A Pioneer of Historic Proportions: John E. O'connor

By Welsh, Jim | Film & History, July 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Pioneer of Historic Proportions: John E. O'connor


Welsh, Jim, Film & History


You know age has caught up with you when people start talking about you and your friends as "pioneers." Now, I've known scholars I considered "pioneers": William K. Everson, for example, David Shepard, Kevin Brownlow (all of whom would qualify as pioneering historian-archivists), Herman G. Weinberg, one of the first to teach film courses in New York City, Richard Dyer MacCann, a Harvard-trained teacher-journalist who edited Cinema Journal early on, and, of course, Ray Browne, who bravely draped the mantle of respectability over popular culture.

Well, my friend John E. O'Connor is a youngster, a mere whippersnapper, in comparison to most of those I have just named above. But, truly, singing the praises of John O'Connor as a "pioneer" is no great trick, since his achievements are and should be obvious. he was a pioneer in developing the academic study of cinema in the discipline of history. John flew the banner of Film & History at the American Historical Association and led the way for historians who chose to see images as artifacts. he certainly colonized the AHA in a way that my own operation (the Literature/Film Association and Literature/Film Quarterly) never quite managed to do with the Modern Language Association of America. John and Martin Jackson put together something called The Historians Film Committee. Who could argue with that imprimatur? Eventually John would be coordinating funds from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, andtheNew Jersey Department of Higher Education. Wow! Early on, therefore, John was certainly a go-getter and also a hands-on person. I knew that the day he showed me the light table in the basement of his home in Bloomfield, New Jersey. he did the layout for issues of Film & History himself, while his aunt kept up the subscription lists. Now that's dedication!

In 1981,1 worked with John as Co-Director of a "Film and the Humanities" symposium held at Salisbury State University and sponsored by the American Film Institute. From 1979 until 1985 John co-chaired with Dan Leab the Columbia University Faculty Seminars on Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation, meeting monthly at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. (Attending these meetings meant 12 hours of travel for me, coming and going from Maryland, but those that I attended were well worth the effort.) In the early 198Os John O' Connor worked with John Tibbetts and the National Film Society to organize and operate a workshop on history films dealing with colonial America held at the Colonial Williamsburg (Virginia) Conference Center. "I'll never forget that John was available and willing to help us when we needed him," Tibbetts recently remembered. John O'Connor has earned a debt of gratitude from many of us over the years.

John's first degree, after a false start at the University of Florida for a semester, was in Social Science Education from St. John's University, but he soon saw the light and shifted to history, taking an M.A. from Queen's College (CUNY), followed by a Ph.D. from the CUNY Graduate Center. One of his first books concerned New Jersey history rather than cinema: William Paterson: Lawyer and Statesman, 1745-1806(RutgersUP, 1979), followed by the co-authored monograph Newark: An American City (1979). But who could blame him for that? After all, most of us kept a foot in the disciplines that had spawned us before turning to cinema. (As a tyro my own first efforts placed essays in Shakespeare Quarterly and American Speech, and my first collaborated book was on the Renaissance poet and playwright Ben Jonson.)

In John's case the turn to cinema came that same year William Paterson: Lawyer and Statesman was published, 1979, for that is the year John O'Connor and Martin Jackson published American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image (Frederick Ungar, 1979; updated and expanded in 1988), which included a Foreword by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian superstar Arthur M.

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