George Pierce Baker: Prism for Genius

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

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: