While many of the historic literary sites I’ve visited easily evoke the writer’s inspiration, others require a little more imagination. This past summer I happened upon Eugene O’Neill’s childhood home in New London, Connecticut. I was visiting my fiancee’s family over the fourth of July in Westerly, Rhode Island and we took a drive down the coast one day so I could see the sights. Several road signs referring to O’Neill sparked my memory of his connection to the area from my thesis-writing days – O’Neill was one of the subjects of my four-part masters thesis (he was in good company with Steinbeck, Stevenson and Muir).
We had just a short time to visit his home – the Monte Cristo Cottage – where he had spent summers as a boy in the late 1800s. The home is beautiful, set back from the street on a large expanse of lawn. A sweeping porch wraps around the facade, and it has more a feeling of wistful airiness than solemn foreboding, as one might expect after reading his Long Day’s Journey into Night, which was based on his family’s time at the home.
O’Neill is a troubling character himself. He’s the writer I had the hardest time wrapping my mind and words around in my thesis. I still feel as if I should keep him at an arm’s length, and not pretend to have a full understanding of his genius. And yet, I feel a fondness and familiarity for him, as I have spent a good amount of time working with the good people at the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House, in Danville, CA.
Tao House and the Monte Cristo Cottage could not be more different in style and feel. While Monte Cristo has a classic, New England stateliness and formality about it, Tao House reflects a more modern, stylized sensibility. Tao House, where O’Neill and his wife lived from 1937-1943, represents just how far O’Neill had come since his childhood days. He and his wife designed the West Coast home themselves, to provide privacy and seclusion for his writing. It’s features are meant for optimum feng shui, and follow Taoist philosophies – including winding pathways to the front door, intending to confuse evil spirits.
The O’Neill of Tao House was easier for me to grasp than the O’Neill of Monte Cristo Cottage. The thick walls, cold stone and mountain-top solitude of Tao House encapsulate the darkness that pervades so much of his writing. Monte Cristo’s grandeur and dimly lit interior does evoke a sense of drama and constraint, but it is difficult to imagine the tortured scenes of Long Day’s Journey playing out in such stately walls. Monte Cristo Cottage puts on a welcoming facade, while Tao House, with its winding paths, elusive doors and hidden inner chambers, makes no pretense of its solemnity.
During our visit to Monte Cristo Cottage, we were only able to walk around the main floor of the home, as it was technically closed to the public at the time. It’s beautifully preserved and contains many interesting artifacts from O’Neill’s life. For me, it was a fascinating glimpse into the early life of a writer whom I had previously only known tangibly through my connection with his later dwelling. Decades of life experience span between the two homes – each book ending a life lived to the fullest. My gratitude goes out to the organizations that have kept these homes alive with the legacy of such an important figure in American literature.
> Check out my (amateur) video about my thesis, produced in 2009