Tenn’s Best Friend

Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

There can scarcely be a better-documented dramatist in the Western world than Tennessee Williams. His most recent, and best, biographer, John Lahr, counts forty books written about him since his death in 1983.1 Not that he was exactly unknown during his lifetime. After his epoch-making Broadway debut in 1945 with The Glass Menagerie and his subsequent and precipitate anointment as the savior of the modern American theater, his progress both as a writer and as a man was closely interrogated by the usual authorities. In this process Williams, like many a guileless artist before him, colluded, responding with a running commentary on the phenomenon of himself; in his startling essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” published in The New York Times in November 1947, just before the opening of his second Broadway play, A Streetcar Named Desire, he unsparingly describes what happened to him after the triumph of The Glass Menagerie. “I was snatched,” he said,

out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence, and from the precarious tenancy of furnished rooms about the country I was removed to a suite in a first-class Manhattan hotel. My experience was not unique. Success has often come that abruptly into the lives of Americans. The Cinderella story is our favorite national myth.

From then until the day he died, in a series of newspaper articles, interviews in print and on television, and his lurid stream-of-consciousness Memoirs (1972), he freely shared his hopes, his doubts, his lusts—his self-assessment, in fact—with the American public. The plays themselves, it was widely understood, were often explicitly, always implicitly, autobiographical. And from a very early point, reviewers of his work—which encompassed not just theater pieces but poetry, short stories, and novels—addressed the Tennessee Williams problem. He was, he said, “a victim of the false intensities” that seemed to follow “on the transformation of a creative writer to a public figure.” Whither Williams? asked the critics. Almost from the beginning, encouraged by him, they ceased reviewing his work, preferring, as Orson Welles remarked of himself, to review him. It is astonishing, in these circus-like circumstances, that he produced so much extraordinary and enduring work.

All these matters have been discussed exhaustively in the vast Williams bibliography. Is there really room for more? Astonishingly, there is. The Luck of Friendship ( “Four Decades of One of the Most Unlikely Friendships in American Literature,” as Peggy L. Fox’s introduction splendidly puts it) is a most welcome addition, not simply because Williams was a world-class correspondent, but because it reveals an aspect of him that is rarely examined: his life as a working writer. Moreover, his epistolary partner, the publisher James Laughlin, was, in his very different way, also a titan—an unusually quiet one, to be sure, but unquestionably one of the central figures of American letters of the last century.

As his biographer Ian MacNiven writes in “Literchoor Is My Beat,

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