Last week historians and scholars of the American South were saddened to hear about the passing of Michael O’Brien (1948-2015). O’Brien, the premier intellectual historian of the American South for a generation, leaves behind a remarkable corpus of work on the American South, the United States, and intellectual history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The field of U.S. Intellectual History, and especially that of the American South, feels less whole with him gone.
O’Brien’s career symbolized several traditions of the American historical institution. For one, he was a British man fascinated by the American South and American history. Similar to the career trajectories of other historians such as Richard H. King (another premier intellectual historian of the American South and race), he earned his degrees in Great Britain before spending a long career teaching and writing in the United States. His “outsider” status, as it were, provided him with a unique lens into the history of the American South.
A Brit studying the American South and an “outsider” daring to attempt to make sense of the complicated intellectual history of the land and people living below the Mason-Dixon Line, O’Brien’s career will be remembered for a long time because of the wonderful works he created for other intellectual historians to wrestle with. Books such as The Idea of the American South, 1920-1941 (1979) and Rethinking the South: Essays in Intellectual History (1993) demonstrated O’Brien’s ease with writing to multiple audiences inside and outside the academy.
His best known, and perhaps most important, work is the two-volume Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South (2004; abridged into one volume titled Intellectual Life and the American South, 2010). The book won O’Brien the Bancroft Prize and the Merle Curti award, among other prizes, in 2005. Every doctoral student studying for a comprehensive exam in the American South or nineteenth century American history either reads this book—or at the very least makes sure to read reviews of it while cramming for comps.
O’Brien has had a considerable impact on the trajectory of my own academic career. Studying the history of the American South means, inevitably, reading several important historians who’ve shaped a sub-field and, in the process, led the arguments among historians and intellectuals about how the South should be studied and interpreted. O’Brien belongs in a family of distinguished historians such as C. Vann Woodward, Sheldon Hackney (who passed away in 2013), John Hope Franklin, and Bertram Wyatt Brown, among others. My favorite work of his, Placing the South (2007) includes a collection of essays showcasing O’Brien’s talent for, once again, writing for non-academic, but well-educated, audiences. At the same time, his intellectual dexterity meant that he was comfortable writing about either Thomas Jefferson or Bill Clinton, and felt equally at home interpreting the intellectual arguments of John C. Calhoun and giving commentary on the scholarly exploits of a Eugene Genovese or a John Shelton Reed. Here’s a great example of how O’Brien crafted his scholarship for a wider audience, demonstrating the importance of intellectual history to understanding the origins of the American Civil War.
Finally, O’Brien had a significant impact on the building of a community of southern intellectual historians in the United States. He played an important role in the creation of the Southern Intellectual History Circle. O’Brien shared with the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians a paper he gave at Mercer University in 2013’s SIHC meeting, describing the purpose of the organization and its history. Understanding the intellectual history of the United States means, at some point, wrestling with the intellectual history of the American South. That means consulting the important and varied work of Michael O’Brien. He’ll be missed by family, friends, and scholars across multiple disciplines.
Additional remembrances: Alfred Brophy at the Faculty Lounge; James Fuller over on H-Net; and the memorial note of his passing by Cambridge University, where Dr. O’Brien served as Professor of American Intellectual History and was soon to retire.