[This article was originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of ZYZZYVA. Special thanks to Howard Junker, the editor of ZYZZYVA, for his support.]
The face of Eugene O’Neill is American tragedy
itself. Severe lines, rigid jaw, and midnight eyes
project the grim story of A Long Day’s Journey
into Night (LDJN), three difficult marriages,
three distant children, and never a sure sense of
The face of Dr. Harley Hammerman is something else entirely, as if a different species occupied those features. His steady, smiling gaze speaks of a successful and highly respected radiologist, who is also proud owner of the largest privately held collection of Eugene O’Neill manuscripts, inscribed editions, photographs, programs, posters, recordings, films, and scholarship in the world. After 35 years of amassing this collection, he created its perfect twenty-first-century container, an enormous website—eOneill.com— which has shaken the world of O’Neill studies to the x-rayed bone.
Like O’Neill, Dr. Hammerman looks deeply within humanity, but with an eye to the pathology of the human body, not the soul’s wounds. He has lived his whole life in St. Louis, with a large, affectionate family not far away, and ready to gather, as they did recently for his father’s 85th birthday.
The dinner party took place at the St. Louis Club, in pseudo-chateau splendor on the top floor of a modern office tower in the western suburbs. Harley, who is the eldest son, arrived first, along with his wife, Marlene. They met in high school and married when he was a medical student and she an undergraduate at Washington University. Harley had accumulated rocks, stamps, and coins as a boy, but by the time he was 17, he was already a collector of O’Neill. Marlene tells me, “I make fun of the fact that he collects these things, but I’ve always admired the fact that he has such passion, and for something so serious.”
That passion awakened in the high school English class of Wanda Bowers, who had legendarily given Tennessee Williams an F in the same course some 35 years earlier. One day, she read The Emperor Jones in class, beating her hands on the desk to make the sound of the tom-toms. “I was hooked,” Harley recalls. Soon after that, he bought a first edition Ah, Wilderness! at the St. Louis Book Fair and began his collection. He blushes now about those naive early purchases. Ah, Wilderness! lacked a dust jacket and was worn with use. That treasure was long ago superseded by several presentation copies, signed copies of limited editions, and galley proofs of the first edition.
As family members arrive, it becomes clear that they all have intelligence and a creative flair. His brothers, Al and Curtis, both younger, are also radiologists, but one composes songs, and the other has a comedian’s wit. His kid sister, Linky, is an architect. Over dinner, she tells me the story of how their father, Irv, had been a secret agent during the war, in fact an assassin who was dropped behind enemy lines to take out various targets. No one had heard this story, not even his wife, until he began telling it one day to one of Harley’s sons...and later wrote it out as a memoir. He owned a big advertising agency in St. Louis until his recent retirement. In excellent condition, with a short, powerful body, he is a figure of driving will, and all the family treat him with the respect that comes of admiration and a little fear.
Harley’s mother, Selene, has a regal, all-seeing quality, and I hear that she keeps a meticulous record of all the dinner parties she has ever given, with guest list, exact menu, and all receipts. She also has a detailed list of all the gifts she has given. The source of Harley’s fascination with cataloguing his collection is not hard to find.
After dinner, Harley is the first to give a toast, and he presents the impressive collection of family members, 30 or so, to his father with all the pride he feels in his copies of O’Neill first editions. They are exquisite items, these accomplished Hammermans, in the heart of the heart of the country, and here, surrounded by red satin walls and tall windows looking out on a city that has yielded them so much, the blessed family glows. Such is the evening as managed by Harley.
It is not that elements of modern angst are absent. Through the evening, I hear of divorces, disabilities, dysfunction, and that wildly discordant word assassin. Then, too, the sarcasm expressed by others (rarely Harley) can be sharp, even for a close-knit Jewish family. However, a degree of control gives this family a proper container, an order, a coherence, and a value of the whole that exceeds any one of its parts—in other words, the typical qualities of a great collection.
O’Neill’s family never had such qualities. His mother and father were dead by 1922, when his Broadway career was just getting going. His only brother died a year later, a doomed alcoholic, and after that it took three years of effort before Gene was able to curb his own suicidal drinking. All that occurred before his 40th birthday. He saw several psychoanalysts during those years in an effort to come to terms with his tumultuous life story—mother’s drug addiction and disappointed ideals, father’s vanity as a theatrical idol and miserly habits, and brother’s inclination to whores and nihilism.
At some point in the 1920s, O’Neill wrote out a page of penciled notes about all of this. It is a verbal sonogram of O’Neill’s wounded psyche. On unlined paper, the notes stream across the page in rigidly parallel lines, with hardly a correction. The handwriting is almost illegibly tiny, as if to contain the explosive energy of the story he is caught between expressing and repressing, the story that would eventually become LDJN. Louis Sheaffer and other biographers date the page to the early months of 1926, when O’Neill was seeing a psychiatrist.
Harley bought this note in 1985 from Sheaffer, who got it from O’Neill’s second wife, who had kept it, as well as some other O’Neill documents, in defiance of the terms of the divorce.
The page had once been folded numerous times, perhaps for easy transport to a psychiatrist’s office, and the paper is dirty with handling. O’Neill’s sweaty fingers had perhaps inscribed the page as legibly as his pencil.
I have read these notes before. Sheaffer transcribed them in his biography, and they have been quoted elsewhere. Then, too, I have seen a scanned image of them, as well as a transcript, on Harley’s website, and anyone can get to them with a few clicks. Still, there is something amazing about having the actual page before me, in Harley’s study, and that is what draws collectors to their objects. No matter how digitally exact, laser prints do not hold the same fascination.
As the owner of the document and the website, Harley has the right and opportunity to offer his opinion that the page was written not for a psychiatrist in 1926, but as notes for a play O’Neill never finished writing, “The Sea-Mother’s Son,” which he sketched in 1927, a dozen years before he began writing LDJN. We know from other notes that the earlier play would have used a flashback device to show the author experiencing once again the painful story of his birth family, with psychoanalytic revelations of the sort seen in movies like Ordinary People.
The question of just when and why the document was written will never be resolved, much to the frustration of the scholar. For whatever purpose, that page escaped from the intentional grasp of O’Neill and spun wildly into the realm of ambiguous, indeterminate documents, where it will forever remain. And yet it will also remain, in all its pristine messiness, a stubborn object in the time lock of Harley’s collection.
Does it matter whether the page was written in 1926 or 1927? To the interpreters of O’Neill’s plays, it might matter a great deal. Indeed, a scholar, such as myself, working on a biographical-critical study of O’Neill in his marriage to Agnes Boulton during those exact years, might find it of compelling interest to determine one way or the other. (My study, Another Part of a Long Story: Literary Traces of Agnes Boulton and Eugene O’Neill, will be published by the University of Michigan Press next year.)
O’Neill’s note raises a nagging question within this admittedly minute area of research. Of course, it mattered a lot to O’Neill what was behind that manuscript, since it was his suffering that produced it, and it might have mattered to the psychiatrist who was trying to help relieve that suffering, but by now their concerns have died. The puzzle will always remain. For the moment, Harley will have the manuscript and visitors to the website will have access, but the question of where the manuscript—and the website—will go is open.
On a Monday morning, Harley goes to work at Metro Imaging, which employs more than 60 people. From five different centers, technologists send images through a secured network to him and several partners. These days, his investigation into the suffering of patients can be done without his ever being within a hundred miles of the patients, but he prefers to do this work in his office. From a high resolution screen he can zoom in on the least shadow or distortion, anything visible to an MRI or computed tomography or ultrasonography, intravenous pyelography, myelography, arthrography, mammography, or something called x-ray.
A click of the mouse brings up 50 successive images from a CT scan of someone’s torso. Selecting the uppermost, he begins scanning through the images—through the body, from chest to pelvis—checking shadows and contours against his mental catalog of anatomical variations. He’s looking for anything abnormal: “The hardest thing for a radiologist is learning to see what’s normal. You can learn the pathophysiology, how the body changes with disease, from textbooks, but bodies simply are, normally, different.”
As a left kidney comes into view, I see a large, circular, dark area, two or three inches in diameter, nothing like what I see in the right kidney. I am prepared to be appalled, but Harley says, “That’s a cyst, of no medical significance.” A few screens later, though, lower down, the right kidney shows a small, bright, white irregular form. “That’s a kidney stone, extremely painful, as I know from experience.” (Some forms of knowledge require no degree.) Many times, Harley will find nothing at all out of the ordinary in the images. The patient suffers, and yet he can only say, “No known pathology,” so shadowy screen after shadowy screen of normality might be Postmodern existentialography, depicting the pain of merely being, in clear knowledge of the fact that the iceman cometh.
When he is concentrating on this work, Harley can
“read” a patient in just a few minutes, with not a
word of bedside chat. He mainly deals with
technologists and other physicians, not bewildered
patients or their families, and therefore the
business operates with efficiency and yields a large
income. But it’s a world of humanity reduced to dim
traces, and so it is a relief when an e-mail pops up
from the world of O’Neill.
At the age of 51, O’Neill began working on the first of his late, great plays—The Iceman Cometh, followed by LDJN—and by the age of 54 he had completed his final play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, only to suffer on for another eleven years, beset by a nervous tremor and unable to write at all. The doctors misdiagnosed his disease as Parkinson’s syndrome but could not have done much for him in any case.
Years ago, there was a documentary film about him, The Face of Genius, and a similarly titled exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Genius is a code word for “romantic soul.” O’Neill was a latter-day romantic, a visionary, who faced the supremacy of materialism in twentieth-century America, its spiritual desolation and corruptive power, its heedless brutality and emotional devastation, and recognized his own sad condition.
The 62 one-act and full-length plays finished between 1912 and 1941 read like a CT scan of how difficult it was to be an uncorrupted being during those years, to stand back from the rampant capitalism, crude racism, and winner’s egotism of ascendant American society. From a very early point in O’Neill’s career, he was publishing his plays through the firm of Boni & Liveright. They began the series that would become the Modern Library, which aimed to make the world’s classics available at a modest price. However, they also published editions aimed at the market of collectors. For an additional fee, O’Neill himself signed thousands of numbered title pages for “deluxe editions.” Random House, which after the stock market crash took over the O’Neill publications, began as a firm that catered to book collectors.
“Of all the editions of O’Neill, the ones that interest me least are the collectors’ editions,” Harley tells me, “though they do show amazing craftsmanship in the art of the book.” He shows me his signed and numbered copy (#324) of Lazarus Laughed, bound in a batik cover that looks as fresh as it ever did, and set in a slipcase that looks new. I know how extraordinary this is, because I, too, own a copy of this edition. Back in about 1970, at about the same age that Harley began his collection, I felt sufficiently moved by this playwright, whose works I had obsessively read since I was 13, that I knew I had to have something O’Neill himself had touched. A book dealer’s catalog offered me a copy from this edition, least expensive of all the signed editions, and I was thrilled beyond words when the package arrived and I could lay my finger on the dried ink from O’Neill’s own pen.
This turned out to be the one and only signed copy of an O’Neill edition I have ever owned. My copy (#132) cost just $35 because the slipcase had broken on every edge. Years later, when I published an edition of the correspondence of O’Neill and Agnes Boulton, I realized that he had signed my book sometime early in the week following October 11, 1927, when he complains in a letter to Agnes of having all those 750 books to sign. He had procrastinated on this task, because he was surreptitiously visiting Carlotta Monterey, for whom he would soon leave his marriage to Agnes.
All the rest of my O’Neill books are ragged with overuse, as I have wrestled with the question of what it meant for him to leave Agnes for Carlotta. My books have been crushed open in huge piles, dog-eared, tagged with Post-its, scribbled on in the margins, altogether ruined from a collector’s point of view. The dust jackets have kept the dust away, but not the storm and stress of hard work on O’Neill.
Harley’s books are exquisite, which literally means beyond question. As he replaces one spotless copy of a first edition on the shelf, he pushes until it is exactly even with every other book. The Mylar-covered bindings gleam with newly minted words, clean imagery, as if this were an ideal universe. O’Neill counted on these published editions, more than on his productions, to stand for all that he wanted to say in a play. He allowed directors, with approval, to make limited cuts, but these were typically restored for publication. Many of the items in Harley’s collection reflect O’Neill’s struggle to subdue the chaos of the world so that his art would at last take on that crisp, final form—letters to his agent and theatrical collaborators, carbon typescripts of plays, with autograph comments and emendations—and these items Harley matches with their ideal containers, such as precisely handcrafted boxes, neatly lettered on the spine, which have the effect of transforming these more entropic items into something resembling the neatly chronologized editions.
“It was an accident,” says Harley, when I ask how it came to be O’Neill he collected, not some other author. He had felt the theatrical excitement of The Emperor Jones when his teacher read the play aloud, and then he had found Ah, Wilderness! at the book fair, and that happened to be O’Neill’s one mature effort at comedy. He began looking closely at the American Bookseller’s Weekly and could see that copies of O’Neill first editions were available, though not without a hunt. They were valuable, but not out of reach. As he bought these published editions, he read the plays, and many of them were just as good as the ones with which he had begun. Some were not, but the published editions consistently proved that, even at his worst, O’Neill was a serious artist. Then, too, with the wave of biographies and critical studies of O’Neill that came out around the time he began collecting, Harley could feed his appetite for research, looking for the inner life of the objects on his shelf and, perhaps, through them to his own inner life.
The adjective dark is inescapable in discussing O’Neill, so it was not always easy for Harley to read further into those uncompromising plays and the turbulent life story of their author. Dark is the last word you would use to describe the character of Harley, and yet he turns just as readily now to O’Neill as he did at 16, but the technology of his collecting—as well as his self-understanding—has advanced.
One evening, he and Marlene and I sat in their living room. In contrast to the monochromatic study, where the O’Neill collection is housed, the high-perched living room, which looks over a now-winterized pool to a dense wood, is alive with color and intensity. The whole wall surrounding the fireplace is constructed of aggressive, jagged fieldstones. Another wall is wood paneled, but with a stained plywood, crude enough to display countless knotholes, all roughly filled with a dull, contrasting putty. The effect is as if the walls were shouting into the quiet, woodland copse. Rough-cut stone tables support huge ceramic pieces, so luminous they seem plugged in. Various objets d’art, all perfect and clean and precious and outspoken, rigidly occupy their assigned space. The paintings on the wall are all large, contemporary surrealist overstatements, led by an untitled Matta, which is a bay window on the unconscious.
You can’t spend a minute in this house without becoming aware of the barely containable canine energy of Harley’s two dogs, Shane and Macy. They bark and gnaw, leap and snarl, as if to demonstrate the full possibility of animalistic liveliness. An elaborate system of childgates and cages, leashes, and runs governs their place in this highly managed house. They evidently serve as reminders of the bounding life of their three grown children: Adam, a website designer; Zachary, an intellectual property lawyer; and Abby, just out of law school.
Marlene worked for 22 years as an options counselor at a local abortion clinic, then obtained a Master of Social Work degree and practiced family therapy. Her passion, though, is for advocacy, mobilizing the good impulses of local volunteers to stand up for reproductive rights and the separation of religion and state. As a therapist, her method was far from psychoanalysis, which she came to regard as outmoded because its power and authority are vested in the figure of the analyst and the notion that healing could only come with recognition of one’s “true” story. She had adopted a therapeutic method called narrative therapy, first devised in the 1980s by a number of different authors, by which a patient might creatively rewrite his or her life story in order to escape some dismal pattern of behavior (bulimia, alcoholism, promiscuity, etc.). One aspect of this therapy is to de-emphasize the authority of the therapist, who is sometimes even hidden behind a screen, with the idea that the power to effect change can and must ultimately come from the self-reinvention of the patient, not the transferential figure of the therapist/parent/god.
Marlene’s reading of Ah, Wilderness! O’Neill’s comical alternative to the family story that would later emerge as LDJN, was that O’Neill had stumbled upon this method as a means of healing himself, long before it was ever worked out by professionals. The family in the play was a pastiche of his own family and one that lived down the street— he had spent a lot of time with them. Effectively, he was imagining what it would have been like to have been raised in that different family.
In fact, there is some evidence that the psychiatrist O’Neill saw in 1925–26, Dr. Gilbert Hamilton, who was among those mapping out a behavioral approach to therapy, might have helped O’Neill push toward such a narrative solution to his drinking problem. If he could only accept that his anger toward his wife, who was also a drinker, might help him rewrite his anger toward his mother, who was a withdrawn morphine addict, in such a way that he could reject her (wife/mother) in a way that would allow him to have positive identification with his father, who was also a drinker but not withdrawn, then he could use his anger, not to withdraw, but to stop drinking. One consequence, however, was divorce.
Marlene and Harley enjoy vintage wines along with a good meal. It is impossible to imagine them intoxicated. The dogs bounce with animal energy all around, and the walls scream from the id, but they remain at the still center, strong egos, deeply attached to each other. Marlene described Harley’s ritual when a package would arrive with some precious addition to the collection. The box would wait unopened on his desk until they had all had dinner and the evening routines of homework had begun. Then, and only then, he would approach the package and slowly, carefully open it until the book or manuscript was laid bare. He would explore every page, answer any question that might occur with his reference collection, enter the information into his database, and only then place the cherished item in its designated spot on his shelves or in his file drawers. Most of the things he bought for the collection he would not have seen in advance, but had purchased through known and respected dealers— only rarely would he be disappointed. Soon, he came to be known by a wide variety of dealers as the first person to call with anything extraordinary. He’s not aware of any rival with a collection nearly as good, and his collection has no obvious gaps. Still, he has moments of doubt about whether the legacy of O’Neill will continue to be as important to the coming generations as it has been during his own lifetime. What, in the end, will have been the point of collecting O’Neill?
That night, I had a dream of Harley. I was sleeping in what had been his daughter’s room, surrounded by her teenage romance novels, old issues of Cosmo and Shape, Van Morrison and “emo” CDs, eating disorder memoirs and Holocaust narratives, cheerleading memorabilia and teddy bears, The Portable Swift, and the occasional book on Nietzsche to show she had been an English major as an undergrad. The room was cold, but I had heavy blankets and a tablet of blank paper. I had been trying to work through in my mind Harley’s quiet midlife crisis, which was that by the late 1990s his collecting fascination had begun to dwindle. That thing that had given structure, meaning, and ritual to his life was beginning to lose its fascination. By the time he was in his 30s, he had reached his first goal, procuring an impeccable set of copies of first editions, many of them inscribed. He had also, by the time he was in his 40s, managed to get in on some of the few remaining caches of O’Neill letters and manuscripts, but the likelihood of any more of that sort of thing coming along had sharply diminished with time. The ephemera—programs, photographs, posters, etc.—continued to show up through dealers or eBay but held less interest. It just didn’t excite him in the old way, partly because it was so haphazard, so far from the direct control of O’Neill the artist.
In my dream I saw Harley as a diagram, pulsing with tension. Three concentric rings surrounded a void into which all that was the collection had gone. Below the three rings, cushioning their arc, was a foundational segment that was Marlene, so that the O of the rings was held in the notch of the M, its support. Around the three rings were silhouettes of birds, wings uplifted. The rings, the children, were taking flight, and I felt a kind of desperation in the diagram. All that collecting poured into the center, but there was no outlet. Then, abruptly, the three rings became shock waves, widening ripples, as the whole configuration changed in 1999, when, as a 50th-birthday present his children gave him a website, just a handful of megabytes...which then became eOneill.com.
Very few modern authors have been treated as well as O’Neill by a website. What began as simply a means of cataloging and celebrating his collection online soon expanded to a site with finding guides for most of the major institutional O’Neill collections, online texts of most of the plays and several key scholarly works, audio and video files presenting numerous different productions, as well as bulletin boards for news about productions, publications, conferences, forums for reviews, essays, and research queries. The site has gotten up to 90,000 hits a month and now uses about 400 megabytes. That’s nothing like the numbers for the website of JayZ, or even Garrison Keillor, but for a tragic playwright who died in 1953, it is considerable.
Harley would like to see every item in his collection available online. He has been told that giving away the contents of his collection in this manner only lessens their monetary value, but a different economy guides this aspect of his collecting—and running the website is unquestionably an extension of his collecting. While the classic collector cultivates private possession, and thus exclusive rights, Harley has chosen to use his collection to focus a community. Many other collectors have created websites, generally as a way of showing off or to open up the possibility of trades or sales. Providing a place to exchange information is another common motive among collectors’ websites, but Harley takes his aspiration much further.
O’Neill wrote plays to have a profound effect on the world. Harley has felt their power from the time he was 16, and so he wants to ensure that the teenagers of today, not to mention the adults, would also have that opportunity. In a sense, then, the website is a way of carrying on the expressive act of O’Neill’s playwriting.
Certainly he has drawn the attention of high school and college students worldwide, whose first impulse upon being given any topic to research is to do a Google search. Harley’s website instantly springs to their attention. Sometimes, the inquiries are well considered and deserving of a careful reply. At other times, they might say: “hi Im sposed to write 10 pages on Eugene ONeil & realism does anybody have any ideas????”
Even worse are the “trolls” who sometimes appear with seemingly inane questions, like “Anyone know of a good site for criticism on O’Neill’s plays or poetry by other famous poets or playwrites?” (John, May 12, 2003). Their aim is to bait anyone who might give an amusing performance of exasperation.
This was all new to many on the site, including myself. Trained on typewriters, we were just beginning to learn net culture. Obviously, “John” was at an exceptionally rich site for “criticism on O’Neill’s plays or poetry,” and yet he was pleading for advice about how to find just such a site. Working out the irony of this at a glacial pace, I volunteered the requisite tantrum, by responding, “Try the library, where books are kept.” John came back with, “Damn, your funny...wow what a great help you are,” and I felt instant remorse. But then someone asked John what O’Neill work he was trying to investigate, only to learn that he had been asked to give a two-hour presentation on a trivial and forgotten early work by O’Neill, some juvenile poem, at which point I gave the troll his prize by delivering this prissy message: “I’m just astonished at the utter absurdity of this situation. A student who can’t even spell is assigned by an English teacher to give a two-hour presentation on the most trivial piece of writing by O’Neill, and instead of taking the time to read any single piece of drama that makes this author important or going to a library he engages in a lengthy online quest for a shortcut to completing his assignment. And we get to read it all. It’s a situation worthy of one of the great comic novelists. Sorry for the mild sarcasm of my last message. Please replace it with the harsh sarcasm of this one.” Only after that did someone add the word troll to my vocabulary.
At the time, I had not met Harley. Most people in the world of O’Neill studies know of Harley long before they ever meet him, because he is such a scrupulous guardian of the website. He hated the fact that it was becoming a place where temperamental meltdowns of this sort (and I was far from alone) were taking place. Even worse, though, was the fact that most members of the academic community were nowhere to be seen on the site. Several complained that they just did not have time, but Harley, who typically puts in more than 50 hours a week as a physician while working constantly to expand and improve the website, had little patience with them. If the experts on O’Neill did not have the energy or commitment to help the next generation of readers and theater-goers, who would?
Foremost among the O’Neill scholars from the 1950s till his death in 1997 was Travis Bogard, of UC-Berkeley, who applied the highest editorial standards to O’Neill’s texts, while also generating subtle literary historical interpretations. He was a gruff man—bearded, round, bellicose—in a department so fractious it was said to have gone several years without once having a meeting. On the other hand, he was instrumental in creating the Eugene O’Neill Foundation in 1974, an organization that was meant to create a community around Tao House, O’Neill’s residence in Danville, California, 1937–44, where those famous late plays had been written. The aim was to make the house, which had been acquired by the National Park Service, into a center for O’Neill studies, with an occasional semiprofessional theatrical production. Unfortunately, the community, meaning the neighbors, had other ideas, mainly about keeping out the crowds. Still, from his house in the Berkeley hills and his summer house in Anchor Bay, in Mendocino, Bogard commanded a West Coast, late-play vantage point on O’Neill studies. He saw traces of autobiography in many of the plays, but for him the value of this evidence was not in how the author characterized his life but in how O’Neill relates to modernist representations of the self, from Conrad to Otto Rank. He did a lot to establish O’Neill as a field of “difficult” knowledge, not for the dilettante or lightweight. Meanwhile, a revisionist school had come forward to suggest that O’Neill’s place in the canon might well be understood in terms of his place within the discourses of gender, race, class, and classic form. Perhaps Susan Glaspell, not O’Neill, should be seen as the progenitor of American drama.
In an increasingly quarrelsome period of critical studies, professors of O’Neill coalesced around several institutions, such as The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter, which Fred Wilkins started publishing at Suffolk University in 1977, after declaring: “America’s greatest dramatist deserves the honor that has been granted many of his literary inferiors: a regular publication devoted solely to him and his work. Not a pudgy review or quarterly, for there are already many sources for publishing more sizable essays and monographs; but a newsletter, in which those far-flung articles can be summarized, in which forthcoming O’Neill productions and books can be announced (and previous ones reviewed), and in which the O’Neillians of academe can share news and insights with O’Neillians of the proscenium.”
A year later, a group of about 30 “O’Neill enthusiasts” met in New York and resolved to establish the Eugene O’Neill Society, with plans to organize conferences and perpetuate the legacy of O’Neill. From the beginning, both the Newsletter and the Society sought to bring together the interests of individuals whose motives did not always blend well. Academic scholars ultimately sought publication, with full peer review, which is what establishes the validity of the research, and meanwhile they could enjoy the diversion of live theater. Actors, directors, and playwrights appreciated the difficulty and seriousness of O’Neill’s work, as well as its theatrical power, and saw the Society as a way of paying homage and keeping their standards high, though they might scoff at some of the headier papers being given at the conferences. Theatrical celebrities enjoyed the attention of academic powerhouses, and vice versa.
Harley has been a member of the O’Neill Society almost from the beginning, but he is often skeptical about the work of academics. He has collected copies of first editions of the critical and biographical works, many of them inscribed by the author. Worth several tens of dollars, these books go into the same Mylar sleeves as the O’Neill first editions worth several hundreds or thousands. When scholars help him date an item in his collection or identify a reference, he is pleased, but critical discourse does not hold his attention. The original Eugene O’Neill Newsletter split in 1989 into the Eugene O’Neill Review, indeed a “pudgy review,” offering the sort of peer-reviewed validation that career academics require for tenure and promotion, and a new version of the Newsletter, consisting solely of announcements and brief reviews. The Newsletter typically came out too late to be useful, and the Review could be horribly boring for a nonacademic, though the material was always respectable.
With the advent of the website, Harley came into more contact with the academics than ever before, and, ultimately, this would lead to a clash of cultures between the appreciators of O’Neill and the professors. Harley knew that the web could be timelier than a printed newsletter, and he hoped that the web would lead critics to become more attuned to a general audience. However, few professors bothered to post anything on the site or to answer those pleas for help on a term paper. Harley saw this as, at best, apathy on the part of the academics, and, at worst, a careless disregard for the future position of O’Neill within American culture.
A low point was reached when Harley highlighted the following message from an 18-year-old student from Mexico:
The arrival of this message coincided with a time when, after some difficult years, the gap between the Society and eOneill.com was closing. The Society has been reasonably active in recent years, with conferences every two or three years at the site of former O’Neill homes (Tours, Bermuda, Provincetown, Danville), and regular panels at several of the annual literary conferences, such as the Modern Language Association. A group of younger scholars has taken the lead at the Society, and they are at least cognizant of the Internet. The Review, which had gone through a difficult period, was back to a regular publication schedule and under a new editor, Zander Brietzke, who then became the Society’s president.
Zander is a kid among the grizzled lions of O’Neill studies. When it came time for him to test his Ph.D. on the job market, he preferred becoming a “house husband” and “independent scholar” to taking just any academic job the market might care to offer, so he is an academic more in spirit than in profession. He watches over children and dogs while editing the Review and writing remarkably insightful criticism of O’Neill. With his tweed jacket and barrel-chested laugh, he led the Society into Provincetown, the artsy town where O’Neill got his start in 1915. Foremost among his challenges was figuring out how to deal with eOneill.com and Harley Hammerman.
Zander grew up in Joplin, Missouri, and he quickly realized that he had, at least, the St. Louis Cardinals in his favor. Alongside his first editions, Harley has baseballs signed by Albert Pujols, Lou Brock, and other famous Cards. He also has a copy of Zander’s book, The Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill, a first edition, but not inscribed. Harley and Zander do not always see eye to eye. Critics are like radiologists, attuned to looking at negatives. They see deep trauma and understand its effect on the whole organism. Zander’s book is an outstanding example of that, discerning “failure” as a key term in interpreting the plays. You have to get to know Zander before you can appreciate his wry sensibility, as in the rich irony of failure as genius. As an O’Neill freak, Zander had made only a few forays into eOneill.com, and those were characteristically mordant. Harley is more accustomed to the language of success and positivistic science, and so the meeting in Provincetown would pose challenges for them both.
In terms of efficiently getting the word out about events, publications, productions, and so on, Harley’s website had already proven itself far more efficient than the old paper Newsletter. Even before the meeting, Harley had begun to make back issues of the Newsletter available in an online archive, and now they were indexed and fully searchable. It seems both Zander and Harley came to the meeting with the idea that eOneill.com should become the “official” website of the Society, which had had no site at all up to that time. For several months, the website carried that designation, but then came the e-mail from the student in Mexico and the continuing neglect of the site by most of the academics. Zander defended the Society members, arguing that some of the inquiries were hardly worthy answering. (In an e-mail to Harley, Zander remarked: “I coach my son’s baseball team, but I don’t ask Tony LaRussa [the Cardinals’ coach] for tips, even though I know he knows more about the game than I do.”)
Other controversies still seethed, such as the reluctance of O’Neill scholars to publish their research on the site, preferring instead the O’Neill Review, which continued to come out annually— a dinosaur, thought Harley. Zander recalls him saying, “No print journal has a chance against this website.” Zander had, by then, learned the surprising fact that online publication of academic journals does little or nothing to undermine their circulation. Wasn’t this the moment to connect the world of O’Neill studies to the communication mode of our time, the Web, and wasn’t Harley offering the perfect venue, free of charge?
In fact, the professors cling to publication on paper because universities continue to insist upon that as the valid way of making the research count toward tenure and promotion. Professors continue to give papers at ill-attended panels at conferences because that is the only way they can get their institutions to pay for the trip. Professors continue to pursue their obscure lines of research, even if occasional students and the general public call them “O’Neill freaks” and chastise them for their failure to communicate. After a year of detente, Harley had had enough of the Society and deleted the words “Official website of the Eugene O’Neill Society.”
Zander tends to be fatalistic about these questions. He is skeptical of centralized authority, which is an ironic, but perhaps timely, point of view for the president of a learned society. In fact, these institutions—the Society, the Newsletter, the Review, Tao House, and others—have coexisted without central control, as independent entities, and so has eOneill.com. A website can exist anywhere on earth and everywhere, and yet, in fact, this one can be traced to the laptop of Harley Hammerman, in St. Louis. The whole system is based on credit, that is, belief in the ongoing value of the information and ideas organized on the site, also the ongoing value of O’Neill himself.
Harley’s collection is like the gold in Fort Knox. In the old days, those ingots stood behind the legal tender. Nowadays, the value of a dollar is more free-floating, and so is the value of O’Neill. If one month should pass in which the EarthLink bill is not paid, the site would disappear, and a whole community would wonder why. Websites do not necessarily have the permanence of institutions, much less of collected copies of first editions. The commitment of one radiologist, who by his nature happens to hold such an astonishing collection, is only just that. Universities will go on, professors will be tenured, and O’Neill studies might or might not continue to focus on that work. Actors and directors will continue to turn their attention to O’Neill from time to time, and audiences might or might not continue to make that work worthwhile.
What will become of the website and the collection? To the latter question, Harley admits, he has no answer. He does not like the thought of it being swallowed up in one of the big libraries, and the small libraries might not have enough interest or the budget to maintain it properly. Marlene and the kids are not much interested in O’Neill and might be inclined to send the material back out into the market. The collection’s future, therefore, remains undefined, and for that reason the collection remains unfinished.
It is said that all collections have the form of a story, with beginning, middle, and end. A whole life, the life of the collection as displaced from the life of the collector, takes place within that story, the most basic form of which is a quest romance with a happy ending. The collector, like the melodramatic hero, falls out of the home and discovers the world with its false glitter and concealed gold. The material allure of the illusionary world is powerful and dangerous. Evil lurks, and yet there is good to be found by those of pure intention. The quest begins for a hidden truth, which resides in dark spaces. Value is wrested from junk. At last, the fallen world is redeemed, and wholeness is restored, but then the cycle begins again with the following generation. A collection is conceived from wish, born into the marketplace, raised by a belief in the magic potency of individual objects, challenged by competitive dealers, and finally achieves its destiny, though sometimes the ending is sad. Acid-free boxes are gray.
The story of O’Neill’s life yielded the stories (plays) of O’Neill, which yielded the story of O’Neill’s life, as seen in the plays, which then yielded the story of the story of O’Neill, in biography, which then yielded the story of the story of the story of O’Neill in critical discussion of his life/plays/autobiography/biography—and the whole process amounts to a series of retellings. It goes on and on. Each layer of storytelling is based in the old, but also finds its footing in the new. The old story, retold, finds out what needs to be said now to go on. Each retelling has the potential to take the story to the next level, which is simultaneously deeper and more specific to the moment of retelling.
The recent Ric Burns film, Eugene O’Neill—A Documentary Film, written by Burns and Arthur and Barbara Gelb and telecast by PBS on March 27, 2006, is a perfect example. Compare it to Perry Miller Adato’s 1985 documentary, A Glory of Ghosts, or other O’Neill documentaries, and you can see how specific to its time a documentary film can be. One immediate effect of its being televised was that the number of hits at eOneill.com jumped by 100,000.
Recently, Harley has been offering his collection to libraries that would care for it well and give it good prominence, and there are many that would covet such a collection, but he has put in a “catch.” The library that accepts the collection should also take on the website and keep it going indefinitely. The typical Director of Special Collections will gladly commit thousands of dollars to climate control and acid-free containment, but might balk at the ongoing labor of insuring that a collection will be accessible to the World Wide Web. It costs $25.95 per month to keep the site not only up, via Dotster, but lively as well. For the moment, though, Harley has and the website has continued to mutate, always growing beyond itself, always in search of the perfect form, which will never be final.
Meanwhile, the Eugene O’Neill Society voted, at last, to create its own website, eugeneoneillsociety.org, with a link to Harley’s. You can find the minutes of the Society’s board meetings, but you won’t find any sweat-stained manuscripts there or a photograph of O’Neill at the age of five, holding a puppy.
The Hammerman Collection of Eugene O’Neill came to a point in 1999 when it was a dull reiteration of itself and needed to come into a dialogue with its time. The advent of eOneill.com brought that about, whatever might happen to the precious books and manuscripts, indeed to the website itself, Harley Hammerman has become part of the “face” of Eugene O’Neill.
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