U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Remembering Michael O’Brien

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.Michael OBrien

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.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thank you Robert for this reflection, which captures well Michael O’Brien’s importance in the field and the interesting question of the role his English background played in his interpretation of southern intellectual life. I worked over The Idea of the American South thoroughly when doing my dissertation. I remember distinctly, with a mixture of frustration and awe, that in returning to O’Brien’s work after doing some of my own, I would notice that a point that I thought I had discovered through arduous labor and my own brilliance was right there, in his book, years before.

    One of my advisors, Steve Stowe, arranged for me to drive to Oxford, Ohio, to meet him at Miami University. He had a large office in a great old building–long and narrow with books on either wall, tall ceiling, and his desk was at the end, illuminated from behind. I knew very little of what I was about, only that I intended to study the Southern Agrarians, of which he knew an immense amount. He must have thought me a piker, but was very gracious and remained supportive throughout my work. He created what became the Southern Intellectual History Circle, which I have always thought an excellent model for our own work and a wonderful example of how scholarship is built on intellectual camaraderie and community.

    Michael O’Brien was the dean of southern intellectual historians, to put it in an old-fashioned way, but he was also a towering historian, without qualifiers–erudite, incisive, witty, iconoclastic, and a brilliant stylist.

    • Thanks for the great post here–and you sum up exactly why Dr. O’Brien was important. I can’t over-emphasize how important he was to the field of Southern intellectual history, and I’m glad to hear from someone who knew him personally.

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