Cool Brains

Nicholas Guyatt

  • Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South by Michael O’Brien
    North Carolina, 1354 pp, £64.95, March 2004, ISBN 0 8078 2800 9

The Founding Fathers of the United States were mainly Southerners: between them, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison can take credit for drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, winning the Revolutionary War, and preserving America’s independence through its turbulent early decades. The republic was governed by Southern presidents for 40 of its first 48 years, a period of dominance interrupted only by the single-term administrations of John Adams and his son John Quincy. Conversely, 24 years after Andrew Jackson of Tennessee left the White House in 1837, the next generation of Southerners led 11 states out of the Union, founding a Southern Confederacy to preserve the institution of slavery from the meddling of Abraham Lincoln. As a result, the United States was temporarily dissolved, and the North embarked on a war of unprecedented destructiveness to correct the South’s mistakes.

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. His first task is to persuade a sceptical audience of the mere existence of Southern intellectual life between 1810 and 1860, the period between Jefferson’s retirement and the eve of the Civil War. To this end, O’Brien presents rich and detailed studies of around a hundred Southern intellectuals, organised by themes that range from immigration to European tourism, from ideas about gender to the lending habits of Southern libraries. By far the greater part of this material is fresh and interesting, though the epic proportions of this book occasionally feel like payback for the decades of derision directed at the very idea of Southern intellectual history. (If you thought that Southerners were unreflective and lazy, O’Brien is ready to punish your prejudice with a long description of, say, the relative strengths and specialties of the Parisian hospitals that trained Southern doctors in the 1830s.)

O’Brien’s second aim is to argue for the importance of Southern intellectual life as a whole. While he acknowledges the enormous variety of thinking across the antebellum period, he also sees a pattern in it – the ‘conjectures of order’ of the book’s title – and suggests that Southerners made sense of their world with a candour and sophistication that anticipates the emergence of Modernism. If Emerson and the North contented themselves with sterile paeans to progress and the self, or invoked providence to conceal the problems of the past and the present, the scattered intellectuals of the South confronted their own predicaments with a cold eye and ‘cool brains’ (in the prescription of the Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut). And the defeat of 1865 merely confirmed their prescience about the instability of people, places and things. The American South, in O’Brien’s telling, learned a lesson in defeat that would not reach Europe for fifty years.

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[*] ‘Orpheus Turning: The Present State of Southern History’, in The State of US History, edited by Melvyn Stokes (Berg, 448 pp., £17.99, March 2003, 1 85973 502 9).