Paper on Tennessee WIlliams

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Tennessee WIlliams

Tennessee Williams and the South, by Kenneth Holditch and Richard Freeman Leavitt.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002. vu, 184 pp. $30.00; Magical Muse:
Millennial Essay s on Tennessee Williams, edited by Ralph F. Voss. Tuscaloosa: University
of Alabama Press, 2002. xii, 251 pp. $39.95; The Undiscovered Country: The Later Plays of
Tennessee Williams, edited by Philip C. Kolin. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. 240 pp. $32.95.


IT is "OUT OF REGRET FOR A SOUTH that no longer exists that I write of the forces that
have destroyed it," Tennessee Williams explained. This also seems to be the case for
Kenneth Holditch and Richard Freeman Leavitt, the authors of the beautiful biographical
album Tennessee Williams and the South'2 Holditch and Leavitt's book is alive with
nostalgia for a South that no longer exists: a culture of grace and ease, of cavalier
behavior and stoic endurance, a place where the romantic imagination is alive and in
perpetual struggle with the crude realism of modernity. According to the authors, this
paradise lost was crucial to the dramatic imagination of Williams, but above all it seems
to have inspired their own.


Besides establishing Williams's intimate ties with the South and revealing the
biographical material beyond the writer's fiction, the book relishes the perpetuation of
Southern mythologies. The childhood of Thomas Lanier Williams III, who was born in
Columbus, Mississippi, and raised in various other Southern locations, is described as
nothing less than "a southern idyll," regardless of the father's evident alcoholism,
frequent family quarrels, and the older sister's fragile health. However, these
fundamental problems erupted suddenly and violently, so the authors insist, only with the
family's move north to St. Louis. Notably, it is not the innate family situation that
clouds Tom's otherwise sunny childhood, but his displacement to the North. And since
"southerners . . . have deep roots in their own native soil and do not tend to forget the
land that gave them birth," the young Tom could never feel at home in "the cold North."


Rehearsing such cliches of a long-standing North-South dichotomy, the authors establish
the South as a warm and comfortable haven, in which Williams apparently felt sheltered
from personal and social conflicts. The alienation and conflicts of the North, in turn,
trigger the transformation of the Southern past into a comforting myth: "His experiences,
good and bad, served as a sort of magical catalyst to convert the past into a precious
stone of memory, enriching it with a luster and magnificence it may never have possessed
in reality." That this myth had little to do with the concrete reality of the South stands
beyond question. But one wonders for whom the magical conversion of the past took place.
After all, even in his dramatic imagination the South was never simply just a place of
enduring gentility and romanticism to Williams, but it was also the site of very concrete
and often cruel social, ethnic, and sexual conflicts. Some of his best-known characters
are outsiders, who struggle bitterly (and often in vain) against the xenophobia, racism,
and homophobia of Southern communities: Val Xavier and Lady of Orpheus Descending, Mr.
Vacarro of 2 7 Wagons Full of Cotton, and even Stanley Kowalsky of Streetcar.


It is the photographs that point to the story the text leaves untold: a picture of Bessie
Smith, "murdered by John Barleycorn and Jim Crow" as VaI reminds us, of cotton gins and
black workers, of the Delta floods. Two other pictures show little Tom and Rose with their
black nurse Ozzie, who stayed with the family for some five years. From her, we read, Tom
learned "an aspect of southern life totally different from that they knew from their
family." A discussion of these other aspects exhausts itself, however, in an en passant
reference to the large black labor force, whose "life were markedly different from those
of the Delta planters." Thus it is left to the reader/beholder to imagine what sort of
stories Ozzie might have told. Gathering from her distant gaze in the photographs,
deliberately avoiding the camera, they probably had little to do with the charming,
romantic, and cavalier South that Holditch and Leavitt sketch out.


Tennessee Williams and the South is comprised of three chapters. The first follows
Williams through his early childhood years in Columbus, Nashville, and Canton,
Mississippi. It also establishes in great detail his family genealogy, identifying such
illustrious Southern ancestors as poet Sidney Lanier and Governor John Sevier. The second
chapter portrays Williams's life in the Mississippi Delta of Clarksdale-a place of happy
childhood memories, signs of which would find their way into a number of his plays (e.g.,
Moon Lake Casino, the Cutrer Mansion, the angel of the Grange Cemetery). The blissful days
of the Delta were cut short with the "fateful move" to St. Louis, here described as "a new
expulsion from Eden into a cold northern world lacking the benefits, virtue, and social
decorum he remembered."


In the final and largest chapter, Holditch and Leavitt first briefly discuss the "harsh
reality" of St. Louis, marked by Tom's increasing alienation from his father and the rapid
deterioration of Rose's mental state. Then the book quickly moves on to Williams's life in
New Orleans and Key West, "One of the Last Frontiers of Bohemia," as the chapter's tide
suggests. New Orleans is identified as the place of Williams's creative and sexual
awakening. With detailed eloquence, the authors show how tightly Williams's fiction is
connected to the Big Easy. Their discussion of the playwright's personal life, however,
reveals considerable unease, if not awkwardness. Thus promiscuity is politely paraphrased
as the introduction to "all aspects of life in the Quarter, both the surface and the
underground." William's formative relationships with other men, significantly with Frank
Merlo, is reduced to being part of Williams's flamboyant bohemian existence, "a functional
blend of persistent, almost obsessive labor and pleasure in a new lifestyle to which he
adapted completely." In short, where the book falls short is precisely in its careful
dodging of concrete personal and social realities and its euphemistic evocation of a
mythological counter reality. Between the lines one distinctly hears Blanche's invocation:
"I don't want realism, I want magic!"


What then does the book accomplish? Without doubt, its greatest strength consists in its
extensive and detailed portrayal of Williams's intimate ties to the American South (which
in the authors' definition also includes such incongruous "Southern" places as New Orleans
and Key West). Holditch and Leavitt also succeed in illuminating how tightly Williams's
writing is interwoven with his life by repeatedly identifying the biographical material
behind the fiction. One wonders, however, about the point of such extensive labor. As the
authors themselves admit,


If Blanche DuBois should return to New Orleans from whatever haven has sheltered her for
the last half century and attempt to follow those directions today, she would be perplexed
indeed. . . . Of course, even if she had in reality followed those directions in 1947,
taking the appropriate streetcars as she had been instructed, she would not have reached
her destination, since the playwright rearranged the topography of reality to accommodate
his expressionistic vision.


For students of Williams's life and oeuvre, Holditch and Leavitt's biographical alburn is
certainly dispensable. With its elegant layout and beautiful documentation it is, however,
a worthwhile addition to any Southern coffee table.


Two recent essay collections, Magical Muse und Undiscovered Country, reassess the
playwright's life and oeuvre in light of the recent release of Williams's papers that
disclosed a number of previously unknown letters, drafts, as well as several unpublished
plays. Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams, coming out of the 1999
Alabama Symposium on English & American Literature in Tuscaloosa, strives to infuse
Williams's oeuvre with the millennial significance a turn-of-the-century retrospective
inevitably entails. According to editor Ralph Voss, at the end of the twentieth century
Tennessee Williams undoubtedly emerges as one of two great playwrights of the American
Renaissance in drama (together with O'Neill). Although Voss commends the recent staging of
previously ignored plays as well as the renewed interest of young scholars in them, he
also insists that Williams's canonical greatness rests above all on a few great works
written between 1945 and 1961. After all, "no one was claiming that [the] newly discovered
plays were likely to join the magical company of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named
Desire, CatonaHot TinRoof or Night of the Iguana." Given the rather conservative
presupposition that Williams's fame rests solidly on and is entirely explainable in terms
of a handful of classics, it is not surprising that in the end the anthology contributes
few fresh perspectives to Williams scholarship. The majority of essays pursue rather
conventional scholarly goals.

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