The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams
by Donald Spoto
Little, Brown, 409 pp., $19.95
Tennessee: Cry of the Heart
by Dotson Rader
Doubleday, 348 pp., $16.95
Although poetry is no longer much read by anyone in freedom’s land, biographies of those American poets who took terrible risks not only with their talents but with their lives, are often quite popular; and testimonies, chockablock with pity, terror, and awe, provide the unread poet, if not his poetry, with a degree of posthumous fame. Ever since Hart (“Man overboard!”) Crane dove into the Caribbean and all our hearts, the most ambitious of our poets have often gone the suicide route:
There was an unnatural stillness in the kitchen which made her heart skip a beat; then she saw Marvin, huddled in front of the oven; then she screamed: the head of the “finest sestina-operator of the Seventies” [Hudson Review, Spring 1971] had been burned to a crisp.
If nothing else, suicide really validates, to use lit-crit’s ultimate verb, the life if not the poetry; and so sly Marvin was able to die secure in the knowledge that his emblematic life would be written about and that readers who would not have been caught dead, as it were, with the work of the finest sestina-operator of the Seventies will now fall, like so many hyenas, on the bio-bared bones of that long agony his life: High school valetudinarian. Columbia. The master’s degree, written with heart’s blood (on Rimbaud in translation). The awakening at Bread Loaf; and the stormy marriage to Linda. Precocious—and prescient—meteoric success of “On First Looking Into Delmore Schwartz’s Medicine Cabinet” (Prairie Schooner, 1961). The drinking. The children. The pills. Pulitzer lost; Pulitzer regained. Seminal meeting with Roethke at the University of Iowa in an all-night diner. What conversation! Oh, they were titans then. But—born with one skin too few. All nerves; jangled sensibility. Lithium’s failure is Lethe’s opportunity. Genius-magma too radioactive for leaden human brain to hold. Oh! mounting horror as, one by one, the finest minds of a generation snuff themselves out in ovens, plastic bags, the odd river. Death and then—triumphant transfiguration as A Cautionary Tale.
By and large, American novelists and playwrights have not had to kill themselves in order to be noticed: there are still voluntary readers and restless playgoers out there. But since so many American writers gradually drink themselves to death (as do realtors, jockeys, and former officers of the Junior League), these sodden buffaloes are now attracting the sort of Cautionary Talespinner that usually keens over suicide-poets. Although the writer as actor in his time is nothing new, and the writer as performing self has been examined by Richard Poirier as a phenomenon ancillary to writer’s writing, for the first time the self now threatens to become the sole artifact—to be written about by others who tend to erase, in the process, whatever writing the writer may have written.
Scott Fitzgerald, that most self-conscious of writers, made others conscious of himself and his crack-up through the pages known as The Crack-Up. Ever since then, American journalists …
Caring for the Bird August 15, 1985