Opposing another form of ignorance? Finding value in the antebellum South

Posted on August 8, 2015 by


When glancing over my bookshelves last night, I pulled a book which I ordered about a year ago, yet had not yet taken time to read. The reason I purchased it was because the author spent time in the book, providing an argument about Southern antebellum authors who went against the grain of many other authors of the time. A couple of the authors named had ties to the Shenandoah Valley.

My well-worn copies of Conjectures. Fortunately, I've maintained the dust jackets by removing them every time I have a return visit to the volumes.

My well-worn copies of Conjectures. Fortunately, I’ve maintained the dust jackets by removing them every time I have a return visit to the volumes.

When reading the first chapter (the book is titled Unwelcome Voices: Subversive Fiction in the Antebellum South) I realized the author (Paul Christian Jones, PhD) is one of those who follow in the path of Michael O’Brien.

If you aren’t familiar with Michael O’Brien… especially his massive two volume work, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860, I highly recommend it (or the abridged version… Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 which is only one volume). In Conjectures, O’Brien spent a significant amount of time showing the intellectual side of the antebellum South.

From the UNC Press:

O’Brien finds that the evolution of Southern intellectual life paralleled and modified developments across the Atlantic by moving from a late Enlightenment sensibility to Romanticism and, lastly, to an early form of realism. Volume 1 describes the social underpinnings of the Southern intellect by examining patterns of travel and migration; the formation of ideas on race, gender, ethnicity, locality, and class; and the structures of discourse, expressed in manuscripts and print culture. In Volume 2, O’Brien looks at the genres that became characteristic of Southern thought. Throughout, he pays careful attention to the many individuals who fashioned the Southern mind, including John C. Calhoun, Louisa McCord, James Henley Thornwell, and George Fitzhugh.

Placing the South in the larger tradition of American and European intellectual history while recovering the contributions of numerous influential thinkers and writers, O’Brien’s masterwork demonstrates the sophistication and complexity of Southern intellectual life before 1860.

For a critical review of Conjectures, I recommend Jon Wells’ piece in H-Net:

“Magisterial,” “masterpiece,” and “tour de force” are some of the words reviewers have already employed to describe this work, the most important study of southern literature and intellectual life since Jay B. Hubbell published The South in American Literature (1954) more than half a century ago.[1] Like Hubbell’s work, Conjectures of Order is written by an accomplished author whose encyclopedic knowledge of the region has provided valuable insight into long-forgotten and under-appreciated intellectuals. But while Hubbell focused his lengthy study on southern literature, Michael O’Brien branches out to discuss all aspects of intellectual life in the region, from previously explored topics such as theology, politics, and novel-writing to innovative chapters on letter-writing, conversations, and periodical literature.

… as well as others, by Nicholas Guyatt (partial review from London Review of Books):

The fact that the South played an integral role in both the nation’s founding and its bloody dissolution has called for some explanation. Traditionally, historians have turned to the enervating effects of slavery to account for the paralysis of the Southern mind. This view, which is still repeated in textbooks and surveys of American history, holds that the political geniuses of the founding period (principally Jefferson and Madison) left no heirs in the Southern intellectual tradition. Worse, a compulsion on the part of Southern thinkers to defend slavery against Northern attacks deepened a process of intellectual retrenchment after 1820. Even with Jefferson or Madison as its representative, the South had been a premodern place, fixated on the idea that a society might endlessly renew itself through farming rather than the unsettling prospect of manufacturing and cities. The next generation of Southern thinkers, it is usually argued, clung to this vision with an irrational persistence, generating cranky and parochial treatises on economics as well as self-serving defences of slavery. By the 1860s, Southerners had become so set in their backwardness that only a calamitous war could break the grip of the old ideas.

Given such an unpromising landscape, who would want to read an intellectual history of the antebellum South, much less become a historian of Southern intellectuals? Michael O’Brien has been working on an answer to these questions for fifteen years, and the result is a massive refutation of received wisdom.

… and Charles J. Holden. (from Civil War History).

O’Brien argues that the intellectual life of the antebellum South, far from being the product of an isolated, reactionary, frontier American society, was instead the result of philosophical, political, scientific, and cultural engagement with the latest that Europe offered.

Of course, the reviews aren’t limited to praise and are also critical, but… O’Brien most definitely owned the topic.

Sad to say, I also realized last night that Michael O’Brien passed away in May. For me, a person who often bores easily while reading, I’ve read Conjectures and reread chapters from time to time, in order to make clear what I thought O’Brien was suggesting. It’s a book I’m regularly referencing in my studies of Valley literature.

Then, of course, as I said earlier, there is Jones (speaking on the matter of Southern literature and intellectualism, and how both have been “reduced” by many over the years):

UnwelcomeVoicesThis oversimplified depiction of antebellum southern literature has served to support the “story” of southern literature that was constructed in the early twentieth century. the work of prominent twentieth-century scholars of southern literature, including the New Critic and Agrarian Allen Tate and the major scholars of the succeeding generations, such as Jay Hubbell, Louis Rubin, C. Hugh Holman, and Lewis Simpson, has often endorsed this reductive view of antebellum literature in order to tell a larger story about southern literature as a whole. According to Michael Kreyling, these scholars, the students that they have trained, and the anthologies they have edited and published have “invented” southern literature, or put forward a version of southern literary history that they assert is true. According to this “invention”, antebellum southern literature – represented most often by the romances of Simms and Kennedy – was merely a mouthpiece for the region’s conservative, aristocratic politics, which failed as innovative literature and succeeded only in romanticizing a lifestyle that postbellum writers, like Thomas Nelson Page, would long for as they constructed their own myth of the Lost Cause, and with which modern writers, like William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Ellen Glasgow, and Thomas Wolfe, struggled to come to terms. This “story” holds little respect for the achievement of antebellum literature and reveals little understanding that the literature might reflect more than a single ideological viewpoint.

What appeals to me is the manner in which the “school of O’Brien” folks (in which I feel I might also be, considering my evaluation of various pieces of literature over the last year), have reached into something already declared (by others) dark and not worth recognizing, and have pulled up quite a bit worthy of our attention and recognition. The same, I would suggest, exists in the story of the antebellum South (dare I say, “white antebellum South”?) as a whole… though we clearly see, most especially now, the same form of denial in play, in both a segment of the general populace and even in those who have been academically schooled under a strikingly similar light which was generated by Allen Tate. Granted, this just occurred to me last night, and I have more reading ahead.

I look forward to diving further into Jones’ work.