The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

VI. The Short Story

§ 7. O’Brien

Rose Terry came gradually, an evolution, without noise or sensation; not so Fitz-James O’Brien (1828–62), who, after his The Diamond Lens (January, 1858), was hailed loudly as a new Poe. O’Brien’s career in America was meteoric. He appeared unheralded, in 1852, an adventurer who had been educated in Dublin University, and who had squandered a rich patrimony in London. For ten years he lived in the Bohemian circles of New York, writing impetuously, when the mood was upon him, temperamental, Celtic-souled material which he published here and there in the magazines—Harper’s, Putnam’s, the Atlantic, until, enlisting in one of the first regiments of volunteers, he fell in one of the earliest skirmishes of the Civil War. His short stories What Was It? and The Wondersmith have undoubted power, but they are not to be compared with the best work of Hawthorne and Poe. What O’Brien might have done had he lived into the next period of the short story it is idle to conjecture. As it is, he must be regarded only as an episode, a passing sensation, and he might be dismissed unmentioned but for the fact that he was an undoubted influence in the period of transition. To the art and the impressionism of Poe he added the new element of actuality. His shuddery tale What Was It? is laid in a New York boarding-house with convincingness. Even his Hawthorne-like fantasia The Wondersmith has as a background a New York slum street drawn with all the pitiless realism of a Zola. O’Brien added the sense of actuality to Poe’s unlocalized romance, but his influence was not large.