Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 - Vol. 1

Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 - Vol. 1

Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 - Vol. 1

Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 - Vol. 1

Synopsis

In this magisterial history of intellectual life, Michael O'Brien analyzes the lives and works of antebellum Southern thinkers and reintegrates the South into the larger tradition of American and European intellectual history.

O'Brien finds that the evolution of Southern intellectual life paralleled and modified developments across the Atlantic by moving from a late Enlightenment sensibility to Romanticism and, lastly, to an early form of realism. Volume 1 describes the social underpinnings of the Southern intellect by examining patterns of travel and migration; the formation of ideas on race, gender, ethnicity, locality, and class; and the structures of discourse, expressed in manuscripts and print culture. In Volume 2, O'Brien looks at the genres that became characteristic of Southern thought. Throughout, he pays careful attention to the many individuals who fashioned the Southern mind, including John C. Calhoun, Louisa McCord, James Henley Thornwell, and George Fitzhugh.

Placing the South in the larger tradition of American and European intellectual history while recovering the contributions of numerous influential thinkers and writers, O'Brien's masterwork demonstrates the sophistication and complexity of Southern intellectual life before 1860.

Excerpt

There is absolutely nothing permanent, either without me, or within me,
but only an unceasing change. I know absolutely nothing of any existence,
not even my own. … Images there are. … I am myself one of these images;
nay, I am not even so much, but only a confused image of images.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, quoted in Southern Presbyterian Review (1851)

Thomas Dew of Virginia, writing in 1829 in the exordium of his Lectures on the Restrictive System, felt it important to stress that “"t"his is a world of relations and dependencies, and consequent continual changes. the earth upon which we tread, remains not a moment in the same position in absolute space, but is in constant and endless movement. … Throughout all animated nature, we see still greater bustle, change and movement; we see event following event in quick succession; mind operating upon matter, and matter upon mind.” This was not an isolated opinion. in 1837, S. A. Roszel was writing in the Southern Literary Messenger, with more ambivalence: “Nothing is at rest. … All worlds, with their millions of animate and inanimate creatures, are in one perpetual progress of organization, increase, dissolution, reproduction, change. … Nor is this ceaseless change—this incessant mobility, repugnant to our material nature, or our intellectual aspirations. … "O"n the existence of this mutability does our happiness, or, at least, our pleasure depend.” It was hard for an intellectual to live in the early nineteenth century and not have such opinions, for the culture of modernity conveyed this standpoint insistently.

Epigraph from “Objections to the German Transcendental Philosophy,” Southern Presbyterian
Review 4 (January 1851): 342.

1. Thomas R. Dew, Lectures on the Restrictive System Delivered to the Senior Political Class of
William and Mary College (1829; reprint, New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1969), 187.

2. S. A. Roszel, “Pleasureable Sensations,” slm 3 (February 1837): 148.

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