Cherishing the Ladies: Irish American Women Writers and Eugene O’Neill

If I have anything in common with Eugene O’Neill, it is the places we have inhabited. The geography of my life is about traveling the two hundred miles of Atlantic coast either from Boston to New York, or New York to Boston. O’Neill was born in a hotel on 43rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan and died at a Sheraton Hotel in Boston. As I write this, the train I am on is leaving New London, where he spent many of his childhood summers. On this same trip I drove by the Forest Hills Cemetery, between Dorchester and Jamaica Plain, where he is buried—my elementary school bus must have passed it a thousand times.

Despite our common landscape, Eugene O’Neill has not been a touchstone for me. Though O’Neill and F. Scott Fitzgerald were the Irish Americans accepted into the literary canon in the early to mid 20th century, I have considered Irish American women my literary ancestors; a handful of Irish American women wrote books that were well-received in O’Neill’s time.

When I edited an anthology of fiction written throughout the 20th century by Irish American women, the process of discovering their work was like finding lost treasure. However, the out-of-print status of the writers from the thirties and forties, and even the late sixties and early seventies, was heartbreaking. I put the book together with the particular intent of bringing to light women writers of O’Neill’s approximate generation, such as Mary Deasy, Ruth McKenney, and Mary Doyle Curran, and to place their work in the context of a literary tradition that extended throughout the century. It is hard for anyone to rival how prolific O’Neill was, but Deasy, McKenney and Curran are good writers whose novels, especially when looked at together, and along with Ellin Mackay Berlin and Mary McCarthy, mark the real beginnings of contemporary Irish American women’s fiction in the United States.

Mary Doyle Curran’s The Parish and the Hill (1948) rivals A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941) with its depiction of the tensions within a family between the lace curtain and the shanty Irish, the ever-present alcoholism, religion and politics. Both fictions are heavily autobiographical and O’Neill’s concerns, when looked at in the context of his Irish American contemporaries, are clearly of his culture and not uniquely his own.

The mother is at the center of O’Neill’s story, as she is in many Irish stories. In The Parish and the Hill, Curran creates a world around a mother, though in her case the mother is a caretaker not an addict, equally as compelling as O’Neill’s. She is the family’s life force who clings to her family’s connection to Ireland and its oral tradition. In A Long Day’s Journey, Mary Tyrone’s morphine addiction is the emotional center of the play. Her husband and sons use her addiction as a scapegoat for their alcoholism. It is the Tyrone men vs. the mother. Mary Tyrone rails that her husband and sons are free to be in the world in a way that is not open to her, “Your father goes out. He meets friends in barrooms out or at the Club. You and Jamie have the boys you know. You go out. But I am alone. I’ve always been alone.”

And they do have something she doesn’t possess—a breadth of literary knowledge and true pleasure taken from the written word. All three men have an arsenal of memorized poetry at the ready. And this is the same literary lineage O’Neill’s work rests upon. Edmund, the stand-in for O’Neill, has Voltaire, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Whitman and Wilde in his library. It is safe to say that O’Neill’s female contemporaries, though they are part of the Irish literary tradition, were breaking ground as they did not have a comparable foundation. Never once does a Tyrone reference a woman writer or thinker.

In A Long Day’s Journey, besides Mary, the other women in the play are maid, cook, madam, and whore. When James, the eldest son, speaks with Edmund of his visit to Mamie Burns’ brothel openly, by implication he’s speaking of sex. Prostitutes are a preoccupation in O’Neill’s plays. To me, a remarkable chasm between him and his female contemporaries is that an Irish American woman writing at that time would never allude to a woman’s pursuit or experience of sex, even in fiction. Curran references the known prostitute in Irish Parish, Nelly Finn, but it is an aside—when Mary’s mother has too much too do, she says she is as busy as Nelly Finn! Mary and her mother’s sexuality is not addressed. In My Sister Eileen, the hilariously funny stories of Ruth McKenney, some are about her and Eileen’s dating adventures, and all are decidedly PG. I think Maureen Howard’s Bridgeport Bus, published in 1965, was one of the first, if not the very first, novel by an Irish American woman to directly address a female sexual awakening.

I don’t know if sexual freedom and the pursuit or art go hand in hand, but I do think there is a certain kind of agency necessary for both. I know from experience negotiating motherhood, sex and art, not to mention a full-time job, can be a tricky business. I think of Deasy, McKenney and Curran when I sit down to write. I think of what they couldn’t say and all that I can. I think about the body. Like O’Neill, they committed some aspect of their Irish American selves to paper and pushed beyond the commonly held expectations of what women could do. I still want to see Anna Christie in performance and read the Iceman Cometh, but they will be for me companion pieces to the works of the Irish American women writers I have long held dear.