From about 1910 through 1922, Agnes Boulton wrote short stories, novelettes, and dramatic sketches for the early pulp magazines and a couple of glossies. The stories depict the hard-boiled reality of working women attempting to cope with modern men. They range in tone from wry to wrenching, local to exotic. Several of them reflect on the trials of a young woman seeking the pathway to success in the literary or theatrical milieus of New York, but no one would mistake them for autobiography, because their chief mission, obviously, was to thrill the nerves. Her career began to take a different path when she married Eugene O’Neill in 1918. For a while, she tried to adapt her method to his taste, and O’Neill began to turn up as a model for some of her characters, just as Boulton did in O’Neill’s plays. Eventually, she got side-tracked from her writing career into maintaining her difficult marriage, managing expensive houses, and raising children.
When they divorced in 1929, Boulton resumed writing, but with a more cynical tone. Through the 1930s and 1940s, she kept writing—stories, screenplays, novels, some of them in collaboration with partners, first James Delaney, later Mac Kaufman—without much success. In 1944, she published a well-received novel, The Road Is Before Us, but that was essentially her only publication until 1958, when her memoir Part of a Long Story was published. In it, she recounts feelings of self-doubt about herself as a writer at the time she met O’Neill, late in 1917. Those misgivings had been heightened because of the inevitable comparison with her ingenious, though difficult, husband, who scorned commercial literary aspirations, at least for others.
At that moment, she was at the peak of her productivity, and on her way to being a well-established name in the world of pulp fiction. For monthly magazines that featured modern energy—“breezy,” “snappy,” “live wire” fiction—she provided stories that were alternately sad and happy, facetious and sincere. The things she came up with were wild, in a way, like monologue sketches of a Broadway chorine, domestic tales of a humble country girl in the city, and the reverse, wise guy/gal stories of the stupid world, with emphasis typically laid on the anxious experience of female characters, whether they knew what they were doing or not.
In this collection I offer a representative sample of her writing, illustrating for the reader what it was to write a prose sketch, a dramatic sketch, a story, or a novelette for such magazines. The stories reach to an outer edge of what was permissible in commonly available magazines—a little sexy, a little violent, a little up-close. What surprised me when I read these stories for the first time, after hunting blindly through the pulp magazines of the 1910s, was that many stories seemed to anticipate, or reflect, the story of Agnes meeting Gene, a marriage of bourgeois and radical sensibilities. It was as if she knew the man she was to meet before that meeting took place, perhaps because in some sense he was an inevitability in that era, as was she. Gene O’Neill is clearly the model for certain characters in her stories from 1918 to 1921, after the point when she had met him, as would be expected. But he, or a man of his sort, is also a character in her stories from before she even met him.
Being married all those years to O’Neill did no good to Boulton’s literary reputation, indeed, to her self-esteem. Popular favor was just the sort of thing to set off his anger, and commercial opportunists were his nemesis. At one point, in the early 1920s, when Boulton was thinking about writing scenarios for the movies, as a way to pay the bills, he urged her to “be your beautiful self and live out your life in the light,” adding, “I’ll hate you if you go in for it, honestly!” However, he did manage to acquire and maintain considerable wealth from his own writing, including numerous, lucrative sales to Hollywood.
After his divorce from Boulton, O’Neill vilified her as “greedy” and “parasitic.” This attitude carried over, with remarkably little effort to reexamine its assumptions, to the biographers and critics of O’Neill. They regarded Boulton as utterly insignificant as a writer, and their opinions have held sway to the present day. Not a single story by Boulton has been discussed in any of the biographical and critical studies of O’Neill.
I would not assert that Boulton was a writer of anything close to the level of O’Neill, or even of the many important (and similarly neglected) women writers of the same period, such as Tillie Olsen, Josephine Herbst, Susan Glaspell, Neith Boyce, Nella Larsen, and Fannie Hurst. Boulton’s career came to an early turning point, with the marriage to O’Neill, and she only reformulated her way, as a writer, much later in her life, at which point she adopted models more in line with established standards of taste. Still, I would say, this does not mean her early career should be dismissed. In fact, I think looking at her stories around the time frame of her alliance to such a formidable figure of literary authority as O’Neill will tell an important story, one worth knowing in the larger context of women’s writing. I have analyzed the stories included in this volume in my biographical study of Boulton, also in my edition of the Boulton-O’Neill correspondence (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000). The presentation of Boulton’s stories here serves as an extended appendix to those books, but, as I have indicated above, I think they would merit reading entirely on their own.
Boulton’s writings for the pulp magazines give us a glimpse of a mainstream of popular writing just as its patterns were developing. Later pulp writers addressed a more differentiated reading public, especially in terms of gender, with “adventure” and “cowboy” and “hard-boiled” stories functionally distinct from the “weepy” and “domestic” and “soft” stories, also those that sharply scrutinized the modern marriage in terms of radical new values. Boulton managed to mesh together these sub-genres of popular fiction, with no set agenda.
His Former Wife, from 1910, represents the earliest Boulton publication I have found. She was about eighteen when this little tale of marital shenanigans appeared in 10 Story Book, which eventually became an “under-the-counter” magazine, featuring nude photographs. In its early years, however, it featured an eclectic set of stories by writers like George Ade and Maxim Gorki.
With Eyes of Flesh declares in its title some of the prurient fascination on which these early magazines feasted. The “pulp” market was dominated by Street and Smith (Astounding Stories) and the many magazines published by Frank Munsey (Munsey’s, Argosy, Railroad Man’s Weekly, etc.), but newcomers to the market were having great success in a burgeoning field, including Courtland Young. Young’s Magazine was followed by Breezy Stories and Snappy Stories, and his publications were the chief outlet for Agnes Boulton’s fiction.
Out of the Past is not one of the better examples of Boulton’s writing, but it provides an example of the long form, which paid a little better, the novelette. She earned about $150 for this publication. The fact that the novelette was the featured story in this issue of Breezy Stories (see cover image) shows that by 1917 she had acquired some prominence in the field.
In Bohemia, published in July 1917, some four months before she met O’Neill, says a lot about her anticipation of the Bohemian, Greenwich Village milieu into which she was to marry within a year.
Oh, La-La!, which was published just a couple of months after Boulton met O’Neill, gives the earliest glimpse of Eugene O’Neill as a character. It continues her study, from within the popular form, of the “higher” aspirations of the emerging artistic culture of New York modernism.
Only a Shop Girl reflects in a touching way on the situation of Agnes Boulton, with her limited success in the “shop,” looking for a way to succeed.
The Snob is one of two publications by Boulton in the Smart Set, a sophisticated magazine for the literary intelligentsia, co-edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. It speaks to some of the limitations in the husband she had married only three years earlier.
The convenient thing about an on-line edition is that it can be augmented, corrected, improved, without the need for reprinting. My forthcoming biographical-critical study of the literary marriage of Agnes Boulton and Eugene O’Neill offers a detailed study of many of the writings of Agnes Boulton (Another Part of a Long Story: Literary Traces of Agnes Boulton and Eugene O’Neill; forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press in 2010). I would be happy to hear requests for more primary documents of Agnes Boulton at email@example.com or through Harley Hammerman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
William Davies King
“In an Hour of Spring,” which Harley Hammerman found on eBay
in May 2012, eluded me in my search for Boulton short stories for my
Another Part of a Long Story: Literary Traces of Eugene O’Neill
and Agnes Boulton (2010). I searched through the bound volumes
and microfilms of many magazines of the 1910s, but I did not find
this one, which began as a publication of the S.H. Moore Co. in
1886. In 1912, it was bought by McClure Publications. It was a
low-price “pulp” magazine, aimed at a mass market.
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