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Thursday, 10 March 2016

On Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Michael O’Brien, and Southern Distinctiveness

The following is an excerpt from a piece that Randall Stephens recently wrote for the US Intellectual History blog. This was originally a paper he delivered in Sewanee, Tennessee, for the February 2016 meeting of the Southern Intellectual History Circle.  Randall completed his PhD with Bertram Wyatt-Brown in 2003 at the University of Florida.  Related: See this post about Northumbria University's acquisition of the library of the late professor Michael O'Brien

. . . . [Bertram Wyatt-Brown] the historian, in some ways quite unlike his Johns Hopkins mentor C. Vann Woodward, examined the continuity and uniqueness of the region.  He may not have proposed a full blown southern exceptionalism, but perhaps something like it.  Reviewing Southern Honor in the NYRB in 1982 Woodward wrote: “If history is the study of how societies change, this
An advertisement for a play, New York: Strobridge
Lith. Co., c1897. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
impressive work may well belong in some other category, perhaps some hitherto neglected branch of anthropology. . . .”  Woodward, though, went on to caution that “if historians, because of the moral assumptions of their own culture, ignore or dismiss the realities of an older culture that shaped and determined the behavior of its members from infancy to death and for which they proved willing to die, then the historians are overlooking something that profoundly affected history whether it be properly called history itself or not.” [4] Of course, Bert admitted that his focus on the continuities and distinctiveness of southern history was drawn from his personal experiences, but it was not merely autobiographical.  It described the stark, often grim realities of the Old South, committed as it was to slavery and patriarchy.  In a 2003 edited volume on Woodward’s Origins of the New South, Wyatt-Brown commented on how he and his PhD mentor shared some basic assumptions about the region, though their views about continuity/discontinuity were quite different.  Bert contrasted his own perspective with that of another Woodward student, Yale historian Glenda Gilmore, whose “southern experience has apparently taught her the relevance of unexpected transformations.” Putting down roots in Sewanee at a tender age, said Bert, “I was more struck by what seemed the timelessness of southern life than [Gilmore].” [5]

Michael O’Brien, to say the least, had a rather different take on the region.  Surely, when it came to writing about and analyzing southern culture, Michael and Bert were often at opposite poles. They not only differed markedly in their views of the South.  They were also personally, to anyone with eyes to see or ears to hear, quite unlike each other.  I’ll never forget one humorous exchange between the two of them, fraught with tension as it was.  I was a lowly graduate student, tasked with helping Bert organize panels for the SIHC meeting at the University of Richmond in 2002.  It was a large, some said unwieldy, event: The Douglas Southall Freeman and Southern Intellectual History Circle Conference.  One of the panels on the Irish in the South was short a member or two.  Bert fired off an email to Michael asking if he would join the panel.  Perturbed, Michael emailed back something to the effect of: “Just because my surname is ‘O’Brien’ does not mean that I do Irish history.”  Bert was surprised that he took offense at all.  The episode fit a pattern, one that O’Brien commented on in 2013:

Bertram Wyatt–Brown, whom I had begun to know in about 1984, who was working ingeniously at the intersection of intellectual, social, and literary history—“ingeniously” is a polite way of saying that I thought he was mostly talking nonsense—and with whom I had exchanged letters, mostly letters in which we agreed to disagree, and in which he deprecated my polemical violence, not without justice.*

In O’Brien’s eyes Wyatt-Brown could seem like an unreconstructed proponent of southern exceptionalism and a hectoring neo-abolitionist.  (O’Brien’s claim to historicism here sounds something like Gordon Wood’s.) To Wyatt-Brown, O’Brien appeared to be surprisingly dismissive of the South’s peculiarities, downplaying its otherness and the brutal realities of a slavocracy.  O’Brien reflected on these differences at the 2013 Southern Intellectual History Circle.  Said O’Brien in the months after Bert’s death: “He had a quarrel with [the South] and he came to [the] Circle to have it out. . . . For Bert, the South was a prison house of censure, guilt, and cultural claustrophobia, and, though he aspired to be for Southern history what Faulkner was for Southern literature, a bard of this Gothic horror, he was conscious that, in the final analysis, a historian could not compete with a novelist, at least this novelist.”*. . . read more>>>

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