BLACK PORTRAITS BY EUGENE O'NEILL
AND OTHER VILLAGE BOHEMIANS
Many literary and cultural histories of the nineteen twenties fail to make sufficient connection between two simultaneous artistic movements in New York City: the Village Bohemians and the Harlem Renaissance. 1 Since these movements have been described in detail elsewhere, this examination will focus on some of the relationships between them and, in particular, on the ways in which white writers of the period, especially O'Neill, Waldo Frank, and Vachel Lindsay drew from black life and culture.
Clearly, a new kind of black portraiture began to emerge after the First World War. Blacks were less often seen in connection with the plantation society of the South, and far less often were they relegated to servile roles; whites began to look to urban black culture with new interest. Rather consistently, they found in black life certain values and strengths which seemed to have been lost by their own culture. As one observer put it, "by 1920 the Negro had become a white New Yorker's pastime." 2 This was, after all, the Jazz Age, and jazz seemed the perfect broom with which to sweep out the last cobwebs of "Victorian" culture. During this period blacks found, and not always to their pleasure, that they had become for white bohemian and avant-garde artists a symbol of freedom from restraint, a source of energy and sensuality. In fact, there is no single idea or theme that unifies the writing of the Village Bohemians any more coherently and strikingly than their interest in primitivism.
The black portraits in Eugene O'Neill's plays serve as an illustration of the ways in which white writers of the twenties worked with black life. Most white writers in New York during this period were close observers of Harlem life and