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Response to my critics.

I NEED TO START BY THANKING MY FOUR CRITICS FOR THEIR ACUMEN AND, especially, their generosity. Conjectures of Order was written over many years, under isolated conditions, and the task of writing was so absorbing that I gave little thought to the matter of reception. Just getting the thing published, at all, was about as far as my ambition ran. So it is with great curiosity that I begin to witness the process of criticism.

Let me take the critics, in order.

Bertram Wyatt--Brown raises many pertinent issues. He refers to a significant context for this book--the intellectual genealogy that runs from H. L. Mencken to W. J. Cash, from Clement Eaton to Drew Faust--but also the wider context of American intellectual history, dominated by the figure of Perry Miller. These are contexts which certainly helped to form my interest in American and Southern culture. Indeed much of my early scholarship directly engaged many of these figures. However, as Wyatt--Brown ambivalently notes, these figures do not appear in Conjectures of Order, which is marked by a silence about historiography, by (as he puts it) a tendency of the author to fly solo. It is an acute remark, though I did wonder whether it was the absence of Eugene Genovese's name from the index which first prompted Wyatt--Brown's awareness of this lacuna.

This omission has roots in a philosophy of history and composition. (1) Except for scant remarks in the introduction and some footnotes, modern historiography was ruthlessly expunged from Conjectures. In the text you will nowhere find phrases like, "As Professor So--and--So has shown us," or, "Since the 1980s, historians have come to realize," or, "Derrida has forced us to understand that." It is my sense that such allusions are best confined to articles, reviews, and essays. When writing, I presumed that a multivolume work is a long journey, during which the author and reader traverse a large landscape, and the naming of secondary authors in the text would serve only to confuse the narrative. Rather, it was my sense that a book such as this should be a conversation between the past and the historian, to which the reader is invited to listen. Historiography introduces another conversation, in which the historian slights the past and ignores the general reader, and instead talks over the reader's head to other professional historians. I am not uninterested in this second conversation, but I feel that a long book is not the right place for it.

At some level, this is a personal decision, but the psychology of composition may be relevant, too. It is my experience that writing so sustained a book creates a sense of isolation. Though all authors write alone, shorter works bring an author out into the world with greater regularity. But the longue duree of the multivolume work breaks that rhythm. One works on a different cycle from everyone else, a cycle longer than the fluctuations of historiography. To be sure, in our time, intellectual fashions move so quickly that even the writer of monographs can be unsettled. I once knew a young historian who liked to follow fashions. A book a la mode would be started and half--completed, when a new fashion would come along, and the initial venture would be abandoned for a second, in the newer mode. Then, the second would have to be abandoned for a third, and so on. No doubt, there are many such people, jumping on and off bandwagons. The author of a multivolume work cannot afford such lightning engagements.

But there is another reason for omitting historiography, a reason relevant to Wyatt--Brown's contextualization of Conjectures. Along the way, I concluded that a central question of the Mencken--Cash tradition and its modern heirs was not my question, though it may remain Wyatt-Brown's, who is closer to that tradition. That question is the matter of comparative standing, the question of whether the South--Old, New, very New--has an intellectual culture that is up to snuff. Is Simms as good as Hawthorne? Is Faulkner better than Hemingway? Is Southern political thought more accomplished than Northern? It is, no doubt, a question that shadows the other, older question--the Sydney Smith question--who reads an American book? Is Emerson as good as Coleridge? Where is the American Shakespeare, Leonardo, Isaac Newton?

Frankly, I think these are uninteresting, unprofitable questions. Somewhere, long ago, I remarked that this business of ratings is, at best, an agreeable parlor game. It is as though all historical cultures were annually submitted to U.S. News and World Report, so that they might inform us that Renaissance Florence has slipped from fourth to seventh, that Periclean Athens remains at number one, but that the Old South, as a result of some recent historical work, has moved up from thirty--ninth to thirty--second and edged out Ibsen's Norway. Really, I do not see the point, though I am conscious that many do, that some antebellum Southerners did, that Wyatt-Brown does.

One can, doubtless, read my reluctance to play the ratings game in several ways. As a historian of a thirty-ninth ranked culture, would I not naturally prefer to abjure rankings? If so, why do ratings interest Wyatt-Brown, who has a much lower opinion of this culture than even I do? Well, Wyatt-Brown is notoriously prone to melancholy and would be deprived of the occasion for despair if, suddenly, Southern culture rocketed to fifth. However this might be, the logic does not work, at least for me, partly for a reason Steven Stowe suggests, that mine is an outsider's book. If I have a culture, it is not the South, so it does not matter to me where it ranks, because I do not take my sense of self-worth from Southern culture. Now, if the University of Cambridge suddenly went from being the world's third best university, as my Vice-Chancellor says it is, to being the world's thirty-ninth ranked university, that might be more of a problem. (2)

Still, there is another explanation for my relative indifference to rankings, and this touches on another of Wyatt-Brown's questions, "Do these Southern thinkers have much to tell us now?" It is a good question, one that Richard King will raise differently in the Journal of American Studies. (3) King's answer, on the whole, is, no. He cannot see that my act of intellectual archaeology has thrown up names and texts which will permanently inform modern American culture, and thinks that the Old South is a pretty dead culture, at best written about by a fairly lively historian. Perhaps Wyatt-Brown and King are right, by their own lights. Still, I would distance myself from the question. This will seem quaint, but it is my presumption that the past has its own logic and that it is the historian's business to understand that logic. I do not see my task as the assembling of a Harvard Library of great texts, and that I should approach the past with this purpose. I do not pick up text after Southern text, read, and then ask, does this belong in the Library of America? This is not to say that, if the editors of the Library of America approached me and asked, do any of your authors merit inclusion? I might not manage an opinion. But that would be by-the-bye.

Partly, this heterodoxy arises from having been educated, not in an American intellectual culture, but in a British one of the 1950s and 1960s. I came to American history after having formed many intellectual habits in a Cambridge world, whose historical imagination was more formed by ancient, medieval, and early modern than by recent history. When I was admitted as an undergraduate, I was required to have a knowledge of Latin, after all. When E. H. Carr gave the Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge in 1961, his brief for presentism occasioned much distress. While I came to see, with Cart, that presentism is inescapable, I did not accept its adequacy or, rather, I came to presume that the historian, among other obligations, should work to keep alive many cultures in many times. The trouble with presentism is that it tends to kill those pasts which cannot be seen as contributory to the present. This murder is the great crime of the Whig interpretation, as all Cambridge undergraduates were taught by Herbert Butterfield. So my sense of the Old South is one with my sense of, say, Merovingian France or fifth-century Mongolia, all societies worth the attention of serious historians. I have an old-fashioned regard for those old-fashioned scholars who know recondite things--Linear B tablets, the intricacies of early Iranian languages, the rituals of the Incas--and would be far happier to be seen as a decent example of this species, than as a sort of public intellectual, speaking to modern American concerns. Not that I do not respect such public intellectuals. C. Vann Woodward, who used to be of our company and is so missed, was such. It is just that I am not that sort of historian, or, if so, only by accident.

Steven Stowe comes close to seeing this. Speaking with the modest authority granted to me as the subject matter of his analysis, I can say that the historian he describes--the O'Brien of his text--is someone I can recognize and may even, in the past, have known. I do care for individuality and idiosyncrasy. I am an ironist and outsider, with a stern and bleak vision, most marked at the end of this book. (Though I would also point to, at least, an effort at wit.) It is acute to observe that Conjectures of Order is, in many ways, a study of authorship. He is right that, for me, "incidents matter," "that there may not be ends at all, only means." His observation that I have "a sense that the Old South must not be lost" is right, though it needs to be understood in the light of what I have just said. It is more the case that I have the sense that nothing should be lost, and that this everything happens to include the Old South, which is the fragment of the past which fell to my lot. Certainly, I have the sense that modern culture is a great bulldozer of the past, and I do not like bulldozers.

A few things I did not recognize. I am tolerably sure that Virginia Woolf is not the muse of this history, though I can see how Stowe might think so, since she is mentioned in several contexts, notably in my reading of Mary Chesnut. In fact, though I have read much Woolf and sympathize with her, she cannot be said to have been much of an intellectual influence. Among the modernists, who formed me when younger, T. S. Eliot was far more important. The Four Quartets is closer to the heart of Conjectures of Order than Orlando or even Mrs. Dalloway. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" may be even closer. On the whole, however, Stowe sees where, when writing about antebellum culture, I sympathize with someone, where more distant. He says I am fond of those "with an absence of scorn and fearfulness." This is shrewd, though I might express it differently. My own sense is that I mistrust power, those who seek and use it, and so tend to like those who are a little lost, but struggling to understand, without seeing understanding as a means to achieve control over others.

Which brings me to Harry Watson's remarks, which concern precisely this matter of power, and somewhat compromise my earlier stance or imposture as the un-presentist antiquarian. Among other things, Watson reads me as offering a critique of "Americans in the Age of Bush." Strictly speaking, this cannot be so. This book was written between 1994 and the summer of 2001, so very little of it was conceived in the light of the younger Bush. Still, Watson discerns something that is going on in the narrative, precisely because Bush's America is a true heir of much that is American, and these pre-Bush antecedents were necessarily in my mind. Watson is right that I do not see the slaveholding South as "the great exception" to the American master narrative, that I argue for many themes discernible in the Old South surviving as American themes, and that I see the will to power, which finds its most obvious expression in imperialism, as a central meaning of America. My discussion of Southern political thought much hinges on this issue. I did argue that, in John Taylor, we see a political thinker whose republicanism hinged on the risk of renouncing power, but who nonetheless was uneasily aware that the American project hinged on the deployment of power. There is a similar tension in Calhoun, though he moved to a higher valuation of power, and this was typical of later Southern thought, in which I discern a franker appreciation of the necessity of power, of using the state as the instrument of compulsion. But the theme, whether acknowledged or not, is consistent in the early nineteenth century, evident in--to use the obvious examples--the Louisiana Purchase, Indian Removal, slavery, the military conquests of Florida and Mexico, the annexation of Texas. There is in American political thought the contradiction that Jefferson and Madison tried to resolve by speaking of an "empire of liberty," a resolution which contends that the final achievement of democracy justifies short-term disavowals of its central value, that power rests upon consent. In modern times this clever and self-regarding claim has expressed itself in the belief that one can--to use the most recent case of Iraq--force people to be free, kill in order to give life, torture in the name of compassion. I do not see that the logics of the proslavery argument are much different from those logics which sanction Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison. In all this again, no doubt, I am very much a child of British culture in the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up in a world renouncing imperialism, mistrusting patriotism, choosing to subjugate nationality in a multinational project, all ventures founded on the premise of social democracy. Little of this is the modern American experience, which has moved towards legitimating empire, embracing patriotism, intensifying nationality, and repudiating social democracy.

Lastly, let me turn to Susan Donaldson's very valuable critique, which raises issues which gave me much pause and doubt in the writing of Conjectures of Order. Hers is a criticism I have presumed would arise, so it will be well to try and deal with it now. There are several issues at stake here, moral, empirical, philosophical.

We live in an age of multiculturalism and inclusiveness, Donaldson says, and she suggests--though she is polite--that, since I have written a book about whites, I have thereby denied inclusiveness, by excluding African Americans from a coequal place in the narrative. Of course, I can see the moral case, which informs many Southern studies, especially of the postbellum period. Upon this logic, the South is understood as a geographical space with a shared culture. Everyone in it--black, white, Mississippi Chinese, Cherokee--is understood to be a Southerner and a narrative act of exclusion is seen as a denial of comity. I could reply, no doubt, that I never thought of putting blacks "offstage, beyond the circle of community," because I presumed that blacks had their own play, their own community, with its own traditions, beliefs, and institutions. Everyone is off somebody else's stage. So, in a book about the black experience, whites are offstage. In a book about the white experience, blacks are offstage. I do not see this stance as problematic, though I can see that others might. In fact, I see it as more problematic to believe that there must be only one play, in which everyone must coequally appear. However, as will become clear, I did, in fact, think of blacks and whites as on the same stage, but with very differing roles. When I did the index for this book, my software threw up about a thousand references to "slaves" and "slavery," which is why the topic (like "South" and "Southern") is absent from the index.

Let me try to explain. I am dubious of the intellectual cogency of multiculturalism, because it is a bastard form of cultural nationalism, which I see as authoritarian, while masquerading as descriptive. Indeed I see the premise of inclusiveness as destructively sentimental. I discern no evidence that the world is inclusive, certainly no evidence that the Old South was so, hence I have no reason to write a narrative suggesting inclusion. But Donaldson seems to reason differently. She implies that, if we describe the past inclusively, we breed habits of mind which will foster inclusiveness. For my own part, I do not believe that history and criticism have such power, but, even if I did, I mistrust the premise of inclusiveness, because it requires that one must belong. As an outsider by instinct, I have little wish to train people in the habits of belonging. Further, even if one grants the power of presentist morality, my sense of the morality differs. Donaldson says, in effect, that the higher morality lies in narrating inclusiveness. My own view is that narrating exclusion is better, because self-awareness cannot rest on illusion.

However all this may be, there is an empirical question here, but also a philosophical one, and these are tangled together. Donaldson suggests that the repression of slave voices and slave experience marks every page of white Southern writing. She offers a variation on Ulrich Phillips. Here, she says, is the central theme, around which any narration of the antebellum South must be woven. But, philosophically, I mistrust central themes. As Watson has noted, Conjectures of Order is deeply rooted in a sense of the world's multiplicity, movement, fragmentation, and disorder. As far as I can see, there are no resting places, no still points. Not slavery, not God, not America, nothing.

But, even setting this aside, I incline to think Donaldson's premise is too hopeful. Here is a great injustice, she says. These people lived a great crime. Knowing this, consciously and unconsciously, they repressed and sublimated, and these deep currents inevitably marked everything they did and said. Her case rests much upon the interpretation of silence, for she agrees with me that many texts are silent about slavery. Interpreting silence is notoriously tricky, and psychoanalysts thrive on this task more than historians, who have enough trouble keeping track of what people did say, without overinterpreting what they did not say, and when and where they did not say it. Still, I take Donaldson's point, and was not unaware of it when writing. My introduction speaks of using African Americans as a Greek chorus in the white South's House of Atreus. Sometimes they speak, more rarely they are spoken to, but their omnipresence is more visible to the audience than to Iphigenia, to Clytemnestra, and to Agamemnon, who find their own affairs to be absorbing.

But I suspect Donaldson and I, finally, have different readings of human nature, and this difference may distinguish an American from a European. My own sense is that humans have an almost infinite capacity for tolerating injustice, that evil is, indeed, banal. Take any society--take this one, or modern Britain, or Argentina--tot up the scale of human suffering and then look at the people as they go about their fives. Some are gloomy and troubled, no doubt, but many are whistling a happy tune, or having a joke with their mates, all without a thought for the ghetto a few miles away, or the Thai children who made their Nike sneakers, or the trapped Filipino maid in the Buenos Aires penthouse. Someone writes a poem, a history, a piece of music, and nowhere is there a trace of these human miseries. Or, there is a trace. It depends on the person, the moment, the purpose, the form. Awareness of what is wrong with a society is episodic. Friedrich Engels noticed the suffering of the Manchester poor, but many Victorian writers did not. Similarly, William Harper noticed that slaves suffered, but thought it an aspect of the human condition. James Henry Hammond noticed, but did not care. Mary Chesnut noticed, but was puzzled. Augusta Evans never noticed, at all. Incidents matter.

Works Cited

Butterfield, Herbert. The Whig Interpretation of History. London: G. Bell, 1931.

Cart, E. H. What is History? The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures Delivered at the University of Cambridge January-March 1961. London: Macmillan, 1961.


Jesus College, Cambridge

(1) The next two paragraphs were not part of my remarks at the Sewanee panel, since they were contained in a lecture, given a few days earlier, also at Sewanee. In my remarks, I merely referred to the lecture, but it seems sensible to engraft the relevant passage of the lecture here.

(2) See 0,9959,1294983,00.html, and offices/v-c/speeches/20040316.html. Evidently Cambridge went from fifth to third during 2004, in the ratings curiously devised by the Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

(3) A review now published in Journal of American Studies 39 (2005): 133-35.
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Author:O'Brien, Michael
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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