Search >> O'Brien, Fitz-James (1828-1862)
Short Story Writer, Poet, Journalist, Essayist, Playwright, Theater Critic.
Born in County Cork and raised primarily in Limerick, Ireland, Fitz-James O'Brien survived the Great Irish potato famine before emigrating to England in 1849, and eventually to New York City in 1852. Descending from an Anglo-Irish landholding family—his father was an attorney—O'Brien received his inheritance (estimated at £8000) at about the age of 21. Between 1849 and 1851, O'Brien edited a failed literary journal and squandered his inheritance, dining at the finest restaurants in London and living beyond his means during a time when few in Ireland could afford basic necessities. Leaving England almost penniless, O'Brien immigrated to America and made the U.S. his own, becoming "so much an American," claimed The New York Leader, "that his foreign birth and education would never be recognized in his writings" (qtd. in Wolle 60). As O'Brien adopted American nationality, he seems to have discarded many markers of Irish identity as he had to handle assaults on his personal character. Some of his detractors even claimed that O'Brien was ashamed of his Irishness.
During his career, O'Brien contributed pieces to major American magazines, notably Harper's New Monthly Magazine and Harper's Weekly. O'Brien also wrote a regular column in Henry Clapp's Saturday Press, "Dramatic Feuilleton," which encouraged patronage of the budding American drama scene and reprimanded U.S. dramatists when they fell short of the standard set by their European counterparts. (Ned Wilkins later took over the writing of this column.) O'Brien was "a generous, gifted, rollicking Irishman, was one of the cardinals in the high church of Bohemia, until the breaking out of the War . . . [He] had a warm heart, a fine mind and a liberal hand; but he was impulsive to excess and too careless of his future for his own good" (J. Browne 154). According to Albert Parry, "O'Brien's physical appearance helped him materially with the American editors. He was of middle stature but of athletic build and boyish sprightliness. His skin was fair and smooth except for certain scars of pugilistic origin, and these in a poet looked romantic enough. His eyes were a fine blue, his hair was wavy and brown, and his heavy mustache almost concealed his small chin. His voice was melodious yet convincing, but William North, the first enemy he made in America, called him a braggart, a borrower, and a bully" (52).
The friction between O'Brien and North developed into a full-blown scandal when the Irishman was accused of stealing his story, "The Diamond Lens," from a manuscript written by the recently deceased North. William Winter contends that "the fact being that it ['The Diamond Lens'] was prompted by a remark made to him [O'Brien] by Dr. A.L Carroll (he, who, for a short time in 1865, published a comic paper called 'Mrs. Grundy'), relative to the marvelous things contained in a drop of water" (Old Friends 67-68). Winter claims that O'Brien's stories were original compositions, several of which he witnessed being written while he was shown others almost immediately after they were completed.
O'Brien also earned a reputation for borrowing money to give parties at Delmonico's and suppers at Pfaff's and then not inviting the source of his money to the affair. In addition, "[h]e fought friends and strangers with his tongue, pen, and fists. He had reckless but obscure love affairs. He played the gentleman by returning loans whenever magazines paid him for his news-topic poems, by pressing money, when he had it, into the palms of needy friends even if they did not ask for it, by concealing the names of his amours, and by shaking hands with his adversaries when the bouts were over. He became a great friend of all with whom he fought; it was almost a matter of principle with him. It was said that O'Brien never cared for anyone with whom he did not quarrel" (A. Parry 52).
During his days at Pfaff's O'Brien was the "chief fighter" in the frequent "fistic combats over literary issues" with his broken nose as his "hallmark and Fist-Gammon O'Bouncer his nickname" (A. Parry 50-51). O'Brien fought over everything from literature to the right of the way on the sidewalk, often ending up in the Jefferson Market jail: "Thus, as early as the 'Fifties, Greenwich Village received its first escapader, even if during his sojourn he had to stay under lock and key" (51).
The interest in theater that O'Brien shared with Pfaffians like John Brougham, Ada Clare, and William Winter led him to write plays such as A Gentleman from Ireland and The Sisters, both of which enjoyed successful runs in New York in 1854. Brougham even starred in A Gentleman from Ireland in its initial production at Wallack's Theatre in December 1854. Upon meeting O'Brien, William Winter stated that "the fiery Irishman 'astonished some of the quiet literary circles of that staid and decorous region by his utter and unaffected irreverence for various camphorated figure-heads which were then an incubus upon American letters'" (qtd. in T. Miller 73). Like the rest of the crowd who frequented Pfaff's, O'Brien was also a devotee of Edgar Allan Poe, even coming to be known as "a Celtic Poe."
Though remembered now as a poet and short story writer, O'Brien's supernatural and science fiction tales were among the finest produced in the nineteenth century. Although Irish themes are not manifested directly in O'Brien's stories, Gothic fiction offered an outlet for an Irish past that need not be recovered but that remained present through Irish-American collective memory. If O'Brien himself never suffered the visceral hardships of the Irish potato famine, his imagery of the famine, as best exemplified through the creature of his short story "What Was It?-A Mystery," allowed his readers to encounter such disturbing realities through the distance, safety, and comfort of fiction. O'Brien also published poetry representing the lives of laborers and other urban dwellers, many of whom emigrated from Ireland after the Great Famine. O'Brien deserves recognition for his attempts to imagine the famine within his fiction, and such an imagination deserves an esteemed place within the canon of Irish-American writers.
Written during the period in which he frequented Pfaff's, O'Brien's "The Bohemian" was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in July 1855. The tale satirizes artistic bohemian Philip Brann whose greed ultimately destroys friend Henry Cranstoun's fiancé Annie Deane, and leads him to reconsider the character of true wealth. O'Brien also displays his satirical talents in a series of seven articles on "counter jumpers" in which he mocks male shop-clerks. Two parodies of Walt Whitman appear in this group in the spring of 1860 including "Counter-Jumps. A Poemettina.-- After Walt Whitman" which playfully imitates the structure and voice of Whitman's "Song of Myself." It jibes, "I am the essence of retail. The sum and result of small profits/ and quick returns," finishing with "I sound my feeble yelp over the woofs of the World" (qtd. in A. Parry 183).
When the Civil War began, O'Brien enlisted in the Union Army, producing patriotic verse and participating in recruitment. Albert Parry speculates that it was not the subject of the conflict that attracted O'Brien, but his nature as a fighter (50). In February 1862 he was cited for bravery in an engagement in West Virginia, but a few days later he was shot by a Confederate soldier while on a scouting mission. Though he was able to kill his attacker and ride twenty-four miles back to the Union encampment, he died two months later from tetanus brought on by improper medical care of his wound.
Excerpts from a poem by A.E. Watrous eulogizing him say much about O'Brien's place in American letters: "This was our poet—one who strode / These streets in ante bellum ages, / … A Dublin gownsman, London rake, / … 'Twas here he sowed each splendid crop / Of fecund wind—here did he reap / Fine whirlwinds. … / … He swayed the scepter, felt the lash, / Wrought starving nights—by sated days."
References & Biographical Resources
- Quelqu'un [Winter, William]. "Dramatic Feuilleton." New-York Saturday Press. 30 Jun. 1860: 3. [more about this work]
- Quelqu'un reports that O'Brien's Tycoon, or Young America in Japan will be performed at Laura Keene's. Quelqu'un praises O'Brien's writing and encourages the General to see O'Brien's Burlesque (3). [pages: 3]
- Quelqu'un [Winter, William]. "Dramatic Feuilleton." New-York Saturday Press. 14 Jul. 1860: 3. [more about this work]
- Quelqu'un reports that the Tycoon has had a "brilliant run" at Jefferson's (3). [pages: 3]
- Quelqu'un [Winter, William]. "Dramatic Feuilleton." New-York Saturday Press. 28 Jul. 1860: 3. [more about this work]
- Quelqu'un mentions that O'Brien has written "a spirited poem" about the Chicago Zouaves for Harper's Weekly (3). [pages: 3]
- "'The Diamond Lens'--A Literary Controversy." New York Times. 26 Feb. 1858: 1. [more about this work]
- "A Visit to Walt Whitman." Brooklyn Eagle. 11 Jul. 1886: 10. [more about this work]
- Whitman comments in this interview that "Fitz James O'Brien was very bright" and one of the regulars at Pfaff's. [pages: 10]
- Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. New York: MacMillan, 1955. [more about this work]
- Allen refers to him as one of Pfaff's "literary customers," and "a clever short-story writer" (229). According to Allen, in terms of debate at Pfaff's, "He was no match for the mercurial Fitz-James O'Brien, satirical George Arnold, or perhaps even his sardonic friend Henry Clapp" (270). [pages: 229,270,494]
- Arnold, George. "Journalist and Poet." New York Saturday Press. 7 Oct. 1865: 146-147. [more about this work]
- Arnold, George. "O'Brien's Personal Characteristics." New York Citizen. 30 Sep. 1865. [more about this work]
- Arnold writes a tribute to O'Brien's "Personal Characteristics."
- Baker, Portia. "Walt Whitman and the Atlantic Monthly." American Literature. 1934. 283-301. [more about this work]
- One of the assistant co-editors of The Saturday Press with Aldrich and Winter, 1858-1860. [pages: 290]
- Belasco, Susan. "From the Field: Walt Whitman's Periodical Poetry." American Periodicals. 14.2 (2004): 247-59. [more about this work]
- Bekasco mentions that his poetry was printed in Clapp's columns of "original" poems, which usually appeared on the first page of the Saturday Press (252). [pages: 252]
- Bissell, Champion. "Fitz-James O’Brien and His Time." Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. May 1894. [more about this work]
- Brown, T. Allston. A History of the New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1903. [more about this work]
- Possible author of A Gentleman from Ireland, performed Dec. 11, 1854, with J. Brougham in the cast. [pages: i.484]
- Browne, Junius Henri. The Great Metropolis; A Mirror of New York. Hartford: American Publishing, 1869. 700 p. [more about this work]
- O'Brien gained literary fame with the publication of Diamond Lens in the Atlantic Monthly; according to Browne, this event occured ten years prior to his writing (about 1859) (154).
By Browne's description O'Brien was "a generous, gifted, rollicking Irishman, was one of the cardinals in the high church of Bohemia, until the breaking out of the War" (154). Browne continues, "O'Brien had a warm heart, a fine mind and a liberal hand; but he was impulsive to excess and too careless of his future for his own good" (154).
Of O'Brien's military career, Browne states, "He entered the field and distinguished himself for desperate courage until he was killed in Virginia and forgotten" (154). [pages: 154]
- Clare, Ada. "Thoughts and Things." New York Saturday Press. 21 Jan. 1860: 2. [more about this work]
- Clare discusses O'Brien's "Mother of Pearl" in the February issue of Harper's Magazine. While she likes the story in general, she feels that choice of the drug hasheesh in the crisis of a story has become unoriginal (2). [pages: 2]
- Cornwell, Neil. "Piracy and Higher Realism: The Strange Case of Fitz-James O'Brien and Vladimir Odoevsky." Vladimir Odoevsky and Romantic Poetics: Collected Essays. Providence: Berghahn Books, 1998. 157-167. [more about this work]
- Derby, J.C. Fifty Years among Authors, Books and Publishers. New York: G. W. Carleton and Co., 1884. [more about this work]
- He is listed as one of the "associates" of the Saturday Press. Derby notes that he is deceased at the time of his writing (232).
He is mentioned as one of the "brightest and most popular humorous men of the day," known to rally around the book store of George W. Carleton. Derby notes that "the noonday hour frequently found most of them at Pfaff's celebrated German restuarant, in a Broadway basement, near Bleecker-street, the rendezvous at that day of the so-called Bohemians" (239).
When the Times doubled its size in 1852, O'Brien was among the "brilliant corps of assistant editors" hired by Raymond (354). [pages: 232,239,354]
- Donaldson, Thomas. Walt Whitman the Man. New York; F.P. Harper, 1896. 276 p. [more about this work]
- [pages: 208]
- English, Thomas Dunn. "That Club at Pfaaf's [sic]." The Literary World. 12 Jun. 1886: 202. [more about this work]
- English claims O'Brien, Clapp, and Arnold "used to laughingly class themselves as Bohemians, speak of Pfaff, his beer; but they spoke of no club" (202). English states, "I remember very well saying to one of these gentlemen, with a feeble attempt at pleasantry -- 'As there are so many buyers of beer among your people it is quite proper that you should have a cellar to receive you'" (202). [pages: 202]
- Epstein, Daniel Mark. Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004. 379 p. [more about this work]
- [pages: 55]
- Folsom, Ed and Kenneth M. Price. Re-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. [more about this work]
- Mentioned as a writer Whitman met at Pfaff's. [pages: 61]
- Folsom, Ed and Kenneth M. Price. "Walt Whitman." The Walt Whitman Archive. http://www.whitmanarchive.org, 2006. [more about this work]
- Whitman befriended O'Brien while at Pfaff's.
- Ford, James L. "Good By Bohemia." The New York Tribune. 1 Oct. 1922: Part 2, Page 1. [more about this work]
- O'Brien is mentioned as one of the "men of distinct talent" who patronized Pfaff's beer cellar (1). [pages: 1]
- G. A. [Arnold, George]. "Correspondence: A Letter from Long Shore." New York Saturday Press. 13 Aug. 1859: 2. [more about this work]
- G. J. M. "Bohemianism: The American Authors Who Met in a Cellar." Brooklyn Eagle. 25 May 1884: 9. [more about this work]
- O'Brien is mentioned as one of "the best know writers who frequented that cozy corner [Pfaff's]." [pages: 9]
- "General gossip of authors and writers." Current Literature. 1888: 476-480. [more about this work]
- Mentioned as one of the Bohemians at Pfaff's "gossiped" about by Rufus B. Wilson in a "reminiscent letter to the Galveston News." [pages: 479]
- Greenslet, Ferris. The Life of Thomas Bailey Aldrich. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1908. 303 p. [more about this work]
- He is mentioned as part of "a group of journalists and magazine-writers of great repute in their own day, but as remote as Prester John to ours" with whom Aldrich was familiar during his days in the "Literary Bohemia" in New York (37).
Greenslet states that "Of the group that failed to come through, perhaps the most engaging personality, and the one dearest to Aldrich, was Fitz James O'Brien" (38).
Greenslet states, "Born in Ireland in 1826, O'Brien had, as a young man, run through a bequest of L8000, in two years, and come to New York to make a living with his pen. At first he was connected with a forgotten periodical called the 'Lantern.'" Aldrich first met O'Brien when he was helping to end the run of the "Lantern" (38).
O'Brien achieved success with his story "The Diamond Lens," "written during a visit at 105 Clinton Place, and printed in the first volume of the "Atlantic Monthly." Greenslet claims O'Brien "achieved a tale of mystery and marvel that still ranks among the finest American short stories" (40).
O'Brien enlisted in the Union army and was "mortally wounded in an unimportant cavalry skirmish in February, 1862" (40).
Greenslet claims there are "numerous memorabilia" of the "warm, peppery friendship between Aldrich and O'Brien." Greenslet cites and anecdote that Aldrich used to tell about how O'Brien borrowed $40 dollars from him to buy a suit of clothes and then used it to buy a dinner to which Aldrich was not invited. At one point, due to some misunderstanding, O'Brien challenged Aldrich to a duel, which Aldrich managed to resolve by claiming that it was in violation of the "punctillo of the duello" to challenge someone to a duel when one owed the other money (40).
Greenlset also cites an anecdote that Aldrich told that when Aldrich was staying at 105 Clinton Place, "in the absence of the Frost family," O'Brien suggested they live for a week in the "Venitian manner," in which they would "sleep all day and live all night." The two attempted this lifestyle for a while, "exploring the streets all night and going to bed at seven A.M., but it seems soon to have palled on them" (40-1).
Aldrich missed a message from telling him he had been appointed to General Lander's staff. The appointment went to O'Brien. Henry Clapp is quoted as remarking on the event: "Aldrich was shot in O'Brien's shoulder" (54). [pages: 38,39-41,43,54]
- Hahn, Emily. Romantic Rebels; An Informal History of Bohemianism in America. Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 1967. 318 p. [more about this work]
- Hahn says he was an occasional visitor. [pages: 10,13,20]
- Harte, Francis Bret. "George Arnold [from the Californian Nov. 18]." New York Saturday Press. 23 Dec. 1865: 322-323. [more about this work]
- Hemstreet, Charles. Literary New York: Its Landmarks and Associations. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1903. [more about this work]
- O'Brien served in the Seventh Regiment of New York. Hemstreet describes him as "the erratic and brilliant journalist, whose tale of The Diamond Lens was his best contribution to the literature of that day" (220).
Hemstreet also mentions that O'Brien told a story of how he was sent to see Henry T. Tuckerman "in a big brown building in Tenth Street;" at the time of Hemstreet's writing, the location still exists (221-22). [pages: 220-22]
- Hillyer, William Sidney. "William North: The Romance of This Poet's Life -- His Sad Death and Forgotten Name." New York Times Saturday Review. 18 Mar. 1899: 170. [more about this work]
- Mentions that North satirized O'Brien as "Fitz Gammon O'Bouncer" in Slave of the Lamp.
- Holloway, Emory. Walt Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative. New York & London: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. [more about this work]
- [pages: 157]
- Hoppenstand, Gary. "Fitz-James O'Brien." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 74: American Short-Story Writers Before 1880. Eds. Bobby Ellen Kimbel and William E. Grant. Detroit: Gale, 1988. 273-76. [more about this work]
- Howells, William Dean. "First Impressions of Literary New York." Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Jun. 1895: 62-74. [more about this work]
- Howells claimed that to be published in the Saturday Press was to be in his "company" (63).
Howells begins a discussion of O'Brien's military career by mentioning O'Brien's literary successes with the story of "The Diamond Lens" and a ghost story. Howells mentions that upon his return to New York he found out that O'Brien had enlisted in the war. Howells claims O'Brien "had risen to be an officer in the swift process of the first days of it" (73).
Howells recounts that O'Brien had shot and killed a man at camp, and the outcome or his punishment was uncertain. O'Brien was cleared of wrong-doing on that account. O'Brien would die of lockjaw from a battle injury (73). [pages: 63,73]
- Hyman, Martin D. "'Where the Drinkers & Laughers Meet': Pfaff's: Whitman's Literary Lair." Seaport. 26(1991): 56-61. [more about this work]
- [pages: 58]
- "In and about the City: Death of Charles I. Pfaff. Something about the Proprietor of the Once Famous "Bohemia."." New York Times. 26 Apr. 1890: 2. [more about this work]
- The obituary identifies him as one of the "Knights of the Round Table" of the "lions of Bohemia." [pages: 2]
- Lalor, Eugene T. The Literary Bohemians of New York City in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Ph.D. Dissertation, St. John's University, 1977. 364 p. [more about this work]
- [pages: 5,11,16,19,24,29,30,38]
- Lalor, Eugene. "Whitman among the New York Literary Bohemians: 1859–1862." Walt Whitman Review. 25(1979): 131-145. [more about this work]
- Lalor desribes him as one of the "brightest lights" of the New York Boehmians (131). [pages: 131]
- "Last Words on the Diamond Lens Controversy." New York Times. 19 Mar. 1858: 2. [more about this work]
- Lathrop, George Parsons. "The Literary Movement in New York." Harper's New Monthly Magazine. 1886. 813-833. [more about this work]
- Mentioned as a member of the "'Pfaff group,' which assisted in the publication of the Saturday Press. [pages: 832]
- Lause, Mark A. The Antebellum Crisis and America's First Bohemians. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2009. [more about this work]
- Fitz-James O'Brien was a regular at Pfaff's and one of the first Bohemians (along with Henry Clapp) to frequent the place. O'Brien was born to a well-off family and had come to the United States as an assistant to Hezekiah Linthicum Bateman. O'Brien was described as both "quick-fisted" and "generous" and was considered one of the "'cardinals in the high church of Bohemia.'" Though he mostly thought of himself as a poet, he also wrote macabre short stories that rivaled Poe's. His work on Putnam's Monthly Magazine earned him a solid reputation by 1859 (47-48).
O'Brien and Clapp introduced their friends and fellow writers to Pfaff's, making it grow in popularity among their circle of bohemians (49).
O'Brien served in the army in place of Aldrich. On February 15, 1862, he was ambushed by Confederates. As he rode forward to shoot the "'foremost rebel'" he was wounded in his shoulder. The injury claimed his life on April 6, 1862 (110). Though O'Brien's unionist sentiments have been questioned, it is clear that "O'Brien and the circle at Pfaff's left an ample record of a deep dedication to the cause for which he gave his life" (125-126).
[pages: 51, 60, 113, 124, 47-48, 49-50, 106, 110, 115, 116, 125-126, 52, 76]
- Leland, Charles Godfrey. Memoirs. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1893. [more about this work]
- [pages: 92, 234]
- Levin, Joanna Dale. American Bohemias, 1858-1912: A Literary and Cultural Geography. Ph.D Dissertation; Stanford University, 2001. 394 p. [more about this work]
- Levin describes O'Brien as an Irish imigrant author of "Poe-like" stories." [O'Brien] "probably best embodied Bohemian eccentricity" (21). Levin also claims that O'Brien "was the Bohemian most likely to inspire comparisons to both the working-class loafer and tne aristocratic dandy" because he "performed different class identities" (41). According to Levin, "O'Brien - who reportedly liked 'to appear not to work at all' and who would 'saunter downtown as if time killing were his only object in life' - critiqued the Bohemian persona more scathingly than any Sunday paper" through his story "The Bohemian" (44). [pages: 21,41,44,86,87,90,109]
- Levin, Joanna. Bohemia in America, 1858-1920. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010. [more about this work]
- Levin notes that Fitz-James O'Brien was the Bohemian "most likely to inspire comparisons to both the working-class loafer and the aristocratic dandy" (33). He alternately performed two different class identities as an Irishman with expensive tastes, and as a "starving" author picketing Harper's magazine. He was "an individual embodiment of that constant threat to bourgeois life: the boom-and-bust economy" (33). [pages: 20, 33, 35-36, 67]
- "Lieut. Fitz-James O'Brien, US Volunteers." Harper's Weekly. 26 Apr. 1862: 267. [more about this work]
- Praises O'Brien, stating that "[t]he well-born, well-bred, and accomplished young Irishman was welcomed to the best literary and social circles. Permanent and recognized positions in the press were always at his command, and were at different times held on the Times, Putnam's Magazine, Harper's Weekly, and subsequently, and for a still longer period, upon that brilliant but erratic paper, the Saturday Press."
- "Literary Intelligence: Literary Conflict - Rejoinder." American Publishers' Circular and Literary Gazette. 13 Mar. 1858: 121-122. [more about this work]
- Maverick continues to assert that O'Brien borrowed from William North.
- "Literary Intelligence: Literary Conflict." American Publishers' Circular and Literary Gazette. 6 Mar. 1858: 111-112. [more about this work]
- "Literary Intelligence." Saturday Press. 20 Nov. 1858: 2-3. [more about this work]
- A note on Harper's New Monthly Magazine mentions that Fitz James O'Brien will have two poems in the December edition, "Love at the Lattice" and "Prize Fight" (2). [pages: 2]
- "Literary Items." Saturday Press. 23 Oct. 1858: 3. [more about this work]
- A note on Harper's Magazine lists Fitz James O'Brien among the "principal contributors." A note on the Atlantic lists Fitz James O'Brien among the contributors (3). [pages: 3]
- "Literary Matters." New-York Saturday Press. 3 Mar. 1866: 4. [more about this work]
- [pages: 4]
- "Literary News." The Literary World. 1 May 1873: 189-192. [more about this work]
- A member of Clapp's "cabinet" in the "Kingdom of Bohemia" and at the Saturday Press. The article mentions that "O'Brien fell in battle." [pages: 192]
- "Literary Notes." New York Saturday Press. 24 Sep. 1859: 2. [more about this work]
- Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Berkley Calif. : University of California Press, 1999. 568 p. [more about this work]
- Described as a brawler. Died during the Civil War from lockjaw caused by a hastily bandaged headwound. [pages: 236]
- Lukens, Henry Clay. "American Literary Comedians." Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Apr. 1890: 783-797. [more about this work]
- [pages: 794]
- Maurice, Arthur Bartlett. "Literary Clubland II: New York's Literary Clubs." The Bookman: A Review of Books and Life. Jun. 1905: 392-406. [more about this work]
- He is described as one of the "others who rallied" at Pfaff's. [pages: 396]
- Maverick, Augustus. Henry J. Raymond and the New York Press, for Thirty Years: Progress of American Journalism from 1840 to 1870. Hartford, CT: A.S. Hale, 1870. [more about this work]
- [pages: 143-144]
- McCann, John Ernest. "Not by William North." New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art. 9 Aug. 1902: 12. [more about this work]
- Miller, Tice L. Bohemians and Critics: American Theatre Criticism in the Nineteenth Century. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1981. [more about this work]
- A regular at Pfaff's (16). O'Brien was the first theater critic for the Saturday Press (26).
O'Brien, along with John Brougham, Edward G. P. Wilkins, and Mark Smith formed "The Bees" in 1856 (44). O'Brien was also a member of the Theta Delta Chi Fraternity (44).
O'Brien is included in Frank Bellew's 1856 Picayune cartoon "depicting playwrights registering their dramatic works before the first copyright law went into effect (52).
William Winter recalls O'Brien's unique effect upon people (73). [pages: 16, 26, 37, 38, 44, 52, 73, 80]
- "Miss Prescott's New Story [for the New York Saturday Press]." New-York Saturday Press. 24 Mar. 1860: 1. [more about this work]
- Morris, Roy Jr. The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. [more about this work]
- [pages: 21, 24, 167]
- Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines, Volume II: 1850-1865. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938. [more about this work]
- A staff member of The Saturday Press; O'Brien's job was to write about the theater. O'Brien was with the paper for less than three months. [pages: 39]
- North, William. The Man of the World. A Novel. Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson & Brothers, 1866. [more about this work]
- North satirizes O'Brien with the character "Fitzgammon O'Bouncer."
- North, William. The Slave of the Lamp, A Posthumous Novel. New York: H. Long, 1855. [more about this work]
- North satirizes O'Brien with the character "Fitzgammon O'Bouncer."
- O'Brien, Fitz-James. "Dramatic Feuilleton." New York Saturday Press. 25 Dec. 1858: 3. [more about this work]
- O'Brien writes that he, Brougham, Goodrich are currently working on a three act play titled "The Dark Hour Before Dawn" to be performed by amateurs for a Dramatic Fund Association benefit in the chief cities of the Union (3). [pages: 3]
- O'Brien, Fitz-James. "Dramatic Feuilleton." Saturday Press. 30 Oct. 1858: 2-3. [more about this work]
- O'Brien reveals himself as "Dodo," who wrote the first "Dramatic Feuilleton" (3). [pages: 3]
- O'Brien, Fitz-James. The Poems and Stories of Fitz-James O'Brien. Collected and Edited, with a Sketch of the Author, by William Winter. Ed. William Winter. Boston: J.R. Osgood and Co., 1881. 485 p. [more about this work]
- Winter includes tributes to the life and professional accomplishments of O'Brien.
- "Obituary: Henry Clapp." The New-York Times. 11 Apr. 1875: 7. [more about this work]
- O'Brien is mentioned as one of Clapp's assistants at the Saturday Press. He is described as "the gifted poet, for the time, of Harper's Magazine, full of the enthusiasm of his Irish nature, and as brave and reckless as his people ususally are." He is described during his Pfaff's days as being "not much of a talker, but and excellent writer."
The "Obituary" also notes O'Brien's death in the "War of the Rebellion," claiming that he "served nobly" and "died without an enemy." [pages: 7]
- Odell, George Clinton. Annals of the New York Stage: Volume VI (1850-1857). New York: Columbia University Press, 1931. [more about this work]
- His My Christmas Dinner written "expresly for this theater" opened at Wallack's 12/25/1852. A Gentlman from Ireland played at Wallacks in Dec. 1854. O'Brien also adapted The Sisters from the French for Wallacks for Dec. 27,1854. This play ran until Jan. 13, 1855. [pages: 218,361-362]
- Odell, George Clinton. Annals of the New York Stage: Volume VII (1857-1865). New York: Columbia University Press, 1931. [more about this work]
- In 1890, Gayler attributes the authorship of Rosedale to O'Brien; Winter disputes this claim. [pages: 542]
- "Old 'Barry Gray' Dead." The New York World. 12 Jun. 1886: 5. [more about this work]
- O'Brien is described as "light-hearted" and is included in the list of the "happy, careless children of Bohemia" who attended the "carnivals in Pfaff's cellar" (5). [pages: 5]
- "One Thing and Another." New-York Saturday Press. 12 Mar. 1859: 2. [more about this work]
- [pages: 2]
- Paine, Albert Bigelow. Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures. New York: Macmillan, 1904. [more about this work]
- O'Brien is mentioned as a frequenter of Pfaff's who, along with others, found Nast "amusing" and "took him to theatres and other cozy resorts and 'showed him the town'" (22). [pages: 22]
- Parry, Albert. Garrets and Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America. New York: Covici, Friede, 1933. [more about this work]
- Parry writes of the literary movements in New York before the era of Greenwich Village: "Henry Clapp, Fitz-James O'Brien, Ada Clare, and their group were the first organizers writers to insist on transferring contemporary life and literature from the prison of salons to the freer air of saloons. They upheld the memory of Poe, they helped enthrone Whitman, and they prepared the path for much of the unorthodox that was to follow in American letters" (xiii).
Parry also writes that in the Pfaffians' attempts to "emulate Poe's distrust of mankind and his despair of the world," O'Brien "tried to borrow the mystery and horrors of Poe's imagination for his own stories" (9).
Parry mentions that O'Brien died of lock-jaw as a result of a battle-wound suffered during the Civil War and was one of several Pfaffians who died or did not return to the saloon after the Civil War (32).
In Clapp's recollections of the pre-war Pfaff's, he remembered that "O'Brien glowed with fun and poetry" (46).
Parry mentions O'Brien's reputation as the "chief fighter" at Pfaff's (50-51).
Parry writes that O'Brien's brawls and "stormy career" are reason enough to devote attention to him (51).
O'Brien's American experience lasted only a decade - he arrived in the United States in 1852, was one of the first Pfaffians to enlist in the Civil War, and his body was returned to New York in early 1862 (51).
Parry quotes O'Brien's anonymously-written obituary from Harper's Weekly, April 26, 1862: "Though of foreign birth and education, he so moulded his genius to the land in which the best years of his life were passed, that he was more thoroughly American than most writers of native birth and training" (51-52).
Parry explains O'Brien's Americanization by his Irishness, mentioning that he had contributed to Leisure Hour and Dickens' Household Words and was briefly a "worshipper" of Dickens, but soon "came under the spell of Poe, imitating his weird style and themes" which Parry feels at least partially influenced O'Brien to make plans for America (52).
According to Parry, when he decided to become "respectable" during the backlash against Bohemians "Stoddard tried to wean such valued friends as O'Brien, Stedman, and Taylor from the dissolute circle. O'Brien resisted successfully, and died tragically, but Stedman and Taylor were easily led into respectability" (59).
Parry describes O'Brien's phyisical appearance (52).
Parry notes O'Brien's fame for borrowing money to give parties at Delmonico's and suppers at Pfaff's and then not inviting the source of his money to the affair (52).
O'Brien appears to have been frequently without money or a place to stay, and often turned to freinds when he was thrown out of bars and his lodgings. According to Parry, the topics of his poetry included finishing schools, tenement houses, the death of Elisha Kane, "and many other contemporary topcsi, often with his tongue in his cheek." Parry also mentions that while he loved boxing, O'Brien's "The Prize Fight" was a protest against the nature of the sport, written for an editor that commissioned a poem that would move his "genteel lady-readers" and paid O'Brien well. According to Parry "O'Brien was having much fun while doing things against his own credo" including selling his story "The Diamond Lens" and others to the Atlantic Monthly despite his disparagement of the journal at Pfaff's (52-53).
When the Civil War broke out he first enlisted in the New York Seventh Regiment, which was sent to defend Washington. However, it turned out that the regiment was full of "dandies" from Delmonico's who were not interested in fighting and the whole regiment was sent back to New York. In New York, O'Brien attempted to raise his own regiment, known as the "McClellan Rifles" with aspirations of becoming a colonel. O'Brien became involved in recruiting, leading to the publication of a "friendly cartoon" by Edward T. Mullen in Vanity Fair. During this time, O'Brien shot a Union soldier in his camp during an argument, and would have most likely been shot by the members of his own squad had the North not been desparate for officers. Due in large part to his victim's recovery O'Brien was aquitted. Before his soldiers could get revenge, O'Brien was shot in a hand-to-hand skirmish on February 6, 1862. According to Parry, he rode for hours with a hastily bandaged wound and spent several weeks in agony on his cot before succumbing to lockjaw on April 6, 1862, in Cumberland Maryland (53-54). Of O'Brien's death, Parry writes that "At least one garereteer in a group must die as a soldier of fortune, away from friends and loves. This tradition was inaugurated in America by Fitz-James O'Brien" (50).
Parry also mentions that before his death, O'Brien had spoken of writing the "Great American Novel" and had begun writing notes (33). O'Brien used an acecdote Clapp told at Pfaff's about Albert Brisbane's glass eye in his story "The Wondersmith" (45). Parry also mentions that O'Brien was the subject of the "first and most notable" of many charges of plagiarism made against the Pfaffians. It was alleged that O'Brien had taken the "Diamond Lens" from North's papers when he committed suicide. The idea O'Brien's story is identical to North's unpublished "Microcosmus" which was known about by a few of his friends but was never found in manuscript form among his belongings or in any newspaper or magazine office (55-56).
Of O'Brien's other writing, Parry writes that "In his short story, 'The Bohemian,' O'Brien gave some detailed and fantastic accounts of love as it was practised in the garrets of New York. Philip Brann, the daring Bohemian, hypnotized the lady-love of a friend. Then the two took her to Coney Island to search for hidden treasure. The treasure was unearthed, but poor Annie died in the arms of her lover" (56).
Parry notes that one of the New Bohemian's most glaring mistakes when referring to the Pfaffian's was to mis-name O'Brien "Fitz-John" (186). [pages: xiii,9,32,33,43,45,46,50-54,51(ill.),54(ill.),55-56,59,61,64,77-78,183,186]
- Pattee, Fred Louis. The Feminine Fifties. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Incorporated, 1940. [more about this work]
- [pages: 291 and passim, 300]
- Picton, Thomas. "The Diamond Lens Controversy." New York Times. 27 Feb. 1858: 4. [more about this work]
- Thomas Picton compares O'Brien to William North stating, "[a]ny person acquainted with the two parties cannot fail to draw a disparaging distinction between the scholastic attainments of the late Mr. North and the Hibernian pretensions of the ever-present and somewhat pertinacious Mr. Fitz-James O'Brien, whose sole merit in Saxon literature must be derived from his apochryphal descent from the Kings of old Erin."
- Rawson, A. L. "A Bygone Bohemia." Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly. 1896. 96-107. [more about this work]
- [pages: 103, 105]
- Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995. 671 p. [more about this work]
- Reynolds mentions that he wrote horror stories in the style of Poe (377). [pages: 377]
- Rogers, Cameron. The Magnificent Idler, the story of Walt Whitman. New York: Garden City, Doubleday, Page and Co., 1926. 312 p. [more about this work]
- Identified as a regular at Pfaff's and as the author of "The Diamond Lens," "The Lost Room," "The Wonder Smith," and "A Gentleman from Ireland" (a play written for Mr. Wallack). O'Brien's decision to enlist in the Union Army is recounted, as is his death in 1862 (208). [pages: 198-99,204,208-09,296]
- Scovel, James M. "Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln." Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Aug. 1889: 244-251. [more about this work]
- Quotes a few lines from O'Brien's ode Kane, attributed them to William North. [pages: 245]
- Seitz, Don Carlos. Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne): A Biography and Bibliography. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1919. [more about this work]
- [pages: 76, 97-99]
- Sentilles, Renee M. Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2003. [more about this work]
- A regular in the bohemian circle at Pfaff's. O'Brien died of tetanus during the Civil War. [pages: 142]
- Stansell, Christine. "Whitman at Pfaff's: Commercial Culture, Literary Life and New York Bohemia at Mid-Century." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. 10.3 (1993): 107-126. [more about this work]
- He is listed as one of the Pfaffian writers that "have fallen into obscurity." Stansell wonders how much influence these writers weilded on Whitman's literary career (108).
Stansell writes that for Poe and O'Brien a decade later, journalism "shaeded into a profession for the broken and disappointed of the gentlemanly classes" (114). She also describes him as "dashing" and writes that O'Brien was, "a once wealthy Irishman and Pfaffian in the late '50s who had arrived in New York with impressive letters of introduction to New York's most powerful editors, 'a large and valuable library,' 'dressing cases; pictures' a ward-robe of much splendor; and all sorts of knick knackery, such as young bachelors love to collect'" (114).
As one of the "Pfaffian regulars" who did "serious writing along with journalism", O'Brien wrote short stories (114). Stansell writes that at Pfaff's "There was verbal play with literary material: O'Brien took the idea for a sensationalist Poe-esque story about a glass eye from a story Clapp told one night" (117). Stansell writes that "O'Brien...would dash into Pfaff's to sponge off freinds when he was dead broke, then dash out again with an idea for a story of knock off" (118). [pages: 108,114,117,118]
- Starr, Louis Morris. Bohemian Brigade; Civil War Newsmen in Action. New York: Knopf, 1954. 367 p. [more about this work]
- Despite Starr's doubts that the Bohemians "resurrected" Poe for his artistic ability and more for his lifestyle, Starr does note that "Fitz-James O'Brien at his macabre best emulated Poe superbly" (5).
In a discussion of the idea that "To be a Bohemian affored license for all manner of youthful exuberances," Starr mentions that Aldrich (according to Starr,of the Tribune) and O'Brien ("known, for cause, at Pfaff's as 'Fists Gammon O'Bouncer'") "experimented at 'sleeping all day and living all night'"(7). Starr continues on about O'Brien's "youthful exuberances," calling him "improvident to a fault" and citing an incident where O'Brien picketed the office of Harper's (the bindery/publisher) with a sign reading "I AM STARVING" after being refused a loan. The publishers eventually gave in (7).
Starr writes that in the days prior to the Civil War, like many others in New York, the "Pfaffians were exposed increasingly to the clamour of a world beyond their ken. Something like a revolution was afoot in the realm of journalism, a revolution that would lift these light-hearted pranksters from their subterranean retreat ad whirl them in its vortex. Soon O'Brien, Aldrich, Thomson, Williams, and Stedman, together with others in Clapp's happy coterie--Charles G. Halpine (who stammered to fame at Pfaff's, speaking inadvertantly of 'H-H-Harriet Beseecher Bestowe'), William Conant Church, William Swinton, E.H. House, Charles Henry Webb, a couple of artists, Frank H. Bellew and Thomas Nast: in all more than half of the identifiable clientele at the Cave--would take the field along with hundreds of other youths of like mind to participate in the greatest undertaking in the history of journalism" (9).
Starr writes of the movements of the seventy-five thousand volunteers called for by Lincoln in the major Northern cities: "New York's beloved Seventh marched off amid pandemoneum on Broadway, Fitz-James O'Brien recording every step for the Tribune" (32). [pages: 5,7,9,32]
- Stoddard, R. H. "The Best of the Bohemians." The Critic. 26 Feb. 1881: 44-45. [more about this work]
- Stoddard calls O'Brien "the best of the Bohemians" and recalls that O'Brien would usually win poetry contest between Stoddard, O'Brien, and Bayard Taylor. However, Stoddard also states that "haste is evident in all that he wrote" and that O'Brien saw no reason to "labor at a story, or a poem, when he could sell it as it was."
- Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of Leaves of Grass. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974. [more about this work]
- Stovall notes that O'Brien called on Whitman. [pages: 6]
- Stylus. "Our New York Letter." The Literary World: A Monthly Review of Current Literature. 20 Feb. 1886: 64-65. [more about this work]
- Mentioned in reference to the Bohemian Club, which may be a post-Pfaff's group of journalists, even though they are described here as frequenting "Pfaaf's" [sic]. See Thomas Dunn English's "That Club at Pfaaf's [sic]." [pages: 64]
- "The Diamond Lens Controversy." New York Times. 5 Mar. 1858: 2. [more about this work]
- "Theta Delta Chi." New York Saturday Press. 11 Jun. 1859: 2. [more about this work]
- "Three New York Poets." Scribner's Monthly. Jul. 1881: 469-472. [more about this work]
- While the reviewer asserts that O'Brien was "one of the cleverest of all the Bohemians," he also draws attention to the uneven quality of O'Brien's work, reflecting that "[t]he startling cleverness of his work at its best, taken in connection with its commonplace feebleness at its worst, at first bewilders the reader, and then invites him to critical analysis" (471). The reviewer then suggests that O'Brien's best work was influenced by the works of others, stating that, "[i]t is not that O’Brien was in any way a plagiarist. He was not. But he had a strange power of absorption,–or rather of assimilation, to express an elusive idea in a slovenly manner. He saw what some earlier author had done; saw it was good; and at once set about doing better in the same line" (471). [pages: 469,471-472]
- Watson, J. W. "Notes and Comments: How Artemus Ward Became a Great Lecturer." North American Review. Apr. 1889: 521-522. [more about this work]
- Watson lists Fitz-James O'Brien as a contributor to Vanity Fair (521). [pages: 521]
- Whitman, Walt. Complete Writings of Walt Whitman. Eds. Richard Maurice Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel. New York: Putnam, 1902. [more about this work]
- Whitman records in his journal on August 16 that he met with Charles Pfaff for an excellent breakfast at his restaurant on 24th Street. “Our host himself, an old friend of mine, quickly appear’d on the scene to welcome me and bring up the news, and, first opening a big fat bottle of the best wine in the cellar, talk about ante-bellum times, ’59 and ’60, and the jovial suppers at his then Broadway place, near Bleecker street. Ah, the friends and names and frequenters, those times, that place. Most are dead—Ada Clare, Wilkins, Daisy Sheppard, O’Brien, Henry Clapp, Stnaley, Mullin, Wood, Brougham, Arnold—all gone. And there Pfaff and I, sitting opposite each other at the little table, gave rememberance to them in a style they would have themselves fully confirm’d, namely, big, brimming, fill’d-up champagne-glasses, drain’d in abstracted silence, very leisurely, to the last drop.” [pages: 5:21]
- Wilson, James Grant and John Fiske, eds. Appletons' Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume IV, Lodge-Pickens. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1888. [more about this work]
- [pages: 549-550, 550(ill.)]
- Wilson, Rufus Rockwell and Otilie Erickson Wilson. New York in Literature; The Story Told in the Landmarks of Town and Country. Elmira, NY: Primavera Press, 1947. 372 p. [more about this work]
- [pages: 63]
- Wilson, Rufus Rockwell. New York: Old & New; Its Story, Streets, and Landmarks. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1903. [more about this work]
- [pages: 140-42]
- Winter, William. Old Friends; Being Literary Recollections of Other Days. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1909. 407 p. [more about this work]
- O'Brien was born in about 1828, and was a "native" of Limerick. He graduated from Dublin Univeristy and moved to London to edit a paper, which failed. When O'Brien arrived in New York in 1852, he brought with him a letter of introduction from Dr. Mackenzie which he presented to prominent editors such as Major Noah and General Morris. In 1852, Dr. Mackenzie was living in Liverpool, but he was "later eminent in the journalism of Philadelphia" (75-76). Winter states: "O'Brien's career was brief, stormy, laborious, sometimes gay, sometimes miserable, and its close, though honorable, was sad" (75).
"Upon his arrival in America O'Brien entered with vigor upon the duties of the literary vocation." In this early period, O'Brien wrote for "The Home Journal," "The Evening Post," "The New York Times," "The Whig Review," "Harper's Magazine," and other publications. O'Brien also wrote short stage plays and was friends with both Lester Wallack and his father. Aldrich recalled that when he first met O'Brien, "he was trimming the wick of 'The Lantern,' the paper started by Brougham. Winter claims: "The best of O'Brien's works were first published in 'Putnam's Magazine,' 'Harper's' and 'The Atlantic.' The last article that came from his pen was printed in 'Vanity Fair,' a comic paper that struggled through much vicissitude, during the war time, and, though its payments were small, was of vital service to our Bohemian circle" (76).
When Clapp began the "Saturday Press," O'Brien was hired to write about the Stage. However, Winter remarks that "O'Brien was a man to whom the curb of regular employment was intolerable," and he was only associated with the paper for a few weeks (66-67).
He is listed by Winter as one of the Bohemians who frequented Pfaff's Cave (88). Winter states, "Among those Bohemian comrades of mine,--all dead and gone now and mostly forgotten,--O'Brien was at once the most potential genius and the most original character. As I think of him I recall Byron's expressive figure, 'a wild bird and a wanderer'" (67).
In the early days of "The Atlantic Monthly," O'Brien published "The Diamond Lens" and "The Wondersmith"; Winter guesses that contemporary audiences are unlikely to have heard of either work. However, Winter notes that "These stories were hailed as the most ingenious fabrics of fiction that had been contributed to our literature since the day when Edgar Poe surprised and charmed the reading community with his imaginative, enthralling tale of 'The Fall of the House of Usher.' They revived, indeed, the fashion of the weird short story, and they provided a model for subsequent compositions of that order" (67).
Winter notes "that brillaint Irishman" O'Brien, "as a passing guest," in Aldrich's rooms at the Frost house, wrote the story "What Was It?" (139).
Winter recalls that after O'Brien's "The Diamond Lens" was published, "a groundless, foolish fable was set afloat" that alleged that O'Brien had taken the story from one of North's manuscripts. Winter states that "the fact being that it ['The Diamond Lens'] was prompted by a remark made to him [O'Brien] by Dr. A.L Carroll (he who, for a short time in 1865, published a comic paper called 'Mrs. Grundy'), relative to the marvellous things contained in a drop of water" (67-68). Winter claims that O'Brien's stories were original compositions, several of which he wistnessed being written while he was shown others almost immediately after they were completed. Winter claims that O'Brien's "fine poem" of "The Falling Star" was written at his "lodging," and that he still has the first draft of the work, which "Fitz" left on his table, along with the pen he was using. Winter claims that Fitz-James O'Brien's story, "The Wondersmith" was inspired by an anecdote that Clapp told in O'Brien and Winter's presence. Clapp's story follows: "'Once, while I was working for Albert Brisbane' (so, in substance, said the Prince of Bohemia), 'I had to read to him, one evening, many pages of a translation I had made, for his use, of Fourier's book on the Social Destiny of Man. He was closely attentive and seemed to be deeply interested; but, after a time, I heard a slight snore, and looking at him, in profile, I saw that he was sound asleep--and yet the eye that I could see was wide open. The and thus I ascertained, somewhat to my surprise, that he had a glass eye.'" Winter recalls that after Clapp told the story, there was a discussion "about the use of glass eyes and about the startling effects producible by the wearer of such an optic who should suddenly remove it from his visage, polish it, and replace it." In "The Wondersmith," "O'Brien causes the uncanny keeper of the toys to place his glass eye, as a watcher,--investing that orb with the faculty of sight and the means of communication (69-70).
On the topic of the focus on "intemperance," Winter states: "Poe died in 1849, aged forty, leaving works that fill ten closely packed volumes. No man achieves a result like that whose brain is damaged by stimulants. The same disparagement has been diffused as to Fitz-James O'Brien, that fine poet and romancer, who died at thirty-four,--losing his life in the American Civil War,--whose writings I collected and published. I have known O'Brien to have neither lodging, food nor money,--to be, in fact, destitute of everything except the garments in which he stood. The volume of his works that I collected,--including the remarkable stories of 'The Diamond Lens' and 'The Wondersmith,'--is one of five hundred pages; and there are other writings of his in my possession that would make another volume of an equal size. He was an Irishman and knew and like the favorite tipple of his native land; but it is to his genius that the world owes his writings,--not to his drams" (34-35).
Winter recalls that O'Brien and William North were friends, but had had a falling-out. In "The Slave of the Lamp" (later "The Man of the World"), North "described and satirized" O'Brien in the character "Fitz-Gammon O'Bouncer" (68).
Winter tells the following story about O'Brien: "At twilight on a gloomy autumn day in 1860, when I happened to be sitting alone at the long table under the sidewalk in Pfaff's Cave, O'Brien came into that place and took a seat near to me. His face was pale and careworn and his expression preoccupied and dejected. He was, at first, silent; but presently he inquired whether I intended to go to my lodging, saying that he would like to go there with me, and to write something that he had in mind. I knew O'Brien, and thoroughly understanding his ways, I comprehended at once the dilemma in which he was placed. Our circle of boys had a name for it. He was 'on a rock'; that is to say, he was destitute. I told him that I had something to do, that would keep me absent for an hour, at the end of which time I would return for him. That was a pretext for going to my abode (it was in Varick Street), and causing a room to be prepared for my friend. He remained in that lodging for two nights and a day. In the course of that time he slept only about four hours: I could not induce him to food or drink: he would not eat even a little fruit that I obtained and contrived to leave in his way. On the morning of the second day he appeared at my bedside, having a roll of manuscript in his hand, and, formally, even frigidly, took leave of me. 'Sir,' he said, 'I wish you good morning'; and so saying, he departed. About four o'clock in the afternoon of that day I entered Delmonico's and there I found Fitz,--in glory. He was arrayed in new garments; he had refreshed himself; he was dispensing refreshment to all who would partake of it; his aspect was of wealth and joy. He had, in the meantime, sold to 'Harper's Magazine,' for a large price (at least in those days considered large), the product of his vigil at my lodging, and he was rejoicing in the sensation of affluence. He was a strange being: I remember that he became angry because I would not borrow some money from him, and at last I was obliged to appease him by accepting the loan of a small banknote. The composition he had sold was his fabric of narrative verse called 'The Sewing Bird,' --a singularly ingenious work, blending fancy with satire, which had been suggested to him by the sight of one of those little silver-colored birds, then a recent invention, used by sewing girls, to hold cloth. The drift of it is that much of the remunerative work that should be left for women to do is pre-empted and taken from them by men. It meant more at that time, perhaps, than it does now. It was widely read and much admired. The wish that every remunerative work to which women are equal should be reserved for them is, no doubt, general; but there is a ludicrous side to the subject, as noticed by that great novelist Wilkie Collins, who, in one of his most delightful stories, refers to '...Maternal societies for confining poor women; Magdalen societies for rescuing poor women; Strong-Minded societies for putting poor women into poor men's places and leaving the poor men to shift for themselves.' Still, 'The Sewing Bird' is a clever work, and it had a good effect" (70-73).
Of O'Brien's temper, Winter states that "Like many persons of the Irish race, O'Brien was impetuous in temper and 'sudden and quick in quarrel." Winter recalls that O'Brien and the Scotch novelist Donald McLeod were friends, and that one night the two were forced to share a bed. In this shared space, an argument broke out between the two over Irish or Scottish "racial superiority." "O'Brien was aggressively positive as to the predominant merit of the Irish," and McLeod felt the same way about the Scottish. The two men argued and then fell asleep, challenging each other to settle matters in the morning. According to Winter, "Both were sincere in their ferocious intentions, but neither of them could resist the suddenly comic aspect of their dispute, and so the quarrel ended in a laugh." Winter learned of the story when O'Brien told him of the incident (73-74).
Winter reprints a November 21, 1860, letter from O'Brien to his friend, John E. Owens, as a demonstration of O'Brien's sense of humor p. 74-75.
Winter states that "when the war began O'Brien promptly sought service in the field." O'Brien first enlisted with the New York Seventh Regiment, and was later on the staff of General Lander's forces in the position of a Volunteer Aid. O'Brien was seriously wounded in the shoulder joint of his right arm (it was shattered) on February 6, 1862, in a fight with the cavalry of Confederate Colonel Ashley. He died from that wound on April 6, 1862, at Cumberland, VA. Aldrich and O'Brien, "applied, almost simultaneously," to be the Aid of General Lander, leader of the New York Seventh Regiment, in April, 1862. Aldrich initially won the appointment, but the letter with his assignment to be delivered to Portsmouth never reached him, so the appointment went to O'Brien. Winter includes "One of Henry Clapp's grim witticisms on that subject: 'Aldrich, I see,' he said, 'has been shot in O'Brien's shoulder.'" Winter qualifies this by stating that "The old cynic did not like either of them" (76-77).
Winter remarks: "As to O'Brien, friendship had to charitable towards infirmities of character and errors of conduct. He lacked both moral courage and intellectual restraint. He was wayward, choleric, defiant, sometimes almost savage: but he was generous in disposition and capable of heroism, and his works afford abundant evidence of the imagination that accompanies genius and the grace that authenticates literary art. Among my Bohemian comrades, he was not the most beloved, but he had the right to be the most admired." To further discuss O'Brien's character and skill, Winter quotes several stanzas of O'Brien's poem "The Fallen Star" p. 78 which Winter feels "unconsciously, he [O'Brien] revealed the better part of his own nature, with some part of his own experience, and which pathetically indicate the writer's personality and the influence it diffused (77-78).
Winter states that the most "abrupt" contrast between personalities "was afforded by the restful, indolent, elegant demeanor of Wilkins, and the vital, breezy, exuberant, demeanor of Fitz-James O'Brien,--the most representative Bohemian writer whom it has been my fortune to know" (95). In discussing his temper, Winter notes that O'Brien sometimes became involved (or involved himself) in arguments that led to physical violence. "Persons whom he disliked he would not recognize and, in the expression of opinion, especially as to questions of literary art, he was explicit"; Winter states that this was a prevailing trait among the members of the Bohemian circle. This practice "was a salutory experience for young writers, because it habituated them to the custom not only of speaking the truth, as they understood it, but of hearing the truth, as others understood it, about their own productions." Winter provides an example of this practice: "I greatly like your poem of 'Orgia,' O'Brien said to me, "and I like it all the more because I did not think you could write anything so good" (95-96).
In response to Howells' criticisms of the Bohemians and in a discussion of their writing, Winter states: "Revelry requires money: at the time Mr. Howells met those Bohemians, -- with the 'damp locks' and the 'frenzied eyes,' -- it is probably that the group did not possess enough money among them all to buy a quart bottle of champagne. Furthermore, they were writers of remarkable quality, and they were under the stringent necessity of working continually and very hard: and it seems pertinent to suggest that such a poem, for instance, as George Arnold's 'Old Pedagogue,' or Fitz-James O'Brien's Ode in commemoration of Kane, or Charles Dawson Shanly's 'Walker of the Snow,' is not to be produced from under the stimulation of alcohol. Literature is a matter of brains, not drugs. It would be equally just and sensible for American criticism to cherish American literature, and to cease from carping about the infirmities, whether actual or putative, of persons dead and gone, who can no longer defend themselves" (93).
Winter also refers to Brougham's recollections of O'Brien: "John Brougham, the comedian, expressed to me the opinion that O'Brien never cared much for any person with whom he did not quarrel, and as both of them were Irishmen that opinion, perhaps, is correct" (95).
According to Winter, "The quarrels in which O'Brien participated were more often pugilistic than literary; contests into which he plunged, with Celtic delight in the tempest of combat. He was constitutionally valorous, but, as his valor lacked discretion and he did not hesitate to engage with giants, he was usually defeated." Winter recalls O'Brien reading his poem "The Lost Steamship" at Pfaff's after getting into a fistfight on Broadway over who had the right-of-way on the sidewalk. O'Brien "read that poem to our circle in a magnificent manner, with all the passionate vigor, all the weird feeling, and all the tremor of haunted imagination that its tragical theme requires." Winter continues with remarks about O'Brien's skill in capturing the feeling and horror of the tradegy (96-98).
Of his fights, Winter states that "Poor O'Brien's fights were, no doubt, serious enough to him, but to most of his associates they seemed comic." Winter discusses O'Brien's "Waterloo" on June 14,1858, at the New York Hotel, and the "playful" account of the event he heard from the doctor that treated O'Brien afterwards; O'Brien's nose was smashed and his facial injuries made him unrecognizable (98-99).
Winter argues that O'Brien was not always brawling and reckless, and that the "gypsy-like wildness of temperment" was developed over time and through disappointments. Winter cites Arnold for proof of this fact: "When I first knew O'Brien, in 1856-'57, he had elegant rooms; a large and valuable library; piles of manuscripts; dressing-cases; pictures; a ward-robe of much splendor; and all sorts of knick-knackery, such as young bachelors love to collect." Winter states that others who knew O'Brien when he arrived in 1852, described him as "a man of uncommonly attractive aspect,--making mention of his athletic figure, genial face, fair complexion, pleasing smile, waving brown hair, and winning demeanor." Winter notes that when he met O'Brien, "a change had occured, alike in his person and circumstances." At that time, O'Brien had gone to Boston as an assistant to H.L. Bateman, who was directing the professional tour of Matilda Heron. According to Winter, "it was easy to perceive that he had experienced considerable vicissitude and was a confirmed literary gypsy." O'Brien had apparently aged and his hair had begun to thin at this point, but Winter remarks that "his expressive gray-blue eyes were clear and brilliant; his laughter was bluff and breezy; his voice strong and musical; his manner was gay; and he was a cheerful companion,--making the most of To-day, and caring not at all for To-morrow" (99-100).
Winter reprints an 1880 "serio-comic" letter from Aldrich to Winter that discusses O'Brien. Aldrich writes of a dinner at Delmonico's that O'Brien hosted for Clapp, Arnold, and possibly Winter, that O'Brien had borrowed $35.00 from Aldrich to host. Aldrich was not invited to the event (100-101).
Winter discusses a rumor orginated and published by Briggs/Harry Franco about O'Brien: "O'Brien was not the heir to a title, nor did he pretend to be. The clever, piquant, tart, and rather malicious writer, Charles F. Briggs, once prominent in New York journalism as 'Harry Franco,' originated and published the incorrect statement,--which was accepted by Aldrich and others,--that O'Brien was a relative of Smith O'Brien, at one time conspicuous as an Irish 'agitator,' and was an heir to the title borne by Smith O'Brien's brother, Lord Inchiquin. Fitz-James's father was a lawyer: his mother's maiden name was de Courcy" (102).
Of O'Brien's works, Winter notes that the story "The Scarlet Petticoat" was started in the paper "Leslie's Stars and Stripes" in 1859, and ran for a few months, but was never completed. Several of O'Brien's works have been lost. Winter mentions that in 1881, he had a volume of O'Brien's works published which contained forty-three poems and thirteen stories. For a companion volume, Winter was able to collect "from various sources" thirty pieces of prose, fifteen pieces of verse, several plays, and "many interesting fragments," enough, Winter claims, "to make a book of five hundred pages" (102-103).
Winter also reprints a letter from O'Brien to Aldrich p.103.
O'Brien was a member of Taylor's poetic group, along with Richard Henry Stoddard, Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard, Edmund Clarence Stedman, George Henry Boker, George William Curtis, Christopher P. Cranch, and Fitz Hugh Ludlow. Winter notes that at the time of his writing "not one remains" of this group (177). Winter also notes that for a period, O'Brien was especially close to Taylor and Stoddard, but this did not continue. Winter also notes that when he published O'Brien's collected works in 1881 --Poems and Stories, "the most censorious review of them that appeared was, I remember, written by Stoddard, in "The New York Tribune" (295).
O'Brien was a member of a New York group of artists and writers that existed before the Pfaff's Bohemians that also included Gayler, North, Bellew, Charles G. Rosenberg, Seymour, and Eytinge. Winter was not a member of this group; all of its members are dead at the time of Winter's writing. Winter states, "That society, unlike the Pfaff's coterie, was, after a fortuitous fashion, organized, and it had a name,--the remarkable name of the Ornithorhyncus Club." The club was named after a Duck-Billed Platypus (308). O'Brien wrote one of the group's songs, which "was sung to an air from the ever popular 'Fra Diavolo'"; this song was "an especial favorite" of the group (309-310).
Of the poets associated with the Bohemian period, Winter states that O'Brien's name is one among a list of "names that shine, with more or less lustre, in the scroll of American poets, and recurrence to their period affords opportunity for correction of errors concerning it, which have been conspicuously made" (292).
Winter reprints a letter written to him from Aldrich that discusses a poem that is credited to O'Brien. It appears that the poem is a recent "discovery." The letter is dated March 8,1881, and Winter states that Aldrich had been editor of "The Atlantic Monthly" for a while. In regards to O'Brien, Aldrich writes: "If that is O'Brien's poem, it is the best he ever wrote. Here and there I catch the tone of his voice. That wild fancy, in the second stanza, about the floating yellow hair of the drowning sun, seems like O'Brien at his very best. The poem is wholly new to me..." (367).
Winter claims that "O'Brien had a presentiment of his early and violent death." Winter cites a letter to him from the artist Albert R. Waud, "who was in his company 'at the front'" for support:
"After O'Brien became Aid on Lander's staff a feeling took possession of him that he would not long survive the commission: under its influence he became, at times, strangely softened. His bouyant epicureanism partly deserted him. He showed greater consideration for others and was less convivial than was his wont.
One night I rode with him to the camp of the First Massachusetts Battery, where the evening passed pleasantly, with cigars and punch. Some one sang the song, from 'Don Casesar de Bazan,' 'Then let me like a soldier die.' Next morning he started, to join the General (Lander) at Harper's Ferry. As we rode he kept repeating the words of the song; said he appreciated it the more, as he had a presentiment that he should be shot, before long. He would not be rallied out of it, but remarked that he was content; and, when we parted, said good-bye, as cheerfully as need be.
I heard, afterward, that medical incompetance had more to do with his death than the wound. How true it was I don't know. But the same thing was said of General Lander; and there was, at that time, a great want of surgical experience in the field" (104).
In a final word on O'Brien's life, Winter states: "The propulsive influences of that period, greatly broadened and strengthened, are splendidly operative now, and the hard vicissitudes of such a case as that of O'Brien would be needless or impossible to-day. Poet, romancer, wanderer, soldier, he sang his song, he told his story, he met his fate like a brave man, giving his life for his adopted land, and dying,--with much promise unfulfilled,--when only thirty-four years old" (105). [pages: 66-68,69-70,70-78,88,93,95-105,139,177,292,295,308,309-310,367]
- Winter, William. "Sketch of O'Brien." The Poems and Stories of Fitz-James O'Brien. New York: J. R. Osgood, 1881. xv-xxviii. [more about this work]
- Winter, William. [Letter to George S. McWatters]. New York, 1881. [more about this work]
- Wolle, Francis. Fitz-James O'Brien: A Literary Bohemian of the Eighteen-Fifties. Boulder, Col.; University of Colorado, 1944. 309 p. [more about this work]
- O'Brien is mentioned throughout the book, but the relevant Pfaff's information is on the listed pages. Called the "Prince of Bohemians." Was rumored to have had an affair with Ada Clare. [pages: 2, 92, 130]
- Wood, Frank. "O'Brien as Poet and Soldier." New York Leader. 12 Apr. 1862. [more about this work]
- Wood's tribute to O'Brien as "Soldier and Poet" includes biographical information as well as his assessment of O'Brien's contribution to literature.
- Wood, Frank. "O'Brien as Poet and Soldier." The Poems and Stories of Fitz-James O'Brien; Collected and Edited, with a Sketch of the Author. Ed. Winter, William. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1881. xxxvi-xlv. [more about this work]
- Wood's tribute to O'Brien as "Soldier and Poet" includes biographical information as well as his assessment of O'Brien's contribution to literature. [pages: xxxvi-xlv]
- "[Acute gastritis, which carried off Charles Pfaff last week]." Brooklyn Eagle. 27 Apr. 1890: 10. [more about this work]
- O'Brien is mentioned as one of the "bright spirits" who met at Pfaff's. [pages: 10]
- [Briggs, C.F.]. "The Old and the New: A Retrospect and a Prospect." Putnam's Magazine. Jan. 1868: 1-5. [more about this work]
- Cites Fitz-James O'Brien as contributing to the first issue of Putnam's. Claims that O'Brien and William North arrived in New York in the same week. Describes him as "a man of remarkable gifts and of very comely presence, brave, generous, and impulsive. States that "his death, which did not
occur until after he had undergone the amputation of his right arm, was remarkable for the heroic cheerfulness he displayed in his sufferings" (2). [pages: 2]