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O'Brien, Fitz-James (1826-1862)

Essayist, Journalist, Playwright, Poet, Short Story Writer

Born in County Cork and raised primarily in Limerick, Ireland, Fitz-James O'Brien moved to New York City in 1852. Descending from an Anglo-Irish landholding family, O'Brien received his inheritance (estimated at £8000) at about the age of 21. Between 1849 and 1851, it is believed that O'Brien edited a failed literary magazine called The Parlour Magazine of the Literature of All Nations and squandered his inheritance (Wolle 21). 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" (Wolle 60).

According to scholar Mark Lause, it was O'Brien and Henry Clapp who first stumbled upon Pfaff's in 1856 (47). A favorite of Clapp's, O'Brien soon became "one of the cardinals in the high church of Bohemia," and he maintained close relationships with several Pfaffians, including William North (Martin 29; J. Browne 154). A friction, though developed between O'Brien and North and evolved 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 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, whereas Thomas Gunn defended the authorship of the late North (Winter 67-8; Gunn vol. 9, 48, 91). North was not the only individual with whom O'Brien fought. According to Parry, 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). Nevertheless, O'Brien "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 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 called "Dramatic Feuilleton," encouraging patronage of the budding American drama scene (Gunn, vol. 10, 18). O'Brien also had an interest in theatre which he shared with Pfaffians like John Brougham, Ada Clare, and William Winter, which 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. 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."

When the Civil War began, O'Brien enlisted in the Union Army, producing patriotic verse and participating in recruitment. 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. He died two months later from tetanus brought on by improper medical care of his wound (Parry 50-1; Lause 110). Though remembered predominantly for his work as a poet and short story writer, his supernatural and science fiction tales have received renewed interest in recent years.