Think about the South: Michael O'Brien, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860

By Watson, Harry L. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Think about the South: Michael O'Brien, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860


Watson, Harry L., The Mississippi Quarterly


IN AN ESSAY THAT FIRST APPEARED MORE THAN TWO DECADES AGO, Michael O'Brien inserted a prophecy that he may not remember now, but that accurately describes the immensity of the task he has undertaken in Conjectures of Order. "We should err if we wrote a unified history of Southern intellectual life before 1860, because Southern nationalism was then a hypothesis, not a fact. We would do better, as Osterweis did, to write of smaller regions, of (to use a modern phrase) communities of discourse" (Rethinking 46). (1)

With his gift for textual precision, however, O'Brien could easily repel such an impertinence by observing that his magnum opus on antebellum Southern intellectual history does not violate truly his own stricture, and not simply because we are now inclined to view all nationalism as hypothetical. Instead, Conjectures of Order is not exactly a "unified history." Anyone looking for an intricately ordered counterpart to Perry Miller's The New England Mind, with its comprehensive interpretation and elaborate structure, creating its place for every Puritan and putting every Puritan in his place, will only be disoriented by O'Brien's encyclopedic approach. Eschewing all but the most embracive of central themes in a conscious effort to avoid constricting his subject, O'Brien insists that Southern thinkers were not limited to any single topic or question and tackled the widest variety of subjects, using the same variety of approaches that their counterparts did all across the Euro-American intellectual world. In the process, O'Brien explains, they vigorously disagreed with one another, or even ignored one another, making fruitless any effort to distill out any single "Southern mind" from their variety.

Most especially, O'Brien has stretched our knowledge of Southern intellectual history far beyond the explicit and self-conscious defense of slavery and secession which is now quite familiar to scholars. (2) His subjects are poets, novelists, and historians, economists and philosophers, theologians and travel writers. They had quite a bit to say about many things, most of them no more than tangentially related to the linked themes of slavery, race, and states' rights. In the end, however, O'Brien acknowledges that the existence of human bondage, as well as the powerful challenges to it, suffused the thinking of these intellectuals even when the manifest topic was something else. If slavery did not pose all their problems, it shaped their ultimate answers. If Confederate nationalism was still a hypothesis for most of them, it was nevertheless the Confederacy's peculiar institution that made them enough of a unit to write about them all in the same book.

Michael O'Brien was quite wise to warn himself and others about the difficulty of writing any history of Southern thought before 1860. His first challenge, of course, has been the widespread assumption that antebellum Southerners did not think at all, and could not have produced an intellectual corpus worth writing about. Nothing but this massive compilation, it seems, could effectively challenge that ingrained assumption. If Conjectures of Order does not explode this prejudice once and for all, it is doubtful that anything ever can. A secondary hurdle has been the fallback assumption that if and when the Old South did produce writers and thinkers, they were single-mindedly obsessed by the need to provide intellectual support for the system of slavery, and thus exhausted their energies in pitiable, dead-end efforts to defend the indefensible. O'Brien's conclusions return to a finely nuanced version of this view, but the enormous breadth of his coverage certainly demonstrates that white Southern thinkers had a much broader repertoire than slavery narrowly defined.

As a result, all American historians will long be in debt to O'Brien's exhaustive research, deep erudition, and brilliant insights into the thinking of the Old South. Like a massive earthmoving project that opens dozens of ancient strata at once, he has uncovered vast quantities of buried material that will busy the rest of us for a generation, if only we are patient enough to put his bold exposures under the glass of more detailed analysis. …

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