In This Article Tim O’Brien

  • Introduction
  • Critical Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Interviews
  • Reference Works
  • Archives
  • Essay Collections
  • O’Brien and Other Writers
  • Pedagogical Approaches
  • Themes
  • Narrative Technique
  • Metafiction
  • Gender
  • Trauma
  • The Classical Tradition
  • Foreign Scholarship

American Literature Tim O’Brien
Catherine Calloway
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0133


Tim O’Brien (b. 1946) is a well-known contemporary American writer of seven novels, one memoir, and numerous short stories, nonfiction essays, and reviews. He has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Esquire, and selections from The Things They Carried and other works are frequently anthologized in textbooks and short-st collections, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century. One of three children, O’Brien lived in his birth town of Austin, Minnesota, until the age of ten when his family relocated to Worthington, Minnesota. After a public school education, he graduated from Macalaster College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, summa cum laude with a degree in political science. Shortly after graduation, his plans for graduate school were interrupted by the Vietnam War. The United States Army drafted O’Brien, and he served in Quang Ngai Province in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. Upon his discharge from the military, O’Brien enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University, planning to study government, and worked briefly as a reporter for the Washington Post. When the short sketches that O’Brien published in magazines and newspapers while in Vietnam led to the publication of If I Die in A Combat Zone in 1973, O’Brien began a full-time writing career and left graduate school. His reputation was established in 1979 when he received the National Book Award for his second novel, Going After Cacciato (1978). In addition to that novel, his best-known work includes The Things They Carried (1990), which received the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award for fiction and France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Estranger and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and In the Lake of the Woods (1994), which received the novel of the year award from Time magazine and the Society of American Historians’ James Fenimore Cooper Prize for outstanding historical novel. O’Brien has also received the National Magazine Award and the Katherine Anne Porter Award, as well as numerous other accolades. In 2012 he received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation’s Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, and in 2013 he had the distinction of becoming the first fiction writer to receive The Pritzker Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. O’Brien is well known for blurring the boundaries between fiction and fact and for debating the issue of relative truth in his work while treating such universal subjects as love, death, the imagination, memory, the art of writing, aging, and war. While the topic of Vietnam emerges in all of O’Brien’s major works, he does not consider himself a war writer per se. Since 1999 O’Brien has taught creative writing at Texas State University. He continues to give readings and talks around the country.

Critical Overviews

Despite the proliferation of scholarship on O’Brien’s works, book-length treatments of his life and work have been slow to appear, although substantial volumes and book chapters exist. Kaplan 1995 and Herzog 1997 provide the first straightforward overviews of his oeuvre, spanning O’Brien’s first six books. Heberle 2001 studies O’Brien in relation to trauma theory; Vernon 2004 considers war, gender, and social identities; and Ciocia 2012 examines theme. Smith 2005 offers a more student-oriented approach to O’Brien’s work. Beidler 1991 contributes a substantial section that covers O’Brien’s career through The Things They Carried and Ringnalda 1994 a single chapter that treats such topics as fabulation, self-irony, and contradictory truths in three O’Brien texts.

  • Beidler, Philip D. “The Life of Fiction: Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, Robert Olen Butler, James Webb, Winston Groom, Larry Heinemann.” In Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. By Philip D. Beidler, 9–103. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Discusses O’Brien’s post-Vietnam career. Devotes around twenty-five pages to O’Brien in a chapter that covers multiple authors.

  • Ciocia, Stefania. Vietnam and Beyond: Tim O’Brien and the Power of Storytelling. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846317767E-mail Citation »

    Approaches O’Brien’s work thematically, not chronologically like other studies, and with a special focus on O’Brien’s notion of story-truth and his use of gender. Covers all of O’Brien’s major works from If I Die in a Combat Zone to July, July.

  • Heberle, Mark A. A Trauma Artist: Tim O’Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    A seminal study of O’Brien’s life and work. Examines all of O’Brien’s major works, including Tomcat in Love and parts of July, July, through the lens of trauma theory in an attempt “to view O’Brien’s works within the framework of abnormal psychology and posttraumatic narratives” (p. xi).

  • Herzog, Tobey C. Tim O’Brien. New York: Twayne, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    The most important early study of O’Brien’s oeuvre. Includes biographical information as well as a thoughtful analysis of O’Brien’s texts from If I Die in a Combat Zone through In the Lake of the Woods.

  • Kaplan, Steven. Understanding Tim O’Brien. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first book-length study of O’Brien’s major work. Long out of print. Covers works through In the Lake of the Woods.

  • Ringnalda, Don. “Tim O’Brien’s Understood Confusion.” In Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War. By Don Ringnalda, 90–114. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Includes one chapter on O’Brien in a study of Vietnam War literature. Focuses on how O’Brien reflects the war’s nonsense in If I Die in a Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato, and The Things They Carried.

  • Smith, Patrick A. Tim O’Brien: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Contains chapters on all of O’Brien’s major works. Organized by plot and character development, theme, and relevant theoretical approaches, such as Myth and Archetype, New Historicism, Reader-Response, Psychoanalytic Criticism, Deconstructionism, and Feminist Criticism. Readable for students.

  • Vernon, Alex. “Reading Tim O’Brien.” In Soldiers Once and Still: Ernest Hemingway, James Salter, and Tim O’Brien. By Alex Vernon, 175–258. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    A substantial study that devotes four chapters to O’Brien’s life and writing. While If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried are treated most fully, the work also touches upon Tomcat in Love; July, July; and other texts.

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