Southern Cultures 11.2 (2005) 101-104
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At one time more than a few eyebrows would have been raised at the idea of an intellectual history of the Old South stretching into a second volume. (And we are not talking about an unportly second volume here.) The Old South used to be seen as a place where the enervating heat, the scattered population, the draw of partisan politics, and the white indolence made possible by black slavery all combined to rule out genuine intellectual activity. We know now, of course, that such a depiction masks more than it reveals the life of the mind in the antebellum South. A generation of historians have documented the extent and (in some cases, at least) the caliber of antebellum southerners' cerebral endeavors. It is fitting that it should be Michael O'Brien who, with his Conjectures of Order, provides a sort of capstone to this body of work. Much of his career has been devoted to establishing the legitimacy of southern intellectual history, both before and after the Civil War, as a worthwhile pursuit. Through numerous publications, and in his capacities as series editor of the Southern Texts Society and initiator of the Southern Intellectual History Circle, O'Brien has influenced and facilitated the work of countless other scholars in the field. Were the phrase "dean of antebellum southern intellectual history" not so unwieldy, I might be tempted to use it here.
With Conjectures of Order, O'Brien offers a richly detailed, uncommonly thorough portrait of an expansive and vibrant intellectual culture. The work moves from depictions of the social contexts of ideas, in the first volume, to discussions of the ideas themselves in the second. This arrangement reflects O'Brien's belief that it is important to know something, for instance, about where southerners attended university, or how they bought or borrowed books, in order more fully to understand their ideas about political economy, say, or theology. Thus the first volume covers movement and exchanges of people and ideas between the South [End Page 101] and other places; social structures of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and local and national allegiances; and various contexts of intellectual exchange, ranging from the character of oral conversation and letter writing to library resources and the publishing industry. While these topics are important and interesting in themselves, they also provide something of a scaffolding for the second volume's more abstract mode of inquiry. Here, we are treated to long, meticulous explorations of historical thought and belles lettres, political science and political economy, philosophy and theology, and, of course, the intellectual defense of slavery.
If all of this proves anything, it is that there was no one "mind of the South." Conjectures of Order advances a strong argument for the Old South as a "polyglot culture." Varieties of thought were shaped by varieties of individuals, ethnicity, language, religion, and much else besides. The Old South has never seemed so truly cosmopolitan as it does in O'Brien's hands. Part of the reason why he finds such diversity where others have found relative homogeneity is that he took the trouble to look for it. Many scholars have not. Indeed, most have been primarily, even exclusively, interested in studying the Old South as a slaveholding society and culture; as a peculiar place apart whose ultimate and perhaps only significance derives from secession and the Civil War. Because O'Brien does not begin and end with such presumptions and intentions—because he sets out to examine an intellectual culture of which slavery and secession were parts but not necessarily the whole—he is able to recover a much more sprawling and lively intellectual life than we have seen before.
The fresh perspective offered by Conjectures of Order doubtless has a lot to do with the vantage point of its author. Neither southern nor even American...