Fitz-James O'Brien Biography

Irish Bohemian, American Fantasist

Fitz-James O'Brien
(1828-1862)

Of his life in Ireland and England very little is known. The available facts are so sketchy they do not include the names of his parents, while the tributes of his later friends contain statements that are sometimes contradictory. It has been established that Fitz-James O'Brien was born in County Limerick, Ireland on December 31, 1828. It is known is that he was an only child. His father was a lawyer -- or county coroner -- or somehow both -- and died when Fitz was about twelve. Whatever the father's occupation, he was successful, leaving a patrimony said to have been 8,000. Fitz's mother, described as "a lady of remarkable beauty," did not remarry for "a considerable time" -- though "when O'Brien was still a lad."

Fitz was educated at Trinity College, Dublin -- though "not in any profession." After college, around 1849, he went to London, where -- in the space of two and one half years -- he managed two remarkable achievements. First, he "squandered" his entire inheritance. But he was not idle, for he also published "a large number of poems, stories, and articles" in Irish, Scottish, and English periodicals. Thus O'Brien's Bohemian reputation was forecast; and thus illustrated the devil-may-care attitude by which he lived -- and died.

Other "facts" are dubious. He may also have edited a periodical devoted to the World's Fair. He claimed to have been in the English Army, but this has not been corroborated. He later referred to "one true love" he had known in Britain, who may have been a woman married to an English officer; she, he said, "marred his life" -- and he said he "could never love again." One published work from this period has been identified -- perhaps. The story "An Arabian Nightmare," published anonymously in Charles Dickens' Household Words for November, 1851 is now ascribed to O'Brien. It was also in London that O'Brien seems to have acquired his knowledge of theatre, which he later put to use both as playwrite and critic.

In January, 1852 O'Brien emigrated to the U.S., landing first in Washington, D.C. At some point he was naturalized. He went to New York, the country's literary center, and quickly joined the ranks of the Bohemians who frequented Pfaff's Cellar on Broadway, which included Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Henry Clapp -- and, sometimes, Walt Whitman. Here he was welcomed and esteemed, hailing as he did from England, whence all great writers issued. His charm and wit served him well.

That O'Brien had some money left at this time is shown by the account of his friend and posthumous editor William Winter. O'Brien "dwelt in comfortable quarters and surrounded himself with appliances of luxury. His raimant was superb; his library excellent; his furniture was tasteful; and . . . he was 'splendid in banquets.'" In appearance, O'Brien was of medium height (or just above), with wavy brown hair, blue eyes, a small chin, mouth hidden under a heavy "cavalry" mustache; and he was handsome except for a broken nose (obtained in a fight). He "moved with grace," was stout, athletic, muscular, "a gymnast of some ability" -- and, well before the Civil War, exhibited skill with both sword and revolver. Concerning his personal habits, he was said to be "inordinately fond of his bed," sleeping 10-12-15 hours per day, rising at 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon and working until dusk. (No one seems to have pointed out that his sleeping habits may have extenuated his dreams, which play such an important part in his fiction.)

Good times alternated with bad; fortune and elegance gave way to a "wandering life" of "gypsy days" in which he was sometimes unfriendly to those on whom he depended. Alternating, also, were his indolence and exertion, as he would often wait until his deadlines approached before putting pen to paper to produce his numerous poems, stories, humor, sketches, columns, and reviews.

O'Brien's first piece published in America was an article for the comic journal, the Lantern, to which he became a regular contributor. Thereafter he worked as an editorial writer for the Times. At the same time, he published tales and poems in various magazines, such as The American Whig Review, Harper's New Monthly Magazine and Weekly, Putnam's, the Atlantic Monthly, and Vanity Fair (where he wrote a witty column), and in such newspapers as the Evening Post.
He wrote theatrical reviews for Henry Clapp's short-lived Saturday Press and, in 1858-9, for the Saturday Review. These demonstrate his support for the theory of "natural" acting. He also served as Literary Assistant to H.L. Bateman, manager of the actress Matilda Heron, he travelled locally and as far as Boston. For the noted actor-manager James W. Wallack he wrote plays that were so popular that his songs were known throughout the city; the most notable was The Gentleman from Ireland (1854). (It is also recorded that he read French "proficiently" and read "every French play that appeared.")

O'Brien wrote a number of light fantasies and dream stories in the early 1850s, and the conventional ghost story, "The Pot of Tulips" in 1855. But his greatest success came a few years later with the publication of his story "The Diamond Lens" in the premier issue of The Atlantic Monthly in January, 1858 about a monomaniacal scientist who discovers a microscopic humanoid creature in a drop of water -- and falls in love with her. Two months later, the story "What Was It? A Mystery" (March, 1859) caused a minor sensation, being one of the first to deal with an invisible creature. (It predated Maupassant's "The Horla," and while it is not known to have been translated, it is still possible the French short story master head about the earlier tale. On the other hand, it is fairly certain that Ambrose Bierce was familiar with the story when he wrote "The Damned Thing."). This was followed by "The Wondersmith" (October, 1859) concerning manikins animated by evil spirits who turn against their creators -- recognized as precursors of Capek's first robots. Somewhat lesser known is the fantasy "From Hand to Mouth," serialized in The New York Picayune from March 27 to May 15, 1858 and exhumed by Sam Moskowitz for his 1971 volume, Horrors Unknown, where he called it "the single most striking example of surealistic fiction to pre-date Alice in Wonderland."

Of O'Brien's poetry, best remembered is "Demon of the Gibbet," originally entitled "What Befell" but retitled by William Winter and published in Home Journal. Ironically, O'Brien expected to achieve fame for his poetry, for in his day poetry was highly prized; but today his poems are the least known of his works, and one editor who thought highly enough of O'Brien's prose called his verse "appalling."

O'Brien was discouraged by his limited success and admitted that he thought often of suicide -- at least in the abstract. "With such a fascinating problem as that of death before us, I cannot imagine how anybody can be satisfied to go on with the monotonous stupidity of living." In January, 1861 when Civil War was imminent, he volunteered with the Union forces. Fired with patriotism for his adopted country and motivated by a love of "liberty and the rights of man" (he had included jibes at southern slavery in some of his writings), he joined New York's 7th Regiment of the National Guard at the rank of Captain. For six weeks the regiment defended Washington, though no attack was forthcoming and they disbanded. His poems on the Civil War are considered among the best written, and were published, along with a graphic account of the defense of Washington, in Harper's. O'Brien was eager to return and tried to start the McClellan Rifles, a volunteer regiment, but failed to get support. For a year he sought a commission in the Union Army and finally obtained one that was intended for his friend and fellow poet, Aldrich. The Bohemian don Henry Clapp later quipped that "Aldrich was wounded in O'Brien's shoulder."

In January, 1862 O'Brien was appointed to the staff of General Lander with the rank of Lieutenant or Aide-de-Camp, functioning as "staff officer of parade." But since he was not officially "mustered in" he was technically a volunteer. At the Battle of Bloomery Gap he demonstrated "dashing energy and brilliant soldierly qualities," in one skirmish capturing a rebel Captain and eight of his men. Two days later, in a stand-off with the Confederate Col. Ashley that amounted to a duel, the poet was shot -- "the ball passed completely through O'Brien's left shoulder, splintering his scapular bone" (another account has the projectile "entering near the elbow and glancing up the humerus bone"). Still he fought, felling the enemy officer, and then rallied his men, until another officer saw that he was "reeling in his saddle for loss of blood." He was sent to the rear but had to ride 24 miles before finding a surgeon -- who underestimated the seriousness of the wound. A more able surgeon discovered that the shoulder joint was completely shattered. The bits of bone and part of the arm were removed, but tetanus set in. Seven weeks after his injury, on April 6, 1862, O'Brien died at the home of a stranger in Cumberland, Maryland. He was thirty-three. He was interred in a tomb at Greenwood Cemetary, New York, accompanied by an honor guard and attended by his editor Winter, his literary executor Frank Wood, his intimate friend Aldrich, the Vanitry Fair illustrator Edward Mullen, and actress Matilda Heron. In November of 1874, the remains were removed and buried in Grave 1183, Lot 17,263.

Before he left for war, O'Brien spoke of collecting his work and also hoped to produce literature that would last longer than the popular fiction and verse he wrote for a living. He had in mind, he said, "a grand work . . . thought out through years of thinking." Unfortunately for us all, he had no chance to render it. Today Fitz-James O'Brien is virtually unknown. He helped shape the short story at a time when it was reaching its widest audience ever -- through the fairly new medium of the literary magazine. His style of writing, often termed "rococo," belongs to the past. Still, literary history has assigned him a small but notable place -- as a successor to Poe, as a forerunner of science fiction, and as America's best writer of short fiction between Poe and Bret Harte.

Last update: October 19, 2004


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Alan Gullette, Oakland, California. Email: alang@alangullette.com