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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 1
Spring, 1988



Eugene O'Neill spent four years at Betts Academy in Stamford. Connecticut--between 1902 and 1906. The picture his biographers draw of him during these years is of a young man subjected to severe traumatic experiences which were to form the essential qualities of his mature character. Louis Sheaffer draws an image of him as a loner, a solitary reader, one who refused the active life of "character-building" sports favored by the Academy's head, and who was good in history and English but poor in geometry and trigonometry. Sheaffer quotes his sources as saying "He talked very little and seldom smiled," or "He sat along the side-lines of fun, enjoying it in a semi-absent way." Sheaffer adds that he played the usual schoolboy dormitory pranks and that he habitually wore a mask of cynicism as he began his "quarrel with authority." Swinburne, Dowson, Fitzgerald, Wilde, and Baudelaire were the poets he admired, and during these years he made the acquaintance, in New York City, of Benjamin R. Tucker, whose bookstore was a mine of radical literature.

It was in this period--in 1903, according to Sheaffer--that O'Neill learned of his mother's addiction to morphine on the frightening night when she fled from the house in New London and attempted to drown herself in the river. It was also in these years that Jamie took his younger brother in hand and instructed him in the life of the high livers of low life. Somewhere in this period, presumably on a weekend in New York, Jamie arranged that Eugene should lose his virginity in a mechanical rough-and-tumble in a cheap brothel. And it was during this time, when he was fifteen in 1903, that O'Neill began to drink and to enter on a life of dereliction during the weekends away from school.

Sheaffer rightly views this as the onset of a rebellion against a difficult childhood, a rebellion that was to climax with his dismissal from Princeton and his disappearance for a time into a world of dismal picaresque adventure.1 O'Neill was undoubtedly on a primrose path, but as with all adolescents, there was at the start an innocence in wickedness that somewhat tempered the darker colors of his late adolescence at Betts Academy. The year 1906 was, after all, the year in which he would set the action of Ah, Wilderness! and, while the comedy must be viewed as his nostalgic fantasy of a faraway world, it is not clear that the play presents entirely a world that "might have been," or that O'Neill in his Academy days did not have in him a quality that might still be called virginal. At least at Richard Miller's age, seventeen.

Shaeffer notes O'Neill's schoolboy custom of writing letters to his family, friends, and acquaintances while he was at Saint Aloysius Academy between 1985 and 1899.2 The habit, no doubt, continued, and there exists in the American Literature Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University a small collection of letters which offer an insight into O'Neill's mind during the Betts Academy years. They were not entirely years of darkness.

The letters are addressed to a girl named Marion Welch, who lived in Hartford, but who spent part of the summer of 1905 visiting a friend, Marion Green, in New London.3 O'Neill called her "Boutade," a term meaning "caprice" or "whim," and he paid her flirtatious attention in English and beginning French. He wrote from New London:

Ma Chère "Boutade"

You cannot imagine with what feelings of joy I received your letter this morning. All the more so, because it was unexpected, for I thought by this time New London and all in it were but faint memories of the misty past to you. I am very happy to find out that I was mistaken.

I cannot say how much missed and still miss you. New London has now relapsed into a somnambulant state which is far from pleasing and all on account of your departure.... I miss your "wind-mill motion" in the rowboat but, to be truthful, it was far from a windmill towards the end and more like an expert's.4 (Now will you be good). I have not even been up to hear the orchestra at the Pequot for fear I should be overcome by pleasant memories (and the bum music).

Those pictures are exceedingly unkind to me and I hope I do not look anything like them. They are good however considering the sun was in our faces (and the subjects as you cruelly mentioned) Do not forget to send me the others and if I may ask for the millioneth [sic] time for your photo "Please! Ah! Please! I think you're the meanest girl I ever knew" But all joking aside I assure you that I want it ever so much. And let us keep up this correspondence, begun with such "earnest of success" If you knew what a break it is in the dull, monotonous existence up here I feel sure you would not refuse.

I am getting to be perfect bookworm and read all the morning, swim in the afternoon as usual (you said in your letter I receive no morning baths) and read all night. Can you beat it ? It has the "Cynic Tub"5 "beaten to a pulp." Oh! Excuse me my cherie [sic] I forgot that was one of your sore points. However do not let it "prick your conscience" Hee! Haw!

That reminds me. I have sworn off sarcasm as a bad job as you will probably notice in this letter. It is a realy [sic] very contemptible thing, don't you think so. Almost as bad as making puns....

I may be in Hartford soon "You never can tell" I have a mind to go to Trinity just so as to be near you. Now you must acknowledge that that is a horrible sacrifice.

Miss Keeney still floats around in that hat like a nymph or a Jersey cow, I can't tell which....

Well the sand in my hour glass is about run out and I must "put on the brakes" Please send me your photo with the other pictures and thus make me even more than I am now. Your eternal slave

Eugene O'Neill

Given on the 24th day of July in the year of our Lord 1905

It is almost impossible to judge 1905 by the attitudes of the 1980s. O'Neill, like Richard Miller, was "going on seventeen." Yet even by Richard Miller's standards--who was not incapable of an "Aw gee!"--the tone of the letter is young, unsophisticated to the point of naiveté. Perhaps Booth Tarkington's Seventeen, written in 1916, brings us closest to the unfledged quality of the world in which O'Neill was hatching.6 However that may be, the image the letters offer is in some contrast to that of the tormented, masked adolescent, even though it does not deny that other self. Happily, he wrote again the following month:

Ma chère "Boutade":-

Received your most welcome letter with the pictures inclosed [sic] yesterday. The pictures are much better than the ones you send before don't you think so ? Thank you so much for your "half give-in" even though it be only a half....

Would that I might see you soon and let you complete your rowing lessons! New York was almost as slow as New London. Everyone I know was away and it was hot!! It makes me sweat to think of it.

I looked up Jenn Ingelow and read "High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire". It is fine is'nt [sic] it? That parody on "Annabel Lee" is very clever. Am glad to hear you have learned the original. Some of the lines express my feelings exactly especially the following:

"And neither the angels in heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee"

Except her name is not Annabel Lee but M..... W..... But what is it you said one time about personal remarks?

Life up here is just the same. It makes the famous "Simple Life" look like "The Pace that Kills" To say it is slow would be using language as weak as Watts' Hymns for Infant Minds. But I go to Saratoga in a couple of days and I hope "to wake up" I was up to one of the "hops" last Saturday night and danced with the fair ones (not even fair) I was bored to death and said "Never again for little Eugene" and by the nine gods I never will unless you or someone else that I know are there.

I don't see how anyone could go to Darwin for enjoyment. Alex. Dumas père pour le mien. I could read every book in the world and no heroes could ever replace "D'artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis," "Monte Cristo" and "Bussy" in my estimation. "Charlie Steele" however has a high place....

Do not let Tennis take all your thoughts because then you will forget how to row. And that would be a great misfortune in so promising a pupil. My brother and I swam the river this morning and I am some tired.

If you want to read some pretty poems I recommend Thomas Moore to you. He has written some "peaches" and I never tire reading them and have learned a few....

Write soon "ma cherie" [sic] and lit [sic] up the monotonous days of

Your devoted admirer

The unexpected praise of Monte Cristo is, of course, for the novel, not the play, but it is to be noted that in 1899 James O'Neill had appeared successfully in a dramatization of The Three Musketeers and followed it with an expensive new production of Monte Cristo which was also received with applause. Sheaffer relates that while at Saint Aloysius, O'Neill and several of his friends whom he had taken to see The Musketeers were reprimanded by a nun for indulging in games imitating the sword play at which James excelled. Evidently, the Dumas virus was not out of his system six years later.

My dear Marion:-

What is the matter? I hope you have not acquired a cramp from playing tennis so that letter writing is forbidden. It is over a week since I have heard from you. You will say that is not so long. But in this modern "Sleepy Hollow" every day is composed of 24 hours, each one equivalent to ten in any other place--but why multiply details--it is centuries since I have heard from you....

L'autre Marian was over a week ago Sunday. I took her picture and she took mine. Will send you them when they are fixed. We missed you very much and especially that persuasive way of yours "Please! Ah! Pl...ease" (You see I do not forget)

The weather is so cold up here that it would cause the blush of envy and shame to mantle the cheek of an iceberg. "And o'er the one half world Nature seems dead"
The other night it was clear and the moon was full (but I was'nt' [sic]) But the wind was blowing a gale and the sea was pretty high and "mon frère et moi" went out in the boat and rowed way out in the Sound. It was fine. The waves were so high that when we were on top of them we could see the mortgages on the houses in Shelter Island. All joking aside it was certainly rough and we enjoyed it immensely.

Do write soon and throw a little sunlight into the chasm of Despair where lies

Your devoted slave

She took pity on him and wrote a letter which he answered joyfully, describing a trip to Saratoga "where the 'Lid" is off for good." He won a bit on the "ponies" and then "'rustled my pile' on the slot machines."

After a while (when my cash account looked like a large minus sign) I decided that gambling was a very bad thing anyway and that hotel proprietors who keep slot machines ought to be lynched. I had a releif [sic] from the dreary solitude of New London and hated to come back. In a graveyard there is some excitement in reading the inscriptions on the tombstones but in N.L.------

. . . I am now reading "The Laughing Man" by Victor Hugo. Have you read it? I suppose you have, dear little book worm that you are. I will take your advice and read "The American Prisoner" if I can get it. I asked my brother about the other book you mentioned by Harland, and he said he liked "The Cardinal's Snuff Box" better. I have not read it. "My Friend, Prospero" is another good book by the same man (and his latest).

I have met an agent for the Madison Automobile Co. and he has a 60 horse power machine worth seven thousand in which he has taken me out. We went up to Norwich and back (29 miles) in forty minutes. I have not been able to part my hair since I was so frightened....

Well I guess I have "snowballed my layout" of interesting things to relate and so "Au revoir ma chèrie je vous aimerai toujours et je vous baisserai en pensée"

Your devoted admirer

Evidently, O'Neill in 1905 had yet to reach into the world of scandalous literature offered by the late nineteenth-century poets which Richard Miller offered to Muriel McComber, although the use of French suggests that he is seeking some special way of approaching and expressing other than mundane subjects--a slightly spicy code; a way of saying things that the prying eyes of others cannot decipher. In his next letter, he has returned to New York City, before returning to school.

. . . We arrived in New York Wednesday morning after a stormy passage on the boat in which the fog horn kept me awake all night. I was sorry to leave New London for I was beginning to have a fine time up there. My brother, "Con" Daly (of Yale crew fame) and myself went to see "The Prodigal Son" last night. It is a dramatization of Hall Caine's novel of that name and is very sad. In fact all the audience were crying (to get their money back) I suppose you have read the book? If not you have a treat in store for you.

I came out to a farm in Jersy [sic] this morning and write from there. It is rented from my father by a breeder of race horses. Talk about your slow places! It has the land of the lotus eaters beaten to a pulp. There is nothing to do but ride horse back and dream----of you.

And he concludes with a petition for the picture she has never sent: "Please! Ah! Please! . . . Excuse burns on paper made in drying ink."

The letters that follow came from Betts Academy, which is now a "desert drear," as were most of the places from which he wrote.

I came back last Wednesday and am now pouring [sic] over Vergil Trig etc. in an effort to compel Princeton to be charitable and let me in next year. I love this strenuous life (as you probably noticed in New London when I sat in back and let your row)

Boardman is back. He says the High School refused to endanger its reputation by taking him back. He also claims he knows you well and taught you how to skate. It seems I have a rival in the professor line?

When I was in New York I went around with Con Daly and my brother. I am now recuperating from the result. I also met Shevlin the captain of the Yale football team. He seems to me to contradict the statements that he is a bad fellow. Daly was never really "fired" as he gets his diploma and goes back to Law school to row on next years crew.

Boardman wants me to come up and stay with him sometime during Christmas. If so I will see you I suppose. That is a very unlooked for pleasure....

. . . As somebody has evidently been sweeping the room with this pen I must stop. Write me soon. Your letters are the only solace to my broken heart (which I have lost and which you have found but remain indifferent to) Je t'aime ma cherie! Je t'aime! . . .

The trips to New York, like several in this period, were the occasion of Eugene's introduction to the profligate ways of Jamie. Yet they sound innocent enough--friendly excursions with Varsity men who are not so bad as they have been painted. Somewhere here, no doubt, O'Neill met the prototype of Wint Selby from Ah, Wilderness!--perhaps the dissolute Boardman. Marion, in her next letter, objected to Eugene's friendship with Boardman, but O'Neill defended him, after apologizing for a delay in answering because of another trip to New York City.

. . . What you said about my accepting Boardman's invitation would be true last year but I am glad to say he has learned a lesson and is a very good fellow. The proof of this, is that he has been admitted to a very select secret society, composed wholey [sic] of what is termed, good fellows. I may mention that I also am a member and one of the framers of the constitution.

However I never had any idea of accepting his invitation (except to see you) for little old New York is good enough for me at any season. Have you any prospects of visiting there this year? If so I wish you would let me know, for I should like nothing better than to do everything I could to make your stay amusing and interesting.

Our football team played its first game Saturday with Stevens High School and we won 17 - 0. We play Yale Freshmen next Wednesday and, I beg of you, if you wish to have a good opinion of the school, do not look up the score in the paper ... I am not playing football this year but run two or three miles every day in preparation for track....

Whether the remark about his going out for the track team is more than adolescent strutting is uncertain. Sheaffer presents O'Neill as one given to long walks and solitary sessions with books, playing only "Pitch--and-catch and occasional games of tennis." Nevertheless, the secret society, whatever it was, somewhat belies the image of O'Neill as a determined loner, as does his account in his next letter of a roughhouse in the dormitory:

We had a fine "rough house" here a few weeks ago. It was at night. All of us stuck our heads out of the windows of our rooms about one o'clock in the morning and gave four or five Betts cheers. Having awakened Mr. Betts the fun began. It consisted, in the main, of wet towels and pillows and soap and pails and wastebaskets, thrown with intent to injure the visages of the Herr Professor on our floor or of any one else in the way. When Betts arrived on the scene, "mirabile dictu" all doors were shut and the snores of the sleepers would have waked the dead. When he finally did awaken us noone [sic] could give him the least information in regard to it. I am sure he would have beleived [sic] himself in under the influence of an hallucination (occasioned by some of his half-cooked hash) if the weapons of the attack had no [sic] been laying all over the hall But to this day he does not know who were engaged in the adventure nor is he liable to find it out....

He continued to describe a trip to New York to see the "Pearl and Pumpkin" in which he admired only the scenery and a song or two. The best things to be seen on that visit were "Roger Bros. in Ireland" and "Houdini the Handcuff King" ("He certainly had me guessing").

He signed that letter (dated November 11, 1905) ". . . beleive [sic] me to be as I have been for months and always will be, Your own Eugene," but thereafter the correspondence died a natural death in one final letter, written presumably near to the Christmas holiday:

My dear Marion.

It is, I suppose, useless to ask for pardon for making you wait such a long time for an answer to your letter. All I have to say is that it got here just before our Thanksgiving vacation and I forgot it in the excitement of going to New York. I just happened to find it today in my desk and determined "to do the deed before the purpose cooled" and write you immediately. I hope I am forgiven, for I cherish the remembrance of some of the happiest days of my life (passed in a row boat in New London harbor) far too greatly to have any hitch in our correspondence. I also have a picture of a certain girl with a dog (Teddy?) which I cherish even if it is only only [sic] a half give-in.

But to throw away the pill I was smoking and to come back to earth. Our Christmas holidays begin on the twentieth of this month and maybe I wo'nt [sic] be glad to get to old New York again.

So you went to see old worm eaten "Monte Cristo." It may be all right for those who have never seen it before but for me "Back to the Bamboo." I saw six plays during Thanksgiving vacation and we only had five days. They were all musical comedies (I always confessed to degraded tastes) Marie Cahill in "Moonshine" was the best of all.

Have read quite a few books lately. "My Friend Prospero" by Henry Harland is fine and I like it as well as the "Cardinal's Snuff Box" Read it by all means if you have not done so already. I have also read "The Masquerader" and "Beverly of Graustark" and "My Lady of the North" I suppose you have read all these. I want to read "The Clansman" but never can get it at the library. At his time of the year when there is nothing to do in the way of sports, good books come in very handy.

Boardman said he met you at a dance during Thanksgiving and that you were as pretty as ever.

Well please do not take my delay as an example but write soon. I leave Tuesday afternoon for New York so if you don't write me before then address your letter to Lexington Hotel, 47th St between Broadway and 6th....

The "bell invites me" to go to class so "au revoir"

Your own

Which, so far as the record goes, was the flat ending of the romance with "Boutade." It seems evident, however, that whatever the trauma that haunted him, whatever loneliness he felt, it is not quite sufficient to picture him as a brooding, self-isolated youngster. Nor is it certain that he was entirely as remembered by classmates recorded in Sheaffer: "moody ... quite cynical ... reading books about sex, plays that were pretty frank about marital problems." The Boutade letters suggest an alternative innocence. Evidently he was not going to reveal the excesses to Marion Welch, but the enthusiasm for musical comedies and for romantic adventure stories rather than fin-de-siècle poets suggests that there was, flowing side by side with the darker current, a boyhood that can only be called "regular." And it is pleasant to think that Boutade was not entirely forgotten. The rowboat on the shore in which Richard Miller and Muriel McComber plight their tentative troth was a precise memory.

--Travis Bogard


1Cf. Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), chs. 5 and 6 passim.

2Sheaffer, p. 71.

3Marion was the daughter of a Hartford insurance doctor, George Kellogg Welch. She was two years older than O'Neill and had just graduated from high school. Her recollection of O'Neill that summer was that all her set called him "the professor," because of his intellectual interests. She added, however, that she did not tease him. The Greens lived close to Monte Cristo cottage.

4O'Neill had been teaching her to row.

5That is, the tub in which the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes, was said to have lived.

6Seventeen, it will be recalled, concerns a visit similar to that made by Marion Welch. A young, baby-talking siren visits a friend for the summer, to the devastation of the small town's young male population, who cluster around her with adolescent squawking like seagulls around a garbage scow.

7O'Neill had won a wager with his father by memorizing the role of Macbeth.



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