Tennessee Williams and the South.
BEYOND QUESTION, TENNESSEE WILLIAMS is the South's most significant playwright and, arguably, America's too. An extensive canon of more than seventy plays, eight books of fiction, two of poetry, memoirs, letters, journals, plus a gallery of paintings establish Williams as one of the most prolific and powerful writers of the twentieth century. Drawing on their respective complementary areas of expertise, Kenneth Holditch and Richard Freeman Leavitt link Williams's Southern roots to his literary achievements. Known for his literary walking tours of the French Quarter, Holditch presents a spirited, concise biography of Williams's Southern ancestors, his Delta childhood, and his life in New Orleans. Not a footnote-laden biography such as Lyle Leverich's Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, Holditch and Leavitt's account is closer to a coffee table (really a tea table given its size) book. Holditch's Baedecker is lavishly illustrated with well over one hundred photos, supplied by Leavitt, whose World of Tennessee Williams serves as a proleptic model for this book. Captioned often with quotations from the plays, the photos show Williams's family, the playwright over his seventy-three-year life span, scenes from the plays and film versions of them, Williams and lovers, friends, and his residences. A photo of Williams with Elvis (whom he wanted to cast as the guitar-playing vagabond in Orpheus Descending) foregrounds two of Mississippi's most influential artists. Holditch and Leavitt affirm rightly that "a southern character and a southern mystique.., along with his sexual orientation, were the most important influences on" Williams (p. 48). As Williams himself claimed, "I assure you that the South is the country of my heart as well as my birth" (p. 50).
Divided into four sections, Tennessee Williams and the South focuses most intently on two areas of crucial influence on Williams--the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans (though Key West comes in a sporadic third). Rehearsing well-known biographical facts, Holditch and Leavitt succinctly survey Tennessee's "people" and his "extended family" (p. 15). From his mother's line come the Dakins, his beloved grandmother, and Episcopal-priest grandfather; on his father's side issue such illustrious figures as the first governor of the state of Tennessee, St. Francis Xavier, the Calhouns, Sidney Lanier, and sundry other distinguished folk. Onomastic allusion and literary sensitivity mark the section "A Dark, Wide World You Can Breathe In" (referring to Mississippi) as Holditch and Leavitt illustrate how many of Williams's family entered his plays and fiction. Foremost among them was his sister, Rose, with whom Laura of The Glass Menagerie is often compared. Rose was an undeniable influence on Williams (and maybe even her brother's doppelganger), but I would cavil with the assertion that "in every one of her brother's plays, her name appears and that there are in all of them repeated references to her in symbolic terms" (p. 14).
"Where You Hang Your Childhood" turns to the Delta, where Williams spent his first nine years forging "an enduring bond with his native state" (p. 29), though he was never to live there again. Interestingly, Williams "never lost his Delta brogue." Many of the plays are set in the Delta, especially in the Clarksdale environs (e.g., Battle of Angels, Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Baby Doll, Kingdom of Earth), and Holditch and Leavitt relate events in Williams's life to the plays through prose and photo. Williams populated his Delta works with the individuals, places, sounds, sights, and especially the cotton economy of the region. A host of Delta towns and clubs are correlated with their symbolic appearance in the plays. But that text charts a much more complex Southern geography than simple hunting for topicality. It often provides an insightful explication of Delta ethos (such as Moon Lake with its mixture of languor and pixilated fancy), sounds (the numerous juke joints and bars playing away in the plays), and even its smells--King Cotton permeated the plays: "gins play a significant part. Late in the fall, as the gins operate, the Delta air is heavily redolent of cottonseed oil, a rich buttery aroma that is inescapable but pleasant" (p. 39). Lady in Orpheus, Maggie in Cat, and Baby Doll McCorkle in Baby Doll drink in such fragrance, for above all, Williams incorporated "the libidinous forces of this heady environment" (p. 21) into his scripts.
The longest (and best) section is devoted to Williams in New Orleans, "the last frontier of Bohemia." Arriving there in December 1938, a wanderlusted writer, Williams was to have a lifelong love affair with the city he embraced as his "spiritual home." It was New Orleans where he had his "first homosexual encounter." It was a miracle that Williams got any work done there at all since, as he claimed, the city "was created by and for voluptuousness" (p. 63), and "yet more than half of his best work had been written in New Orleans" (pp. 69, 93). And it was in New Orleans that he took the name Tennessee Williams; his "alter ego had been born." As it does for the Delta, Tennessee Williams and the South describes the people, places, and ambience of New Orleans to gloss the plays and the life of their creator. In so doing the photo biography increases our sensitivity and understanding. The pictures of Williams, his lovers, historic sites, and streetcars segue with frames from the plays where they relevantly apply. The tour is fascinating.
Among the many places Williams lived, including seedy apartments, swank hotels (the Monteleone), and his own apartment building, none had a more formative influence on the playwright than did 722 Toulouse Street, "a roach-infested, cramped, and romantic garret in a rooming house in the French Quarter" (p. 67). It would be the setting (and function as a character as well) for his autobiographical Vieux Carre in 1977. A haunting photo by Christopher Harris shows Williams in 1979 standing in the stripped garret forty years after he lived there. Another Williams shrine, also in sad architectural distress, is 632 St. Peter, where he worked on Streetcar and whose house numbers he transferred to Elysian Fields for the Kowalski apartment. As Dante had done for Florence, Williams mythologized New Orleans for the world's theatre. Truly, he was "the dramatist of the French Quarter" (p. 90). Ironically, the first audiences for Streetcar thought that Williams invented such names as Elysian Fields or Cemeteries. Holditch meticulously catalogues (and Leavitt's photos portray) Williams's favorite bars (Starlite Lounge, Dixie's Bar of Music) and restaurants (Victor's, Marti's, and the Court of Two Sisters, where Williams worked as a waiter). The text and the pictures bring back to life many of the New Orleans habitues with whom Williams lived or worked, including Eloi Bordelon (a former Williams lover), Pancho Rodriguez (who lived with Williams when he wrote Streetcar), and even Ruthie the Duck Girl, who waddled into The Mutilated, as well as the more literary Marion Vaccaro, Oliver Evans, and Lyle Saxon, "Mr. French Quarter."
As valuable and visibly dazzling as Tennessee Williams and the South is, we cannot forget that there are other places that laid claim to his psyche and his creativity. A good number of Williams's works, as Allean Hale reminds us, are set in St. Louis, the city he despised, branding it St. Pollution. Then there are the later plays and Moise and the World of Reason set in the postmodern, nightmarish world of New York. On balance, however, Williams was energized and sustained by the South. Yet he recognized that it offered more than comfort and spirituality. He also troped a violet South in his dystopian representations of it as Stygian and ghoulish as Val Xavier, Chance Wayne, and Blanche Du Bois all found out. Thanks are due to Holditch and Leavitt for helping us to see more perceptively Williams's multivalent heartland.
PHILIP C. KOLIN
University of Southern Mississippi
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|Author:||Kolin, Philip C.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
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