- Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860
The intellectual life of the Old South continues to occupy the attention of some truly fine historians. Michael O'Brien's two-volume Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810 - 1860 gives weighty evidence that this fascination has nowhere near run its course (and one will add to the evidence the much anticipated forthcoming, and also multivolume, The Mind of the Master Class from Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese). In this learned, sweeping, and highly impressive book, 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. The life of the mind in the Old South was also sparked by traveling widely, by trading thoughts within elaborate kin networks, and, later, by meeting the rising challenge to the institution of slavery. While it does not come not as a surprise that European influences shaped antebellum Southern intellectual life, O'Brien traces painstakingly how antebellum Southerners received, interpreted, and then disseminated those influences. Moreover, O'Brien notes, this relationship was not merely one-way. Southern writers, scientists, and theologians added their own imprint to the Atlantic intellectual world.
With compelling and ample evidence, O'Brien argues that the Southern intellectual quest was riddled with a fundamental tension produced by modernity: Southerners sought order from a newer, more fluid, late- and post-Enlightenment reality where subjects such as science and theology seemed to shift their truths from decade to decade and where Romantics sought [End Page 218] meaning and identity in a different manner altogether. O'Brien points out that part of this context of fluidity was Southerners' own doing in the 1770s by helping the United States become an independent nation: "Having made a world, Southerners were aware that worlds could be made" (3). This dynamic remained on through to the 1860s, when "with clarity of mind" (1202) Southerners again made their choices—sought again to make a world—and gambled on secession, independence, and war.
It is indeed a very short list of historians more qualified than O'Brien to explore in richness, depth, and detail the Southern experience in travel, science, philosophy, literature, political theory, art, and poetry. Trying to present as full a picture as possible of the intellectual life of the Old South, O'Brien explicates dozens of novels, pamphlets, treatises, tracts, and poems. He includes entire chapters on talking, letter-writing, publishing and collecting books, and elsewhere he examines the creation of historical societies and even the increased use of exclamation marks in Southern writing.
Yet, O'Brien flavors his intellectual history with dashes of social history. He combines history on a large scale, for example laying out the extensive family connections between antebellum Southerners and Europeans, with narrow, precise readings of single texts from people like William Henry Trescot, William Cabell Rives, Louisa McCord, Charles Gayerre, Henry Hughes, to name just a few. Whereas he traces outwardly the personal and family connections that place antebellum Southerners squarely within the vast intellectual realm of the Atlantic world, O'Brien then pulls back into the South the impact of specific concepts and intellectual innovations. He offers careful examinations of what "race" and "class" and "state" and "nature" meant (and their different meanings at that) to antebellum Southerners. This is no small task and should caution any historian of the Old South from waxing too confidently on what "the South" thought about such matters. As a large, diverse group, O'Brien's Southern intellectuals defy easy categorization as conservative or liberal or progressive. Rather, they were engaged fully with recent philosophical, political, cultural, and scientific developments, all the while embracing, altering, rejecting as their inclination, training, and circumstances dictated.
Conjectures of Order is a tour de force and one feels almost churlish raising questions or...