Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Tim O’Brien was born as William Timothy O’Brien, Jr., in Austin, Minnesota on October 1, 1946, to William Timothy O’Brien, an insurance agent, and Ave E. Schultz O’Brien, a second-grade teacher. His parents met each other while serving in the Navy during World War II. O’Brien’s sister Kathleen was born one year later, and his brother Greg ten years after O’Brien’s birth. The family moved to the small town of Worthington, Minnesota, while O’Brien was in elementary school, and they remained there throughout his childhood and adolescence. Growing up in such a small town impacted O’Brien greatly and influenced his decision about going into the military.
The O’Brien family was deeply involved in reading and language. As a member of the Worthington library board, Mr. O’Brien brought home many books for the children to read. Indeed, each member of the O’Brien household seems to have been a dedicated reader.
O’Brien’s relationship with his father was a sometimes troubled one. Although O’Brien admired his father’s knowledge and intellect, the senior O’Brien’s alcoholism damaged what might have otherwise been a close relationship. When he was drinking, William O’Brien was cruel to the youngster. Further, his father was frequently institutionalized for alcoholism, and young O’Brien felt his absence keenly. It was difficult for him to talk about his home situation with other youngsters, and it left him often feeling awkward and self-conscious. As a result of this, O’Brien began a childhood fascination with magic. He performed in many venues around Worthington. Although his interest faded with time, his early connection to magic surfaces in his novel In the Lake of the Woods (1994).
O’Brien graduated from Worthington in 1964 and began studying at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. During his senior year, he served as student body president. Although Macalester was quiet compared to other colleges and universities where war protests were becoming increasingly violent, O’Brien opposed the war and worked for the nomination of Eugene McCarthy for president.
In 1968, O’Brien graduated from Macalester Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude. Within two weeks of...
(The entire section is 961 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
William Timothy O’Brien was born in Minnesota in 1946 and lived there until he graduated summa cum laude from Macalester College in 1968. He was immediately drafted and, despite deep ambivalence, was inducted into the U.S. Army. The former student body president of a radical college, O’Brien served in Vietnam, first as a foot soldier and then as a typist. He was honorably discharged from the Army in 1970 with seven medals, among them the Purple Heart. He disapproved of the Vietnam War before he was drafted, while he was fighting it, and after he returned home.
Although O’Brien had done some scattered writing before the war (while he was still in college, he produced a novel that he did not publish), his real career as a writer began with Vietnam. During the summer after he was drafted, while he grappled with his conscience about serving in the war, he began to write intensely. “That horrible summer made me a writer,” he recalls. O’Brien sent home accounts of the fighting in Vietnam that were first published in Minnesota newspapers and later recycled into his books.
After the war, O’Brien studied government at Harvard University and worked for The Washington Post. The first book he published, the 1973 war memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, was well received, opening the door for him to set aside both journalistic and political aspirations to build a full-time literary career.
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
William Timothy O’Brien, Jr., was born in Austin, Minnesota, in 1946, placing him among the baby-boom generation, the young men of which would become eligible for the military draft during the Vietnam War (1964-1973). His father was an insurance salesman and a World War II combat veteran; his mother, Ava Schultz O’Brien, was an elementary school teacher. When O’Brien was nine years old, the family, which included a younger sister and brother, moved to Worthington, near the Minnesota-Iowa border, and he grew up there. His childhood, by his own account, was lonely. He played baseball and golf but occupied himself mainly with magic and reading.
After high school, O’Brien attended Macalester College and majored in political science. He participated in protests against the Vietnam War, wrote antiwar editorials for the college newspaper, and canvassed in support of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign in 1968. He was elected student-body president his senior year. Immediately after graduating with a bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Despite his hatred for the war, he quelled the urge to flee to Canada and was trained as an infantryman.
In February, 1969, O’Brien arrived at an advance firebase in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam. Nearby was My Lai, a hamlet where troops from O’Brien’s division had murdered as many as five hundred civilians in one day. O’Brien, like most...
(The entire section is 579 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
William Timothy O’Brien is recognized as one of the strongest voices to emerge from the Vietnam War, the defining event of his life. He was born to an insurance salesman and a teacher, and when he was nine the family moved from Austin, Minnesota, to the small town of Worthington, “Turkey Capital of the World.” O’Brien studied political science at Macalester College in St. Paul, planning a career in the State Department. In his senior year, he was elected student-body president, and in 1968 he graduated summa cum laude with a full scholarship to Harvard. The Vietnam draft interrupted his plans.
O’Brien thought seriously of going to Canada to escape a war he did not believe in, but he could not face the disapproval of family and friends. Later he labeled himself a coward for not having acted on his beliefs. He served in the United States Army from 1968 to 1970, including one year as an infantryman in Vietnam. His memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, chronicles this period of his life and his ambivalence about it.
In 1970, O’Brien began doctoral studies at the Harvard School of Government and held two summer internships at The Washington Post. He married in 1973 and took a year’s leave of absence to report on national affairs for The Washington Post, a job that, as he said, taught him “the virtue of tenacity.” He dropped out of Harvard in 1976 after publishing his second book, the novel Northern Lights. The work, the story of two brothers in the woods of northern Minnesota, is a young man’s book, burdened by the legacy of Ernest Hemingway. Harvey, a Vietnam veteran, becomes ill on a cross-country ski trip, and Paul, his quiet brother, saves his life with ingenuity and craft. O’Brien’s own voice is apparent in the powerful details of their wilderness journey and in the description of Paul’s growing ability to love.
His third book, which is considered one of his best, won the National Book Award; two chapters, published as separate stories, earned O. Henry awards. Going After Cacciato is a brilliant and unclassifiable novel, in which Paul Berlin seeks to impose some kind...
(The entire section is 897 words.)