The Internet was burning up this week with clips and photos from the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens: Episode 7, slated to come out next year. Gleeful Star Wars geeks seemed thrilled that much-hyped director J.J. Abrams was bringing the science fiction series back to its late 1970s and early 1980s roots, following the subsequent much-panned films featuring the likes of Jar Jar Binks.
Of course, if Star Wars fans really want to go old school, they may want to take a look at the works of a writer from Cork who just so happens to be featured prominently in a new book about “America’s first bohemians.”
His name is Fitz-James O’Brien, and some consider him the father of science fiction. (Take that, Darth Vader!)
O’Brien, along with the great American poet Walt Whitman, was a denizen of one of New York City’s first great writer’s bars. Before there was the Lion’s Head or the White Horse or the Cedar Tavern, there was Pfaff’s on Broadway, just north of today’s Bleecker Street.
American writer Allan Gurganus has said, "Pfaff’s was the Andy Warhol factory, the Studio 54, the Algonquin Round Table all rolled into one.”
Pfaff’s serves as the centerpiece of a new book by Justin Martin called Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians.
The story begins with a New York journalist and editor named Henry Clapp Jr., who could not shake his “idea of bringing Bohemia to America,” Martin writes in Rebel Souls.
At “Pfaff’s Restaurant and Lager Bier Saloon,” Clapp found “a promising venue for this experiment.”
Clapp’s “very first recruit was Fitz-James O’Brien, a friend and fellow journalist” whose free-thinking ways, Martin says, made him “the walking definition of Bohemian.”
Having already traveled from Cork to Limerick to London to New York, O’Brien “was a peerless raconteur who had earned a reputation around town for spinning out enthralling tales. In all he said, in his every move, he conveyed worldliness and ease,” Martin writes.
Unfortunately, O’Brien was such a man about town, such a brawler and drinker and liver of the high life, that it was hard for him to dedicate adequate time to his writing. Nevertheless, what O’Brien is best remembered for these days are a series of short stories that were pioneering in the field of science fiction.
As Martin writes, “Not long after [his] first visit to Pfaff’s, O’Brien began work on a fantastical short story. It was the tale of a man who used a microscope to peer at a single droplet of water and spies a tiny world, complete with a beautiful woman.”
Entitled “The Diamond Lens,” the story explores all of the wonder -- and terror and heartache -- technology can bring to humans.
O’Brien’s story “What Was It? A Mystery,” is one of the earliest fictional explorations of invisibility, “The Wondersmith” reads like a tale of angry robots come to life, and “From Hand to Mouth” has drawn comparisons to the fantastical Alice in Wonderland, even though it was written a decade before Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece.
In short, without Fitz-James O’Brien’s influential stories, the force may never have had a chance to be with Luke or Obi Wan or Han Solo.
Unfortunately, for the Irish-born O’Brien, American history came calling.
He signed on to fight in the U.S. Civil War with the 7th Regiment of the New York National Guard.
In February 1862, O’Brien was on a mission foraging for cattle to help feed Union troops. O’Brien and his men ran into a band of Confederate soldiers. Shots were fired and O’Brien was hit with a shot that passed through his left shoulder.
“Losing blood fast,” Martin writes, “O’Brien rode the roughly 25 miles to Cumberland, Maryland,” where there was a field hospital. After seeming to first recover, complications set in and by April 6, O’Brien was dead at the age of 34.
It was a blow to New York artistic circles and Irish American literature. Of course, O’Brien lives on, even if it is in a galaxy far, far away.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)