution, after slavery’s abolition in most of the rest of the English speaking world, and on the ideological and sectional origins of the American Civil War, long blinkered most scholars working on the antebellum region. When historians commented on intellectual life, they generally assumed that the white South developed a fortress mentality as the Civil War approached, making diverse, and especially liberal, thoughts and thinkers increasingly liminal and closing off modern influences. O’Brien found that the evidence did not support the assumption, at least not in the sense most scholars believed. Southern thinkers continued to read, delight in, and debate contemporary writers and ideas up to the Civil War. Their obsessive concern with the destabilizing consequences of modern intellectual and cultural developments made them all the more eager to assert, or conjecture, order. In this they shared impulses and failures with many others.

In O’Brien’s hands, antebellum southern intellectual history after all had explanatory power for conventional southernists. Seeing minds at work, sometimes feverishly, in the years leading to the Civil War, one could understand how influences flowing from Britain and the Continent, as well as the Northeast of the United States, shaped many of the contours and defined many of the possibilities of southerners’ thoughts. The thinking had implications for the actions secessionists undertook. The reasons had less to do with specific content than with the habits of engagement that southern thinkers shared.

Not until the last of O’Brien’s antebellum writers had died over the concluding decades of the 19th century did the generation that O’Brien first studied begin to write in its turn. Members spent much more time than their grandparents and great grandparents treating specifically southern subjects. Building on the Lost Cause literature penned by the children of the Civil War, the southern modernists of the 1920s and ‘30s made the South a literary domain, a status the region had not yet fully achieved by 1860. Nevertheless, even between the First and Second World Wars, that domain took shape because of what intellectuals pursued far away. As O’Brien discovered, place never defines its meaning; intellectuals may, but not necessarily and only ever for a little while and a self-selecting population.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this very interesting analysis of O’Brien’s work and the trajectory of his career. Just a couple of comments: this essay suggest that the model for O’Brien were the Puritan studies that had developed an earlier analysis and elevated New England in terms of its intellectual life, but of course Perry Miller shaped the entire field, even in the very strong reactions against his work, by positing a New England Mind of a kind that seems anathema to O’Brien’s study of intellectual life. That is, Puritan Studies assumed a kind of intellectual unity at the center of its object (even if there were intellectual differences, they involved a common set of questions and assumptions about reality); what O’Brien demonstrated in Conjectures (and, alas, I haven’t read his other works, so what I would say is based on that alone), was that Southern intellectual life was diverse, and not reducible to a “Southern Mind,” as this essay so clearly demonstrates. In that sense, it was the Genoveses’s _Mind of the Master Class_ that was more similar to the Miller-inspired Puritan studies–finding a kind of unified and distinctive intellectual outlook underlying a variety of subjects–history, politics, theology, etc.. Interestingly, both the Genoveses and O’Brien, despite their many differences, tend to de-center race from Southern thinking. O’Brien, at one point, says something to the effect that “race is our obsession, not theirs.” (don’t have the text with me, but the wording struck me, so that’s how I remember it.), implying that modern historians have been responsible for giving ideas about race and racial ideology a centrality that they did not have to Southern writers and intellectuals. The idea that centering race in Southern discourse and thought is the product of a kind of presentism is there in both O’Brien and the Genoveses–both are trying to suggest that the range of Southern thought and its characteristic concerns is obscured and distorted by seeing the pivot of Southern thought always a concern about race. It’s not exactly that race is ignored in their work, but it is pushed to the margin–for different reasons, I think. Anyway, this is an illuminating essay, and I look forward to the other posts in the series. Thanks to the blog for running this!

    • A thoughtful and suggestive reading of O’Brien and Fox-Genovese/Genovese. What O’Brien drew from Puritan studies was an appreciation of how scholars and amateurs together created the field through publications and organizations.

  2. Thanks for this, David Moltke-Hansen! Many of us would do well to remember that context should not be confused with place—that context has many layers, some more relevant at certain moments than others. – TL

    • Thanks, Tim Lacy, to S-USIH for making the blog available, not only for this thread, but for many others.

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