The BrANCH Committee was extremely saddened to learn of the death, last week, of Michael O’Brien, whose scholarship on the South we have all greatly benefitted from. There will be many obituaries in the press, we are sure, but Catherine Clinton offers us, below, her immediate reaction to our very great loss:
Michael O’Brien (April 13th, 1948- May 6th, 2015)
Michael O’Brien was looking forward to his retirement after a long and distinguished teaching career. Following his studies at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, (with a detour at Vanderbilt), he spent twenty-five years in posts at various American universities (Michigan, Arkansas, Miami, and Ohio). He returned to the University of Cambridge in 2002, and in 2014 looked forward to an emeritus role, after years as an esteemed colleague on the history faculty and as a fellow at Jesus College.
O’Brien was a terrific trainer of research students—with a legendary ferocity, as student after student reported his bracing method of verbal sparring. But most also overwhelmingly celebrated his generous critical style whereby sharing and caring shaped a parade of acolytes who lived to tell the tale of O’Brien’s inquisitive, sometimes inquisitorial methods. His insatiable curiosity led him to supervise a wide range of dissertation topics, which included southern intellectuals (Richard Weaver, Thomas Cooper, Basil Manly, St George Tucker), the constitutionality of the Second Amendment, Unionism in antebellum South Carolina, Noah Webster and American concepts of language, prisoner-of-war narratives after the Civil War, southern concepts of honor, German émigré intellectuals, George Santayana, Henry Adams, freedmen’s aid societies during Reconstruction, the pragmatism of Clarence Irving Lewis, the epistemology of American science in the late nineteenth century, African-American thought in the 1960s, and (!) American foreign policy in Nasser’s Egypt.
His scholarship was widely admired, as a series of beautifully conceived, carefully crafted and exquisitely executed volumes established O’Brien as the world’s premier historian of southern intellectual thought: The Idea of the American South, 1920-41, All Clever Men, Who Make Their Way: Critical Discourse in the Old South, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life in the American South, Rethinking the South, Henry Adams and the Southern Question, Placing the South. He became a Fellow of the British Academy (2008), a Member of the American Antiquarian Society, a Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and was the first recipient of the Woodward-Franklin History Award of the Fellowship of Southern Writers (2013).
In 2005 Bancroft jurors commended his two volume study, Conjectures of Order, awarding it one of American history’s most coveted prizes: “In what can only be described as magisterial fashion, O’Brien has chronicled the lives and works of antebellum Southern writers and thinkers—from dissenters like the Grimke sisters to the man Richard Hofstadter called ‘the Marx of the Master Class,’ John C. Calhoun and almost everyone in between.” The Organization of American Historians concurred by bestowing the Merle Curti Award in the same year, and the Southern Historical Association awarded him the Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award. The book simultaneously received the C. Hugh Holman Award, Society for the Study of Southern Literature and the American Studies Network Book Prize. Additionally, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer.
He did not turn his back on the South, but of late had turned his talents into a new direction—with his engagement with the Adams family of Quincy, Massachusetts. In 2010, he produced a stunning work, another second finalist for the Pulitzer: Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon. At the time of his death he was writing a history of American intellectual life from the seventeenth century until the present. His editorial projects were some of the most compelling contributions of his scholarly career: Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston, (co-editor), An Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South, 1827-67, and in 2013, his distinguished volume, The Letters of C. Vann Woodward.
Despite his occasional rumpled manner, he was impeccably precise at the podium and a charmer, when he wanted to be. His embrace of the eclectic made him the true intellectual to which so many aspired. The quality of his mind (an intellectual dexterity, as one of his students put it) drew many into his gravitational pull—particularly during the 1980s and ‘90s, when he was engaged in networking and community building. The constellations he fostered intersected into the Southern Intellectual History Circle, whose 25th anniversary he commemorated with a powerful retrospective lecture : http://s-usih.org/2014/01/a-retrospective-on-the-southern-intellectual-circle-1988-2013.html
Although his verbal pyrotechnics and withering wit might have seemed combative, he was nevertheless a peacemaker in many ways, as his tales of southern historical intrigue, from Woodward to the Genovesi, from Bertram Wyatt-Brown to David Hackett Fischer demonstrated his drive to maintain constructive engagement, to engineer dialogue rather than diatribe. Could he be irascible? Entertainingly so. Did he suffer fools gladly? Not at all. But I will save those stories for a time when I am waterside, with a drink in hand, toasting his memory along the Cam, bitterly bemoaning our loss.
The cruel, swift disease which stole him from his loved ones in just a few months renders the current generation of American historians bereft. But not so for future generations, who may rest in the shade of the trees—enjoying all that he cultivated. We may miss the brilliance radiating from the man, but appreciation of his scholarly legacy will doubtless expand. American history remains indebted to him for his uncompromising interrogations and his intellectual integrity.
Can there be a proper closure for any tribute to O’Brien without borrowing some of his own words (with thanks to his Cambridge colleague, Sarah Pearsall) from Mrs Adams in Winter: “And she disliked partings, all the business of embraces, regrets, and promises.” So do we—and regret most of all that he cannot now be with us, to hear our praise, of our dear friend who was truly “the South’s Henry Adams” and a most cherished transatlantic legend, Michael O’Brien (1948-2015).
Denman Chair of American History
University of Texas San Antonio