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George Pierce Baker: Prism for Genius

Writings by O'Neill, Wolfe Reflect Debt Owed to His Personal Influence

By John D. Leonard

George Pierce Baker was a specimen of that great enigma, the Harvard giant. His English 47 play-writing class was nationally renowned for over thirty years; it attracted a classroom audience of some of the greatest names in American letters--Philip Barry, John Mason Brown, Thomas Wolfe, and Eugene O'Neill.

Baker's stature, like the stature of great Harvard professors of the past and present, results not from the material he dispensed from the lecturn, but from a personality which was reflected in the work of each young man who came to him for counsel.

There remain only paltry testaments to the man--a soft-cover pamphlet memorial of the theatre world, a Harvard Dramatic Club honorary production, and pages in the books of his students.

It is difficult indeed to gauge the success of an education, to measure the percentage of inspiration and the effect of discipline which an instructor brings to his pupils.

George Pierce Baker delivered two outstanding pupils to American literature, and their words invoke not only a portrait of the man, but a montage of the creative artist's education at Harvard.

Eugene O'Neill is the first.

O'Neill was born in New York and raised in a Catholic boarding school in Connecticut. In the fall of 1906 he entered the freshman class at Princeton, and eight months later was suspended for "general hell-raising." The specific charge was hurling a beer bottle through the window of President Wilson's home.

He did not return to Nassau. He married in 1909 and was divorced in 1912. In emulation of his then favorite authors--London, Kipling, and Conrad--he embarked on a gold-prospecting trip to Honduras.

From Honduras he returned to New London as a reporter for the Telegraph. He was twenty-three, and looking for something to do. Judge Fredrick Latimer, his boss, used to say of him: "If he could only be in one of two places in the town--the church or the jail--I know where I would find him!"

In 1912 O'Neill's health broke down and he entered a sanitarium for a year. In the course of that year he determined to write plays.


"Going out of the classroom Elkins (the Society man) and myself moved on O'Neill. His diffidence seemed to have gone. We repaired to one of the Shamrock bars... We drank ale. We continued drinking ale until four in the morning, feet on the rail, one hand in the free lunch. It was just one of those nights. Ribald tales, anecdotes of experience, theorizing about the drama--what collegians used to call a `bull session.' A bull session de luxe.

"We piled finally into a decrepit hack. We fell into O'Neill's room some time about five. I had just purchased that day a copy of SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY. When the dawn broke, I was sitting on a trunk, Elkins sprawled across the bed, O'Neill reading in his powerful, melancholy bass, poem after poem from that disturbing collection." --John V.A. Weaver, a classmate

So it was that in the fall of 1914 Eugene O'Neill entered Harvard and enrolled in English 47. He was not a literary man, a biographer notes. He sought more meanings and purposes than the mot juste. Cambridge was strange to him.

A fellow student records in a letter this description of O'Neill as a student in Baker's classroom:

"My own memory of O'Neill is that he was good-looking, very nervous, extremely impatient with 47, and anxious to get down to live in Greenwich Village... The first [of two plays O'Neill wrote during the year] was inconspicuous, and the latter was labored and stiff. His worst fault, I think, was an ineptitude at dialogue, except when the speakers were raving drunk or profane.

"He was friendly, though rather uneasy and inarticulate at times. You got the impression that he trembled a little, and seemed trying to keep from stuttering. But when he delivered himself of a remark, it was impressive . . . I always thought him very likeable."

One classmate called him "foulmouthed," and another referred to him as that "sarcastic bastard." (O'Neill in later years, used to tell of his habit of blaspheming like a sailor, simply to annoy a number of fastidious youths of the class who were easily shocked.)

Translated Nietzsche

He had other interests. With the help of a German scholar, he translated all of a Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, and his favorite authors changed to Nietzsche, Kropotkin, and Marx.

What did O'Neill get out of Professor Baker's course? "Well," he told Barret Clark, "not much out of the actual class-work itself. Necessarily, most of what Baker had to teach the beginners about the theatre as a physical medium was old stuff to me. Though on one occasion Baker told me he didn't think Bound East for Cardiff (written before I entered the class) was a play at all, I respected his judgement. The plays I wrote for him were rotten... Yes, I did get a great deal from Baker--personally. He encourage me--made me feel it was worth while going ahead."

Baker himself, in a letter in 1926, demonstrated his respect for O'Neill. "When O'Neill was working for me, he showed by the end of the year that he already knew how to write well in the one-act form, but he could not as yet manage the larger forms.

"I was very eager that he should return for a second year of work in these longer forms, but did not know till later that, though equally eager, his means at the moment made this impossible.

"O'Neill, when with me, worked steadily and with increasing effectiveness. He seemed absorbedly interested in what he was trying to do. Because of his wider experience of life, he seemed a good deal older than most of the men in the course, although not really so in years.

"He seemed a little aloof, though I never found him so personally. This, I think, came quite as much from a certain awe of him in his fellow-students because of his wider experience, as from any holding apart by him....

"After all these years my pleasant memory of O'Neill in the work is far more vivid than the memory of the details of that work."

O'Neill went from Harvard to Greenwich Village.

It was Baker's personality, not the mechanics of the class-work, that influenced the young playwright. The exact nature of this influence is never defined, but merely referred to as there; it kept the student going. Baker was a sympathetic audience, a somewhat limited educational role.

Comparison with Wolfe

This role, however, gains added significance when O'Neill's year at Harvard, 1914, is compared with the year of another writer: Thomas Wolfe, 1921.

Wolfe, unlike O'Neill, came from the South. Unlike O'Neill, he had lived at home most of his life. Unlike O'Neill, he had come to no resolution of the course his life and art would take.

Wolfe arrived in Boston after four years at a state college in North Carolina. His first, and most enduring, impression of Harvard was symbolized by Widener Library, Maxwell Geismar writes: "As a young man he had been driven wild by the sight of the Harvard Library--by the fact that the volumes were appearing on the shelves faster than he could read them, and the fact that simultaneously, while he was reading, outside, on the bare New England streets, were passing thousands of faces he had not seen, people he had not talked with, lives he had not known."

His immediate reaction to the Harvard community was dislike. In his classmates especially, with the ex- ception of the tortured, in-grown, dead and beautiful Starwick, he found the stoniness, the apathy, the lifeless wit which characterized the Harvard literati.

The class's "lack of warmth," wrote Wolfe in Of Time and the River, "the absence of inner radial heat which, not being fundamental in the structure of their lives, had never been wanted, filled [me] with a horror and impotent fury...."

For O'Neill, a man somewhat of the world, a spectacle like this could be ignored. For Wolfe, burdened with a vision of genius, it was intolerable.

Wolfe was facing "one of the oldest--what for the creative mind must be one of the most painful problems of the spirit--the search for a standard of taste. He had, at seventeen, as a sophomore, triumphantly denied God, but he was unable now to deny Robert Browning.

Classmates a Menagerie

His classmates were a typical Harvard menagerie, a group which was sorry for many things and many people, including Shaw. There was an elegant young dawdler who spent most of his time in Paris and just couldn't read Sir James Barrie; and the epigram-maker with the splintered promise of a satiric wisdom; and the young man of little backbone and less originality who betrayed--to his ridicule--a stammering eagerness.

But Wolfe decided, under the guidance of Baker, that playwriting was his goal. As he wrote himself:

"It seemed to him that there was only one work in life which he could possibly do, and that this was writing plays, and that if he could not succeed in this work, he had better die, since any other life than the life of a playwright and the theatre was not to be endured.

"He learned all the jargon of the art-playwriting cult, read all the books, saw all the shows, talked all the talk, and even became a kind of gigantic eavesdropper upon life, prowling about the streets with his ears constantly straining to hear all the words and phrases of the passing crowd, as if he might hear something that would be rare and priceless, in a play for Professor [Baker's] celebrated course."

"Women were forever calling for 'Gene...

"He was hard-boiled and whimsical. He was brutal and tender, so I was told. From shop girl to 'sassiety queen,' they all seemed to develop certain tendencies in his presence. What may have resulted, deponent sayeth not. About some things 'Gene was Spinx-like. All I can report are the phenomena."  --Weaver

And, finally, Wolfe's grand indictment of the class members: "False, trivial, glib, dishonest, empty, without substance, lacking faith--is it any wonder that among Professor [Baker's] young men few birds sang?"

Wolfe wrote hime in 1921 that a commercial producer had approached him to write a play. "Well, I will take one more chance and give him what he wants, in spite of the fact that Professor Baker will throw up his hands and say that I have 'prostituted my art' and so on, when I see him.

"Well, my 'art' has kept me ragged and driven me half mad; --I will see now if prostitution can put a few decent garments on my back and keep me housed. My good friends, Professor Baker included, have told me for years now of 'my great talent,' 'my artistry,' and so on--they have told me it would be a terrible thing for me to do anything else but write. They have said, 'You have it--it's bound to come'--but not once has anyone given me advice on the simple matter of keeping the breath of life in my body until the miracle does happen.

"That I can write better plays than most of those on Broadway I have no doubt--God help me if I can't--but to write such filthy, sexy twaddle, rot, and bunkum as this, I must cast all conscience to the winds. Well, I can and will do even that, for money, money, money."

Sound and Fury

All of which was a great deal of sound and fury, signifying very little, for Wolfe's mother paid for his support through Harvard. What he really seemed to want was recognition, and a larger audience than the man in the classroom.

So Thomas Wolfe left Harvard, and sailed to Europe with his "Starwick," who turned out to be homosexual. Like O'Neill he didn't return to Cambridge. He went to Brooklyn. Unlike O'Neill, he did not write plays, but a novel.

Each of these men speaks of Baker as a personality, but neither cites a6THOMAS WOLFE

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