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North, William (1825-1854)

Journalist, Novelist, Poet, Short Story Writer

Characterized as an "eccentric literary man not without a spice of genius," William North was born in England and eventually settled in New York City (W. Rossetti 48-49). In England he established a periodical North's Magazine, and in New York he began publishing sensational stories like "The Living Corpse" which appeared in Putnam's in 1853 and was later reprinted in the Saturday Press. Junius Browne indicates that North had some difficulty establishing a reputation as a writer: "He found the struggle harder than he had anticipated; for, though a man of talent and culture, he lacked directness of purpose and capacity for continuous work. His disappointment soured him, and poverty so embittered his sensitive nature that he destroyed himself, leaving a sixpence, all the money he had" (156). This struggle led him to threaten suicide a variety of times, with Henry Clapp noting that "his mind was always a little bit shaky" (Brooklyn Eagle, May 25, 1884).

North predates the opening of Pfaff's, but he shared many connections with its prominent visitors. Most noteworthy was his connection to Fitz-James O'Brien. North had a falling-out with O'Brien and "called him a braggart, a borrower, and a bully" (A. Parry 52). North went so far as to satirize O'Brien as "Fitzgammon O'Bouncer" in his posthumously published novel The Slave of the Lamp (1855). The United States Review characterized this text as "a dangerous book for the young" written by a man who, despite being "but a few degrees removed from absolute genius," was laid low by his vanity and brought to despair, taking his own life in 1854. Some controversy later arose over whether O'Brien's "The Diamond Lens," published in the Atlantic Monthly, was adapted from North's unpublished manuscript "Microcosmos." In an article that Gunn included in his diary, Charles Seymour defended the deceased North's work writing that the piece in question had "remained inedited up to the time of his decease, [and] I can conscientiously identify as the waif on which Mr. O'Brien has lain violent hands" (Gunn, vol. 9, 78). According to Gunn, North also knew Henry Clapp Jr., whom he first met in London at a party (Gunn, vol. 10, 146-7). Their friendship blossomed during the late 1840s and early 1850s before his death (Whitley and Weidman 35). According to Edward Whitley and Robert Weidman, "in addition to being present at Henry Clapp's European rebirth as a bohemian, North would also play a key role in Clapp's efforts to transplant the spirit of the bohemia to the United States (36).

While William North died before the heyday of the Pfaff's scene, his life and works had a strong influence on the Pfaffians, and he "served as a catalyst for helping the bohemians to forge their identity as a group" (Whitley and Weidman 37). To this extent, historian Albert Parry claims that "[c]hronologically, North's suicide on November 14, 1854, began the true Bohemia. It cast the cloak of romantic tragedy over his circle. Some said that he swallowed prussic acid because he was unable to stand his journalist's poverty any longer; others maintained that he did it because of frustrated love. Romantic souls shed tears reading his letter to his friends, the artist [Frank] Bellew and his wife: 'May you be happy! Do not regret me. I am not fit for this world, I fly to a better world. I am calm and brave and hopeful'" (49).