Sunday, January 9, 2022

Taking Out another Story from the Fitz-James O'Brien Canon

Neil Cornwell, in his collected essays Vladimir Odoevsky and the Romantic Poetics (1998), makes it quite clear that he thinks that "Seeing the World" by Fitz-James O'Brien is a plagiarism of a story by the Russian writer Vladimir Odoevsky (1804-1869). But there are some complications in the scenario that Cornwell doesn't consider. 

The story is "Improvizator" ("The Improvisor" or "The Improvvisatore")--one of several stories in a narrative framework, in the style of Tieck's Phantasus (3 volumes, 1812-1816) and Hoffmann's The Serapion Brethren (1818), under the title Russkie nochi (Russian Nights*), originally published by Odoevsky in 1844. Cornwell traces the plagiarism not from the Russian but from a French edition of seven stories by Odoevsky in Le décameron russe (1855), translated by Pierre-Paul Douhaire. O'Brien is reported to have known French well. And "Seeing the World" is without question a translation of Odoevsky's tale.  But where does the guilt of O'Brien enter in?

"Seeing the World" was first published anonymously in Harper's New Monthly Magazine for September 1857. This was at a time when O'Brien was a frequent contributor to the magazine. "Seeing the World" is apparently attributed to O'Brien in the Index to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volumes I to L: From June, 1850, to May 1875 (1875). I have not examined this 1875 version, but I have seen the updated version,  Index to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volumes I to LX Inclusive: From June 1850 to June 1880 (1881), where "Seeing the World" is indeed attributed to O'Brien. Unfortunately this bibliography doesn't give the reasons why any piece is attributed to any author. So how accurate might it be, for a compilation made a few decades after the publication of the story in question, and more than a decade after O'Brien's death in 1862? There are certainly reasons to question its accuracy. For example, the story discussed previously "A Dead Secret" is (correctly) not credited to O'Brien in the Index, but neither is it credited to the now-known author George Augustus Sala. The information in the Index is clearly dependent on the quality of its sources of information, which remain unknown. 

Francis Wolle in his Fitz-James O'Brien: A Literary Bohemian of the Eighteen-Fifties (1944) accepted the attribution of the Index, and "Seeing the World" has subsequently appeared as an O'Brien story ever since. But what happened before that attribution?  

I see three possible scenarios here. 

1) That the case is exactly as Cornwell suggested--that O'Brien plagiarized Odoevsky's story. 

2) That O'Brien might have translated the story for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, intending no deception. Anyone researching magazines of the eighteenth-century will know that translations into English of stories from foreign languages rarely have the author named, and rarely have the translator credited. And even in such respected modern resources like The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals 1824-1900 (1979), with attributions for originally uncredited works frequently based on publisher's archived records, there can still be serious problems, as exemplified in the writings of Henry Ferris, collected in A Night with Mephistopheles (1997), where at least two of the pieces included are translations of foreign works. The archives had listed Ferris as the contributor because he translated the works, not because he wrote them, as was mistakenly assumed by the volume's editor. 

3) That O'Brien had nothing to do with "Seeing the World" and the attribution to him is an error by the Index's original compilers.

If either scenario 2 or 3 is true, then O'Brien should not be called a plagiarist. But if the first scenario is true, then he certainly was one. Unfortunately, from the perspective of one hundred and sixty five years after the publication, we have no evidence to decide amongst the three scenarios.

In any case, "Seeing the World" should be removed from the oeuvre of Fitz-James O'Brien.

* Russian Nights was first translated into English in 1965. It was reprinted in paperback in 1997.

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