Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953)
From Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays 1932–1943
In November 1916 the journalist Louise Bryant married John Reed (author of Ten Days That Shook the World) in what each of them regarded as an “open” relationship. Shortly before the marriage, Bryant began an affair with Eugene O’Neill, a liaison that would continue until she and Reed left for Russia the following year. O’Neill’s association with Bryant and her circle of friends would in many ways help to jump-start his career. Bryant recommended his writing to Waldo Frank, editor of The Seven Arts, and O’Neill used the introduction to send him a story, which was accepted for $50 and published in June.
“Tomorrow” is O’Neill’s only published short story, although it was originally meant to be, as he wrote to Frank, “the first of a series of Tommy the Priest’s yarns in which the story-teller [is] a sort of Conrad’s Marlow” (the narrator of several works by Joseph Conrad, whose influence is apparent in the piece). Fans of O’Neill’s plays—and especially of The Iceman Cometh—will recognize several of the characters and themes in the story, some of which is autobiographical. Tommy the Priest is based on James Condon, who owned a Manhattan saloon and flophouse called Jimmy the Priest’s and who would be immortalized more than two decades later as Harry Hope in Iceman. “I learned at Jimmy the Priest’s not to sit on judgment on people,” O’Neill would say in interviews. It was “a waterfront dive with a backroom where you could sleep with your head on the table if you bought a schooner of beer.”
In 1911, during the year of his “down-and-outness,” O’Neill rented a room at Jimmy’s for three dollars a month, and it was there that he attempted suicide with an overdose of a sleeping drug—and was saved by his roommate James Byth, a skid-row alcoholic who had once been a press agent for O’Neill’s father. Byth himself appears in the story as Jimmy Anderson and would be re-imagined in Iceman as James Cameron, or “Jimmy Tomorrow,” the leader of the Tomorrow Movement. Byth’s actual fate was much the same as that described in the story. (The building in which Jimmy’s was located would eventually be torn down to make way for the World Trade Center.)
When O’Neill donated the original manuscript for the story to be auctioned off for the Fourth War Loan Bond Drive in 1944, he wrote a brief assessment to critic and poet Mark Van Doren: “As a short story—well, let’s not go into that, but I though it was pretty devastating stuff at the time, and so evidently did Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, etc., although I doubt if they were as overwhelmed by its hideous beauty as I was.”
Source: The Unknown O’Neill: Unpublished or Unfamiliar Writings, ed. Travis Bogard
It was back in my sailor days, in the winter of my great down-and-outness, that all this happened. In those years of wandering, to be broke and “on the beach” in some seaport or other of the world was no new experience; but this had been an unusually long period of inaction even for me. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
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