- TributeFrederick Charles Wilkins (1935–2013)
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Frederick Charles Wilkins, born on May 23, 1935, took an interest in theater and music from his early years in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. His parents, Charles and Celia Wilkins, whom he described as “doting, nurturing,” encouraged his interest in Cub Scouts, singing in a chorus, playing the piano, and acting in school plays. He recalled that during his high school years at Marblehead High he found out that Eugene O’Neill was living not far away, on Marblehead’s Point o’ Rocks Lane, and just knowing the coincidence led to a special bond being formed. A Harvard production of Ile, during his teen years, became his first encounter with an O’Neill play.
He majored in English at Bowdoin College, earning a BA in 1957. Performing as an actor, singer, and pianist remained a fascination, even leading to his writing a musical revue, While the Cat’s Away, and an opera called Age of Ice. At the University of Iowa, he persevered with English studies, earning a Master of Arts in 1958 and a PhD in 1965. Among his fellow grad students was Yvonne Shafer, who had an office across the hall, which became the scene of many an hour of laughter-filled procrastination. She jokingly recalled that he had a “deplorable habit” of playing hilarious songs on the weekends in the bar at the Jefferson Hotel.
A Fulbright lectureship in Poland at the University of Lodz in 1967–69 led to an interest in Eastern European literature as a subfield of his teaching, along with Shakespeare and American drama, and also to his meeting Miroslav (Mirek) Szejner, who became his devoted partner for the next thirty-three years. Returning to the United States in 1969, he cobbled together various part-time teaching jobs, including at Northeastern University and Suffolk University. Encouraged by Stanley Vogel, his chair at Suffolk and a noted authority on American literature, Wilkins soon [End Page 236] gained a full-time position. By 1978 he was chair of the department and remained so until 1996.
In 1975, he organized a panel for the annual MLA meeting, which was in San Francisco. He admitted that the main lure was to the city he associated with Beat generation writers, but the topic of the panel was “The Enduring O’Neill: Which Plays Will Survive?” He managed to get the following A-list participants: Travis Bogard and John Henry Raleigh from UC Berkeley, Doris Falk from Rutgers, Esther Jackson from Wisconsin, Jordan Miller from Rhode Island, and Virginia Floyd from Bryant College. So fascinating was the discussion that he later made transcripts from his tape-recordings and sent them out to everyone who had attended. He called the document, “The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter, Preview Issue, January 1977.”
A few months later, he issued the first official number of the Eugene O’Neill Newsletter, which contained lively responses to the preview issue and also a long and provocative meditation by Virginia Floyd on the themes of a 1976 MLA discussion of “‘Behind Life’ Forces in Eugene O’Neill.” It had become clear that a rich and diverse conversation about O’Neill, with participants eager to engage, could give rise to an academic society of O’Neillians, and so the Eugene O’Neill Society was officially launched on December 30, 1978. Fred Wilkins was among the cofounders. The Newsletter, which came out as a triennial, had a rapidly growing list of subscribers, with many beyond the coterie of participants in the annual MLA discussions, including O’Neillians from Canada, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and West Germany. Soon there would be contributors from China, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Production and book reviews began in 1978, and Wilkins was prominent among the writers.
Around the time of the O’Neill centennial in 1988, Society members began talking of publishing an annual of scholarly articles...