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Monday, 18 May 2015

Bertram Wyatt-Brown on Michael O'Brien's Conjectures of Order

Randall Stephens

Renowned historian Michael O'Brien passed away last week.  (Read the Guardian obit here.) The iconoclastic scholar from Cambridge University was well known for fostering lively debates and challenging how we think about regionalism, intellectual history, and national identity.  His first book was The Idea of the American South, 1920-1941 (1979).  Here he asked: How had southerners see themselves and how had ideas about regional identity been contested below the Mason Dixon line?  How had outsiders perceived southerners and Dixie?  O'Brien's critical work on intellectual history influenced a generation of scholars, who were soon asking other illuminating questions about region, place, and intellectual life. 

O'Brien subsequently moved beyond the region with Mrs Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon (2010).  It was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  He had had that honor five years before as well with his two-volume, 1,200-page Conjectures Of Order: Intellectual Life and The American South, 1810-60 (2004).  It garnered the Bancroft Prize.  The book turned much received wisdom about the South and southern intellectual history on its head.  My advisor, the late Bert Wyatt-Brown, wrote that it "stands in bold contrast to a longstanding denigration of Southernness, intellectual and otherwise. After the Civil War, members of the northern intelligentsia found their southern brethren hopelessly backward, parochial, and dullwitted." Scholars and journalists in the 20th century often agreed about the latter. For instance, W.J. Cash put it succinctly in his The Mind of the South (1941): "In general, the intellectual and aesthetic culture of the Old South was a superficial and jejune thing, borrowed from without and worn as political armor and a badge of rank; and hence . . . not a true culture at all."

The New York Review of Books first commissioned Bert to review Conjectures in the early 2004.  The editors did not like the review. Bert, who had written seven other review essays for the NYRB, always believed that there was something about the southern intellectual tradition that didn't ring true for the NYRB.  Perhaps in their offices on Hudson Street they asked: What intellect?  What tradition?

I was glad, then, when Bert agreed to submit his review to Historically Speaking, for which I was an editor.  Below is the full review of O'Brien's magnum opus:

Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "Conjectures of Order: A Review Essay," Historically Speaking (July-August, 2006): 27-30.

Michael O’Brien’s Conjectures of Order stands in bold contrast to a longstanding denigration of Southernness, intellectual and otherwise. After the Civil War, members of the northern intelligentsia found their southern brethren hopelessly backward, parochial, and dull-witted. In The Education of Henry Adams the autobiographer observed that antebellum Southerners had been “stupendously ignorant of the world.” Adams characterized the lords of cotton as “mentally one-sided, ill-balanced, and provincial to a degree rarely known.” In fact, the Southerner, Adams stated unreservedly, “had no mind; he had temperament.”1 Likewise, Henry James blasted the South’s pursuit of a false “Confederate dream” that “meant the eternal bowdlerization of books and journals” and placed “all literature and all art on an expurgatory index.”2 Referring to the South of his day, H. L. Mencken in 1917 opened an influential essay by quoting the poet J. Gordon Cougler: “Alas, for the South!  Her books have grown fewer–/She never was much given to literature.” Mencken added, “It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity . . . . Nearly the whole of Europe could be lost in that stupendous region of worn-out farms, shoddy cities, and paralyzed cerebrums.”3   

As late as the 1930s, Southerners themselves deplored the seeming absence of cultural giants, despite the appearance of William Faulkner and many others. The North Carolina journalist W. J. Cash traced the problem to the ways of the Old South. A “savage ideal” of white superiority and brutish brawn over intellect helped to defend slavery.4 The late C. Vann Woodward, who became the leading historian of the South, recalled that he was not alone in “parroting metropolitan wisdom” that the “critical moguls” dispensed from “the Hudson.” To the young Woodward, even Faulkner appeared to draw “his subjects out of abandoned wells.”5 The poet Allen Tate censured antebellum Southerners who “knew no history for the sake of knowing it,” leaving an inadequate legacy for successors to build upon.6 Still more recently, the southern novelist Elizabeth Spencer wrote that during the 19th century “the South was a dormant land.” It was “‘backward’—poorly schooled, poorly fed, a crippled land.”7

In Conjectures of Order O’Brien defies all these critics. According to O’Brien, the South, far from being a listless backwater, contributed to national culture far more than has ever been recognized. To overturn those decades of neglect and even mockery, the English don at Jesus College, Cambridge University, establishes an impressive case. Broader in scope than all previous works, his imaginative, elegant, and original text inspires the scholar’s awe. How did he manage to read all that long-forgotten material? Conjectures covers literature, theology, history, political theory, science, and ethnography. It is on the basis of their erudition and breadth that the two volumes have won the Bancroft prize, the Merle Curti award, and the Frank Owsley prize, along with being short-listed for the Pulitzer.
Despite its many strengths, O’Brien’s approach leaves some significant issues unexamined. If the South was highly endowed with intellectual rigor and forcefulness, why was its record of achievement so long unrecognized? The opinions of Adams, James, and the rest cannot be casually dismissed. It is no longer fashionable to set up criteria of literary supremacy in the hierarchical manner of F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition. Yet O’Brien makes no case for the enduring merits of these antebellum writers. Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the others of the New England antebellum Renaissance left a legacy from which later American authors drew inspiration. The South’s conservative intelligentsia feared so greatly the future that few provided that foundation for their successors. Slaveholding had much to do with that failure, just as Clement Eaton and others pointed out long ago.

Yet before exploring the problems that O’Brien does not acknowledge, one must acclaim what he has achieved. Southern writers, O’Brien points out, did not confine their interests simply to rationales for slavery, states’ rights, and community censorship to suppress dissent. They knew the fragility of a social order beset with inner contradictions—a slave society set in the midst of a capitalist, free-labor, and fast-changing Western civilization. The historian Daniel Kilbride, for instance, reveals that in the 1850s planter families touring Europe and England seldom mentioned the source of their wealth but proudly contrasted their American egalitarianism with continental snobbery and British class-consciousness.8

Conjectures is no neo-Confederate apologia for slaveholding. In fact, a distinct thread of melancholy runs through O’Brien’s tapestry. Post-Jeffersonian Southerners faced enormous challenges of which they were well aware. The most serious was the maintenance of political power in an antebellum union of states with a quickening economy. Such circumstances aroused anxiety, doubt, and frustration. To be sure, other scholars have previously noted these factors. Yet O’Brien depicts the Southerners’ dilemma in a philosophical rather than political frame. He proposes that these figures of mind resembled Yasha, the servant in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Yasha implores Madame Ravensky to let him accompany her to Paris, which represents the epicenter of Russian ideals, refinement, and sophistication. “This is an uncivilized country and no one has any morals,” Yasha beseeches her. Throughout O’Brien’s work, southern writers bewail the monotony, churlishness, backwardness, and isolation of their surroundings and long for something richer. 

According to O’Brien, “Southerners were national, postcolonial, and imperial, all at once.” While constitutionally joined to the free states, Southerners admitted no vassalage to the powerful North. By “postcolonial” O’Brien means that Southerners, as inheritors of the American victory for independence, had “a revolutionary frame of mind.” All antebellum Americans, of course, venerated their forefathers’ military and political achievements. Yet in the South “revolution” had disconcertingly double meanings. The American cause assured liberty for whites, but the Haitian uprising of the 1790s aroused Southerners’ worst fears of slave insurrections. That eruption meant victory for “an ensuring barbarism,” to quote the secessionist Louisa McCord. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, O’Brien observes, exercised much influence on southern conservatism.  On the other hand, the southern writers recognized that the legacy of liberation from English medieval custom and privilege had made a new kind of individualism flourish. 

Freedom from northern domination was the disunionists’ goal. Indeed, O’Brien persuasively reveals that southern intellectuals shunned northern ideas and found inspiration in European thought. (Only Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese have pursued this link with comparable forcefulness.9) In their eagerness to fortify convictions of white superiority and the rightness of black subjection, southern intellectuals found rationales for slavery abroad. Such Linnean racial classifiers as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Joseph-Arthur Gobineau, and their successors impressed proslavery writers across the Atlantic. Following their lead, Josiah Nott of Mobile, for instance, challenged Christian orthodoxy with racial theories derived from European naturalists. All races, he argued, belonged in distinctly separate categories with none derived from biblical myths about human origins. Nott’s Caucasians ranked at the top, as all Southerners agreed. Southern theological literalists were nevertheless outraged by his repudiation of the story of Adam and Eve. “Nott’s tactic,” O’Brien writes, “was to assert that science’s conclusions were firm and decisive, while the divines were muddled.” The physician’s chief critic, the Rev. Moses Ashley Curtis, demonstrated “how science was controversial even among scientists” and shrewdly pointed out Nott’s carelessness with facts and interpretations.

While inquisitive Southerners relied on European culture for intellectual sustenance, O’Brien affirms that some took interest in places far from the plantation gate or even from the familiar transatlantic world. Noteworthy is his depiction of William Brown Hodgson of Georgia, the first of several antebellum southern Asianists. A gifted linguist, Hodgson mastered Persian, Arabic, Berber, and Turkish and made strides in modern Greek, Sanskrit, and Chinese. Joining the State Department in 1824, Hodgson became “America’s first language officer.” (John Quincy Adams deemed that calling far more vital in foreign affairs than have some recent presidents.) One of Hodgson’s most learned friends, James Hamilton Couper of Georgia, owned 600 Sea Island slaves. His Muslim head driver observed all the strictures and rituals of his faith. The slave taught Couper words in his Foulah tongue.

In addition to the stress on southern adventures beyond the regional border, Conjectures shows that wellborn southern women acquired a respectable degree of education and displayed an intellectual facility that challenges their reputation for submissiveness, ignorance, and quiet vulnerability. Young ladies at a Louisiana academy, for instance, studied Latin and read the New Testament in Greek. Courses in public speaking, advanced mathematics, and other topics designed for men, however, were absent from school catalogs—a situation hardly different from most Yankee schools. 

Although devoutly conservative, Louisa McCord exemplified the headstrong character of southern intellectual women. Approvingly, O’Brien points out that she was often harder on men and their “brutal superiority” than on those of her own sex whose “condition,” she declared, “certainly admits of improvement.” Yet McCord rejoiced in the confinement of females to hearth, parlor, and bedroom and roundly censured Yankee feminists. “What a strong masculine person she is!” reported Jane Caroline North, daughter of a well-known South Carolinian attorney.10 Such southern women as McCord, O’Brien observes, subordinated themselves to no one, except as conventional expressions of deference dictated.   

Southern intellectuals were quite aware of modern trends. An example is Thomas Roderick Dew of the College of William and Mary.  The Virginia divine was particularly assertive about the vital role women should play in civilizing the world and faulted the ancients for their disdain for women. Likewise, the historian William Henry Trescot showed considerable independence of thought. Disputing the myth of American exceptionalism, Trescot warned against national ventures that disregarded world opinion. Policy makers today would do well to heed his counsel. Notwithstanding these writers’ abilities, O’Brien can present no southern equivalents to New England’s Francis Parkman, William Hickling Prescott, John Lothrop Motley, or George Bancroft.

On that negative note, we turn to the problems that O’Brien’s strategy creates. First, consider the state of literature. By and large, southern poetic efforts sank to the second-rate, but O’Brien claims otherwise. He finds the work of Washington Allston of South Carolina, best known as a painter, “effective” and sometimes marvelously “satirical.” In my view, though, southern poets—aside from Poe—were derivative and conventional. Nor is there much to praise in southern fiction. Southern novelists and romancers hardly equaled the verisimilitude of transatlantic contemporaries. 

On the whole, one may quarrel with O’Brien’s literary taste.  For instance, he recounts at length the plot of an unpublished story by John Izard Middleton. He tells us that “The Confessional” is a gothic tale of a nun’s lusts and madness in a style “cool, atmospheric, gloomy, improbable.” But it scarcely deserves notice. There were too many other Poe-like potboilers on the market, some by southern writers, like Catherine Ann Warfield’s best-selling The Household of Bouverie; or the Elixir of Gold (1860).   

Did a pervasive suspicion of anything new inhibit a broadening of the southern mind? O’Brien sidesteps that possibility and unconvincingly proposes that Southerners were, in fact, moving toward fresh ideas. Yet the writers themselves sometimes worried about their parochialism. In 1853, for example, a Charlestonian essayist lamented that, unlike bloodstained Ireland and Scotland, the South lacked “memories” in the absence of European feudalism. In contrast to their more chivalry-minded southern contemporaries, New England writers abandoned dreams of nobility and princely adventures to permit a free-spirited imagination. 

If antebellum Southerners lacked “memories,” a subsequent generation had them aplenty—most of them about defeat, loss, and poverty. That circumstance awakened Faulkner and others to rich possibilities. But these potentialities had not existed in earlier days. Constrictions on free expression were a mighty force. Joel Chandler Harris, certainly no dissenter himself, once remarked that the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray “took liberties with the people of his own blood and time that would have led him hurriedly in the direction of bodily discomfort if he had lived in the South.”11

Conjectures avoids the possible comparisons that can be drawn between the antebellum North and South. Instead, O’Brien claims, antebellum southern thinkers believed that “society and government organically emerged from the interaction of individuals and the community;” that “liberty was a fragile vessel, easily broken, that mastery was incomplete,” and that God existed but was incomprehensible. O’Brien’s statement—vague, numbing, and abstract—reflects the defensive nature of southern letters. 

In addition, O’Brien might have fruitfully included the work of fugitive slave narrators and activists. Frederick Douglass and others writing in that compelling genre were as southern as O’Brien’s white authors. Moreover, some Southerners repudiated the proslavery gospel. In 1845, for instance, General Charles Fenton Mercer of Virginia published an anti-Jacksonian work, in which he vigorously attacked slaveholding, among other sins of the age. Mercer even had the temerity to liken the Yankee abolitionists to the heroic crusaders of old. O’Brien mentions him briefly but leaves out such early Quaker dissenters as Elihu Embree of Tennessee. Also neglected is North Carolinian Hinton R. Helper, whose powerful compilation of economic statistics in The Impending Crisis (1860) helped to precipitate the secessionist crisis. Helper angrily exposed how the slaveholding class inhibited the prosperity of those not blessed with slave labor. He and others had to flee the South for their lives. But O’Brien ignores these reformers. Indeed, the writers on whom he chooses to focus uniformly criticized neither slave owning nor social convention. They fully enjoyed the “conveniences of life” that right thinking afforded them. Unlike their northern brethren in Concord, Cambridge, and New York, they shrank from innovation and moral challenge. The book, of course, is long enough, but room could have been given to some dissenting Southerners. 

Finally, O’Brien avoids the issue with which this review began: the almost uniform conclusion that antebellum southern literary life had no substantial meaning for later generations of prominent men of mind, both northern and southern. Obviously the Civil War profoundly affected the destiny of southern letters in several ways. Some of the literati, about whom O’Brien writes with wonderful wit and insight, were themselves casualties of the war either on the battlefield or on the doomed home front. Severely depressed, the theologian James Henley Thornwell, for instance, died in August of 1862. Others, like the poet Henry Timrod lost hope and vitality as they struggled simply to survive in the dismal aftermath. They could add little to their prewar achievements. The humiliation of military subjugation, the foolishness of secession, the enormous financial and psychological loss that emancipation engendered—these factors of distress help to explain why we read Francis Parkman and Emily Dickinson, not William Henry Trescot and Augusta Evans. Yet we should not end on a critical exposition. Regardless of these comments, O’Brien’s work represents the best of intellectual history and is comparable to Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which itself lacks the breadth of O’Brien’s readable and fascinating contribution.

Bertram Wyatt-Brown is Richard J. Milbauer Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Florida and Visiting Scholar at Johns Hopkins University.  He has served as president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (1994), the St. George Tucker Society (1998-99), and the Southern Historical Association (2000-01).  His most recent book is Hearts of Darkness: Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition (Louisiana State University Press, 2003).


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1 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Modern Library, 1996), 57, 100.
2 Henry James, The American Scene (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946), 374-75.
3 H. L. Mencken, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” in Huntington Cairns, ed., H. L. Mencken: The American Scene, A Reader (Knopf, 1965), 156.
4 W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (Random House, 1991), 90-91.
5 C. Vann Woodward, The Future of the Past (Oxford University Press, 1989), 203.
6 Allen Tate, “Remarks on Southern Religion,” in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Harpers, 1962), 172, 173.
7 Elizabeth Spencer, “The Mystery at the Center,” Lincoln Center Theater Review (2005), 4.
8 Daniel Kilbride, “Travel, Ritual, and National Identity: Planters on the European Tour, 1820-1860,” Journal of Southern History 69 (2003): 549-584.
9 See Eugene D. Genovese, “The South in the History of the Transatlantic World,” in Kees Gispen, ed., What Made the South Different? (University Press of Mississippi, 1990), 3-18; Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Women and the Future of the Family (Baker Books, 2000).
11  Quoted in Richard C. Lounsbury, ed., Louisa S. McCord: Poems, Drama, Biography, Letters (University Press of Virginia, 1996), 100.
12  Quoted in Jay Martin, Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865-1914 (Prentice Hall, 1967).


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