Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien (b.1946) is an American novelist and author of short stories whose work is connected to his experiences in the Vietnam War (1955-1975). O'Brien focuses on the influence of the war on the lives of the soldiers who took part in it.

William Timothy O'Brien was born on October 1, 1946 in Austin, Minnesota. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother was a teacher. They both had served in the US Navy during World War II. The family moved to Worthington, Minnesota when Tim was nine. There he became interested in literature and for the first time felt a desire to write. Worthington is used as a setting for some of his stories.

O'Brien graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1968 with a major in political science. He took part in several anti-war demonstrations on campus and was the president of the student body. At that time young men were being sent to Vietnam and O'Brien thought that he would not be drafted due to his excellent academic record and his intentions to continue his education in Harvard. He was drafted nonetheless, and left for Vietnam in February 1969 to serve as an infantryman.

Shortly after his arrival, he became aware of an incident in which the US army had massacred 350 Vietnamese women and children, which had happened in the area a few months before. He included the incident in his novel In the Lake of the Woods (1994). He returned home in March 1970, with shrapnel wound and a Purple Heart. O'Brien went on to graduate school at Harvard. While he was studying there, he received an internship with the Washington Post.

His first short stories got published in Esquire magazine and he came to realize that he wanted to write instead of report for the Washington Post. His first book came out in 1973, a collection of essays about the war, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. It was well received by critics and O'Brien felt encouraged to write on. In 1975, he published his first novel, Northern Lights. His second novel, Going After Cacciato (1978) was entirely devoted to war matters and in 1979 O'Brien received The National Book Award for it. His next novel, Nuclear Age (1985) did not enjoy much critical acclaim. In 1990, a collection of short stories and essays, The Things They Carried, was published and received enthusiastic reviews. O'Brien himself thought this was his best work.

The year of 1994 was a significant one for O'Brien. He published his next novel, In the Lake of the Woods, and went back to Vietnam to revisit the places where he had served. The experience was so emotional for him that he stopped writing for several years after that. He returned in 1998 with his novel, Tomcat In Love, which marked a transition of themes. It does not feature Vietnam but talks humorously about the battle of the sexes. O'Brien, who lives and works in Texas and teaches at Texas State University-San Marcos, published his book July, July in 2002.

A distinctive feature of O'Brien's work is the mixture of fiction and reality. Some of the actions in his stories contradict others and seem illogical. O'Brien revealed in an interview: "Truth evolves. Truth is fluid. Truth is a function of language…. A lie, sometimes, can be truer than the truth, which is why fiction gets written. " In the Lake of the Woods, which was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 1995, O'Brien actually leaves the reader guessing what had happened as there are only implications of different possibilities.

A central theme in both his fiction and non-fiction is the question of bravery. He states that bravery cannot be confined to the risking of one's life due to a rush of adrenaline. A deeper aspect of courage is the conscious decision to take unpopular actions because you think they are morally correct. O'Brien's style has been compared to that of Hemingway, particularly because of his use of unadorned declarative sentences and non-lengthy descriptions as well as the portrayal of some of his female characters. O'Brien himself revised If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home because he found some of the earlier essays there too pompous in style.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Tim O'Brien and the Art of the True War Story: "Night March" and "Speaking of Courage"
Timmerman, John H.
Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring 2000
Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War
Don Ringnalda.
University Press of Mississippi, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Tim O'Brien's Understood Confusion"
Vietnam, We've All Been There: Interviews with American Writers
Eric James Schroeder.
Praeger Publishers, 1992
Librarian’s tip: "Maybe So," interview with Tim O'Brien p. 125
Writing between the Lines: An Anthology on War and Its Social Consequences
Kevin Bowen; Bruce Weigl.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "How to Tell a True War Story" by Tim O'Brien p. 4
A Reader's Companion to the Short Story in English
Erin Fallon; R. C. Feddersen; James Kurtzleben; Maurice A. Lee; Susan Rochette-Crawley.
Greenwood Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: "Tim O'Brien" begins on p. 309
Warring Fictions: American Literary Culture and the Vietnam War Narrative
Jim Neilson.
University Press of Mississippi, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Undying Uncertainty"
Vietnam War Stories: Innocence Lost
Tobey C. Herzog.
Routledge, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Consideration"
The Vietnam Experience: A Concise Encyclopedia of American Literature, Songs, and Films
Kevin Hillstrom; Laurie Collier Hillstrom.
Greenwood Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Going after Cacciato" begins on p. 133
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