O’Sullivan, Vincent (1872-1940) by Sullivan, Robert

Vincent O’Sullivan 1872-1940 John Gross makes no mention of Vincent O’Sullivan in his study of the evolution and decline of the but in many ways O’Sullivan was a paradigmatic example of the species. (Gross: xiii) Whether it was or not, O’Sullivan did think of himself at times as an and some of his tales of the macabre are still anthologized, most particularly his Poe-like from the volume (1896). And his book of poems, (1897), with a jacket designed by Aubrey Beardsley, drew praise from none other than Oscar Wilde, who was to become his friend and who remarked of O’Sullivan’s subject matter: Leonard Smithers, who published the latter two volumes also brought out O’Sullivan’s book of prose sketches entitled (1899). There is also a collection of stories called (1907) and a novel, (1912) that was to garner severe criticism. is representative in its description of the book as an O’Sullivan tried his hand at drama as well, one of his plays, receiving good notices during its production at the Court Theatre in London (1911). man of letters, By this time [the 1890s until about 1914] a man of letters was very definitely coming to suggest a writer of the second rank, a critic, some one who aimed at higher than journalism but made no pretence of being primarily an artist. pretence artist When I Was Dead, A Book Of Bargains The Houses of Sin What a midnight his soul seems to walk! And what maladies he draws from the moon. The Green Window Human Affairs The Good Girl The Bookman exasperatingly unpleasant story. The Hartley Family, Yet, regardless of this respectable creative output, O’Sullivan must have known that he was an outcast from literature’s feast, even if this knowledge took a subconscious form. Many of his occasional essays have at their centre the theme of how literary merit is bestowed, the capriciousness of such judgment, and the hardships endured by writers who deserved more credit, not to mention more economic sustenance. The very title of his (1902) bears out such a preoccupation. Indeed, this motif was so prevalent in his criticism and correspondence that it led an editor from Constable (the publishers of his novel ) to suggest a volume entitled the title suggested by a remark in the first sentence of O’Sullivan’s essay on Frederick Rolfe/Baron Corvo. This proposed venture never came to fruition, but the correspondence with Constable (by this time O’Sullivan was living a penurious existence in Bayonne) led to an advance of fifty pounds sterling for a book that was published as (1936). This valuable monograph, much of it based on personal interaction with the author, has proven a great resource for future biographers (see Ellmann, for example.) Time and time again in O’Sullivan’s explorations into those we witness agonizing foreshadowings of his own ultimate fate, none more poignant perhaps than his ruminations on Wilde’s last days: O’Sullivan records that he was (Anderson: 184) A Dissertation Upon Second Fiddles The Good Girl The Martyrs of Literature, Aspects Of Wilde afflicted with an artistic temperament living from day to day and from hand to mouth, always in fear that his subsidies would be cut off altogether, not well knowing if he would have food and lodging a month ahead. It was not always thus with Vincent James O’Sullivan, who was born in 1868 or 1872 (there is some confusion about the exact date) in New York City. His father Eugene, a first generation Irish emigrant who made a fortune in the coffee trade and who founded Long Island College Hospital, left approximately one million dollars when he died in 1892. Vincent was educated in schools in New York until he and his brother left to attend the Catholic Oscott School in England, where, at that time, Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo) was a Junior Master. In 1892 O’Sullivan matriculated at Oxford and entered Exeter College, but studied barely a term there before embarking on the literary voyage that was to last the rest of his life. He chose to remain in London and began to publish poems and essays, being one outlet among others. Elkin Mathews published his first collection, , in 1896. Like many aspiring young artists of the ’90s, he was a regular at Leonard Smithers’ bookshop, and it was during this period that he most likely made the acquaintance of such figures as Dowson, Yeats, Pater, Holbrook Jackson (a contact that would lead eventually to O’Sullivan’s frequent contributions to ) and Oscar Wilde. Aubrey Beardsley became a friend during this period as well. The Senate Poems The New Age By all accounts the young American was affable and generous enough, even if his disposition was not the most cheerful. Wilde remarked of him (in the context of O’Sullivan’s companionship at dinner) that Dowson, who O’Sullivan visited on his frequent visits to France, regarded him as It was during one of these frequent visits to France (where O’Sullivan eventually decided to settle) that he gave the by now desperate Oscar Wilde the money to visit Lord Alfred Douglas in Naples. After Douglas’s departure, O’Sullivan himself went to stay with Wilde for a time. he was really very pleasant, for one who treats life from the standpoint of the tomb. a man of great nobility…an American but without any trace of Americanism. It seems that O’Sullivan returned to the United States for the first and last time since his departure just after the outbreak of the First World War, returning to France in 1918. One of his commissions during this time was to translate from the French a little book on based on the log of the French hospital ship (Yale University Press, 1917). On his return to France, he took up a temporary appointment at the University of Rennes, lecturing on American literature, and there was talk of a collaboration between him and Andre Gide to translate Blake’s This project came to nothing, perhaps because of O’Sullivan’s coldness toward Gide due to the latter’s less than positive opinion of Oscar Wilde. He returned to Paris and contributed essays and stories to various periodicals including Mencken’s , the and, around 1927, established a relationship with the edited by Dr. Starkey. It was Starkey who came to O’Sullivan’s aid after he had moved to Bayonne, when Paris became too for O’Sullivan, and perhaps too expensive as well. Sometime in 1932 he was injured getting off a tram and broke his leg, a fracture that was set very badly and which would plague him for the rest of his life. He wrote Starkey the following: (Anderson: 12) It is not certain how Vincent O’Sullivan’s inheritance evaporated (there have been suggestions that his brother Percy made poor investments and that his older brother Eugene swindled him), but the latter remark of being in the United States would seem to indicate that his family, as with so many others, became an economic victim of the crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression. Rupert Brooke’s Death and Burial The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Smart Set Mecure de France Dublin Magazine American I am now in a clinic in great pain and I don’t know what will happen till the leg is x-rayed—I don’t know how I shall pay the expenses of this nursing home. With things so bad in the United States I have only just enough to pay for my lodgings… things bad Whatever the reasons for his financial demise, not long after this date (1932) O’Sullivan could barely afford to pay for his lodgings, regardless of his medical expenses. From Bayonne to Biarritz, from one hotel to another, his was taken up first by the American Vice-Consul and then by the American colony in Biarritz, whose members allocated him 1,000 francs per month. This stipend was eventually modified by the proviso that he move back to Paris, a city that O’Sullivan found less congenial after the war (too many expatriate writers?) and he was loathe to return there. The disagreement with his benefactors that had begun in Biarritz became a rift when he returned to Paris, and eventually the monthly stipend was cut. Now living at the less than salubrious Nouvel Hotel, supplemented by the American Aid Society of Paris, things went from bad to worse. It is more than likely that during this period (1938-40) O’Sullivan helped make ends meet by selling off some of the letters he owned, written to him by numerous literary acquaintances, not to mention some of the valuable manuscripts he might have owned. He was one of very few people, for example, who was sent a copy of by the author. case The Ballad of Reading Gaol In 1938, while living in a Salvation Army home in Villeparisis, Vincent fell and injured his leg again and was hospitalized in The American Hospital. After his discharge he moved from one Salvation Army home to another, until he was re-installed in the Hotel Nouvel once again. Here he remained until 1940, when the hotel was requisitioned by the Germans during the occupation. In yet another, small, hotel not far from the Nouvel, Vincent O’Sullivan took ill on July 11th 1940 and was admitted to the Hopital Saint-Antoine where he died on July 26th. He was buried in a pauper’s grave at the hospital’s expense. Given his less than optimistic disposition, his fortitude and his industry (while juggling several essays and two books through the press he wrote that he had been ), Vincent O’Sullivan might have taken solace in the fact that he joined those for whom he was an eloquent spokesman. One of his more recent editors who has done us all good service by bringing some of O’Sullivan’s various writings back to light, deserves the last word here: (Anderson: 16) living on little more than the price of a foreign letter—one franc fifty—a day for nearly a month and I am thoroughly sick of my poverty martyrs of literature After five years, nobody having claimed his remains, O’Sullivan’s bones were taken to the ossuary. —Robert Sullivan Sources Anderson, Alan ed. [selected essays] by Vincent O’Sullivan. London: The Unicorn Press, 1959 Opinions. Ellmann, Richard. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. Oscar Wilde. Gross, John New York: Collier Books,1970 The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. Selected Works by Vincent O’Sullivan : (Elkin Mathews, 1896). Poems (Leonard Smithers, 1896). A Book of Bargains (Leonard Smithers, 1897). The Houses of Sin The Green Window (Leonard Smithers, 1899). (Grant Richards, 1902). A Dissertation Upon Second Fiddles (David Nutt, 1907). Human Affairs (Constable, 1912). The Good Girl (Duckworth, 1913). Sentiment and Other Stories (Constable, 1936). Aspects of Wilde

Back to top

Back to Top