In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tim O'Brien

  • Introduction
  • Critical Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Interviews
  • Reference Works
  • Archives
  • Film and Dramatic Adaptations
  • Essay Collections
  • O’Brien’s Editorial Process
  • O’Brien and Other Writers and Artists
  • Pedagogical Approaches
  • Themes
  • Narrative Technique
  • Metafiction
  • Magical Realism
  • Gender
  • Trauma
  • The Classical Tradition
  • Postmodernism
  • The War on Terror

American Literature Tim O'Brien
Catherine Calloway
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • 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-story 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 at Texas State University at San Marcos where he holds the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Chair in Creative Writing. 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. Tegmark 1998 takes a reader-response approach to O’Brien’s work; 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, Young 2017 focuses on the textual revisions inherent throughout O’Brien’s oeuvre, and Herzog 2018 offers a blend of biographical and critical material from various angles of vision.

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

    DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846317767

    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.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20q1x7d

    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.

    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.

  • Herzog, Tobey C. Tim O’Brien: The Things He Carries and the Stories He Tells. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    A collection of seven essays that cover O’Brien’s entire oeuvre and that are thematically linked, especially in regard to “the stories of fractured love that O’Brien carries with him in his own life and into his writings” (p. xii).

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

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

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

    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.

  • Tegmark, Mats. In the Shoes of a Soldier: Communication in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam Narratives. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University, 1998.

    The only book-length study of narrative communication in If I Die in a Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato, and The Things They Carried. Applies the theories of Wolfgang Iser and Mikhail Bakhtin. Reader-response oriented.

  • 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.

    DOI: 10.1353/book6921

    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.

  • Young, John K. How to Revise a True War Story: Tim O’Brien’s Process of Textual Production. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt20q23sj

    A groundbreaking study of O’Brien’s meticulous editorial process, which traces the many changes that O’Brien has made between the various editions of his works. Contends “that the only true readings of O’Brien’s traumatized texts are those that recognize the depths to which material form fits narrative function” (p. 4). Draws in part from the O’Brien papers and manuscripts housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. See also O’Brien’s Editorial Process.

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