Mercier, Vivian Herbert Samuel (1919–89), literary critic, was born 5 April 1919 in Clara, King's Co. (Offaly), son of William Mercier and Charlotte Olivia Mercier (née Abbot). His father, who was employed in the sales office of Goodbody's Mills in Clara, was of huguenot descent (in which Vivian always took considerable pride, treating his lifelong interest in French studies as a form of cultural homecoming) and brought up as a methodist (he later joined the Church of Ireland, becoming a lay member of the general synod). Vivian's mother came from a Church of Ireland clerical dynasty. Her father became archdeacon of Clogher; two of her uncles, a brother, and a brother-in-law were also Church of Ireland clerics. Charlotte was much less demonstratively religious than her husband, and had a witty and irreverent tongue. Vivian later claimed that his early exposure by his maternal relatives to the Anglo-Irish tradition of joking about everything, however sacred, gave him important insights into the genesis of the Irish literary revival and the mindsets of Jonathan Swift (qv) and George Bernard Shaw (qv), and this may also underlie his often repeated comment (both in The Irish comic tradition (1962) and in his study of Samuel Beckett (qv)) that blasphemous humour may reflect the strength of a religious tradition (since there is no thrill in defying a prohibition by which one never felt threatened) rather than its superficiality.
Vivian Mercier was educated at a protestant national school in Abbeyleix; he recalled the experience of going to school under the curious gaze of catholic contemporaries whose world differed so widely from his own as differentiating him from the relatively self-contained world of Dublin protestant suburbia where J. M. Synge (qv) and Beckett grew up, and much of his later writing can be seen as driven by a desire to achieve a vision of Irishness which would integrate these experiences. Mercier received his secondary education (1928–36) at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, where the discovery of Shaw's works ‘was my intellectual salvation, for it transformed me from a smug little machine for passing exams into someone who cared about ideas and was capable of feeling genuine concern about social and political justice. He taught me to cultivate my own originality . . . and to count remediable ignorance as a sin . . . conformity with one's schoolmates and one's social class must be resisted by every possible means’ (Modern Irish literature, 119).
Mercier became a foundation scholar at TCD (1936–9), where he studied English and French and shared rooms with Conor Cruise O'Brien. They developed a lifelong friendship, marked by a certain amount of mutual provocation, despite their fierce competition for the available prizes. Mercier graduated BA (hons) with a gold medal; he also won the vice-chancellor's prize for English prose and a prize for composition at the TCD Literary and Historical Society, of which he was an active member. His interest in Beckett began when he read the novel Murphy (1938) on its publication.
Mercier supported himself by journalism (he worked on the staff of the Church of Ireland Gazette and was a contributor to The Bell, edited by Sean O'Faolain (qv)), school-teaching at Rosse College, and financial assistance from his parents and his American wife, while completing a Ph.D. thesis, ‘Realism in Anglo-Irish fiction 1916–40’ (TCD, 1945). He began an American academic career at Bennington College, Vermont City (1947–8) before moving to City College, New York, where he taught English 1948–65, rising to the rank of associate professor; here and at his other posts he became known as an academic who enjoyed teaching and was good at it. His reputation was established when he co-edited with David Greene (qv), also of CCNY, the anthology A thousand years of Irish prose (1952), which became a standard teaching resource. He also compiled Great Irish short stories (1964).
Mercier was a prolific contributor to literary journals, including the liberal catholic paper Commonweal, which took a strong interest in matters Irish. (He also reviewed books for the New York Times.) His pioneering articles on Beckett virtually inaugurated the academic study of this author; a shared southern protestant background, particularly with reference to Portora and TCD, where they had experienced the same curricula and teachers, led him to challenge the predominant view of Beckett as a socially decontextualised voice of existentialist angst. Mercier, however, temporarily turned away from the study of Beckett in 1959 in revulsion against the play ‘Endgame’; while he always regarded this play as unacceptably nihilistic, Mercier later thought his reaction might have been exacerbated by the sufferings of his second wife, Gina, from a mysterious disease which temporarily blinded her in 1958, temporarily paralysed her in 1959, and was diagnosed at the end of that year as multiple sclerosis.
During regular visits to Dublin in the 1950s Mercier studied Old, Middle, and Modern Irish with Trinity and UCD academics. These studies gave rise to The Irish comic tradition (1962), dedicated to Gina, which broke new ground by combining Irish-language and Anglo-Irish material in support of its central thesis that comedy preceded tragedy in Irish literature and that it was possible to trace a degree of continuity between work in both languages, paying particular attention to Swift and Beckett. The book received a startled and generally hostile critical response in Ireland, and provoked a celebrated defence, ‘Our wits about us’, from Conor Cruise O'Brien, writing in the New Statesman. The book is now generally regarded as a key text in the development of Irish studies, a valuable corrective to the tendency to dismiss much Irish comic writing in English as an alien intrusion belittling and degrading the Irish. It suggests that such phenomena as Synge's ‘Playboy of the western world’, the erotic dramas and romances of Austin Clarke (qv), and the tradition of learned bawdry associated with TCD (presented by such figures as Fr Timothy Corcoran (qv) as evidence of alien degeneracy and amorality) were in important respects closer than their nativist critics to the mind-set of the pre-conquest Gaelic learned class.
In 1965 Mercier moved to the University of Colorado at Boulder as professor of English and comparative literature for reasons connected with Gina's declining health; he nursed her until her death in 1971. A reader's guide to the new novel from Queneau to Pinget (1971) is dedicated ‘To the memory of my father . . . and all of our huguenot ancestors in Ireland as well as France’. Though primarily an introduction to its subject for interested readers, it characteristically emphasises its subjects’ debts to James Joyce (qv) and Beckett, emphasises formal literary developments rather than philosophical motivation, and criticises previous interpreters of the six writers under discussion – and indeed, some of the writers themselves – for deficiencies in humour. In 1972 Mercier was visiting lecturer at the commemoration by the American University of Beirut of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ulysses.
Mercier married (1974) Eilís Dillon (qv) and took up his last academic position as professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During these years Mercier and Dillon moved between California, Italy, and Dublin; their house in Rathgar became an important social and literary salon. They were conspicuously devoted to each other, and Mercier's student Anthony Roche commented that ‘in each other's company their individual charm, sympathy, and intelligence grew exponentially’ (Irish Literary Supplement, spring 1990, p. 3), though Mercier liked to shock some of Eilís's catholic middle-class friends by recalling that this was his third marriage. Beckett/Beckett (1978), dedicated to Dillon, explores its subject's work through a series of binary oppositions, situates him in relation to French as well as English literary traditions, and unashamedly draws on autobiographical material to illuminate Beckett's relationships with the Bible and the Abbey Theatre and the experience of their generation of southern Irish protestants seeking to define (or repudiate) their relationship with the new state. Beckett expressed a guarded respect for Mercier which contrasts with his dismissive attitude towards some other would-be explicators.
Mercier retired in 1987; he and Dillon moved permanently to Ireland, where he reviewed books for such publications as Books Ireland, added to his popularity as a speaker at summer schools, and worked on what he intended as a summative two-volume study of Modern Irish literature: sources and founders. This work, incomplete at his death, was edited by Dillon and published in 1994; it emphasises the role of lapsed evangelicals and children of the Church of Ireland rectory in creating the Irish literary revival, and the ways in which the revival-era writers continued to be influenced by this evangelical heritage in ways they themselves hardly recognised. As usual Mercier eschewed academic impersonality, and dealt out praise and blame unfearingly to the catholic and protestant traditions alike. Among unusual opinions, advanced with varying but unmistakable degrees of humour and seriousness, Mercier defended the novels of Shaw and Yeats's poem ‘The lake-isle of Innisfree’ as works of art; put forward a Shavian interpretation of the ‘Nighttown’ sequence of Ulysses as advocating social reform, and credited it with the disappearance of the Dublin red-light district; suggested that Shaw's ignorance of history led him into unthinking repetition of certain Irish protestant prejudices about catholicism and an ignorantly dismissive attitude towards the North; argued that Yeats, Synge, and Lady Gregory (qv) were motivated by residual prudery in preferring the romantic Deirdre (qv) of Early Modern Irish sources to the lusting, violated, and ultimately suicidal figure of the earlier Middle Irish version; suggested that Synge probably died a virgin and intended the timorous Shawn Keogh in the ‘Playboy’ as a mocking partial self-portrait; thought the early Joyce too inclined to assume everyone else's spiritual bankruptcy; and described Standish Hayes O'Grady (qv) as a quasi-fascist writer for schoolboys, whose Cú-Chulainn (qv) was as much a forgery as Macpherson's Ossian.
Mercier's last months combined happy family and intellectual relations with worsening illness (in autumn 1989 he spent some time in the Mater Nursing Home, Dublin, joking to melancholy visitors that he was becoming a Beckett character; Cruise O'Brien found him as penetrating, idiosyncratic, and annoying as ever), but his death on 3 November 1989 while on a family visit to London still came as a shock to many associates. He was buried with his parents in Clara after an ecumenical funeral service at St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin. He had two sons and a daughter by his first two marriages, was deeply fond of his stepchildren, and treated Dillon's grandchildren as his own. An appendix to his Modern Irish literature lists Mercier's books and journal articles (though not his book reviews), including a brief autobiographical note in Contemporary Authors, lxxxi–lxxxiv, 382–3.