Friday, October 23, 2015

Thomas Lanier Williams (1911-1983)

Aka Tennessee Williams
Playwright, Author, Poet, Movie Scenarist
Born March 26, 1911, Columbus, Mississippi
Died February 25, 1993, New York, New York

Time was when American literature was dominated by authors you could place into about three categories: Jewish writers, Chicago-area writers, and Southern or Southern Gothic writers. That might be a little simplistic, but simplifying things sometimes helps you keep your thoughts in order. Gothicism in American literature goes way back. You might say American literature as a whole is essentially Gothic. That seems to have been Leslie Fiedler's point in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), a book I'm reading right now. Southern Gothic in particular is an old strain. If Edgar Allan Poe was a Southern writer, then maybe the strain goes back to him, as so many things do. Writers in the Southern Gothic tradition include William Faulkner, Flannery O'Conner, and Carson McCullers. Lest you think the tradition has died out, more recent authors such as Walker Percy (deceased) and Cormac McCarthy (still living) are also considered part of it. We can't leave out Tennessee Williams of course. Although the others wrote stories of horror, science fiction, and the macabre, only Williams made it into the pages of Weird Tales. Here is an excerpt from his Memoirs (1975):
In my adolescence in St. Louis, at the age of sixteen, several important events in my life occurred. It was in the sixteenth year that I wrote "The Vengeance of Nitocris" and received my first publication in a magazine and the magazine was Weird Tales. The story wasn't published till June of 1928. [It was actually August 1928, when Williams was seventeen.] That same year my grandfather Dakin took me with him on a tour of Europe with a large party of Episcopalian ladies from the Mississippi Delta . . . . And, it was in my sixteenth year that my deep nervous problems approached what might well have been a crisis as shattering as that which broke my sister's mind, lastingly, when she was in her twenties.
I was at sixteen a student at University City High School in St. Louis and the family was living in a cramped apartment at 6254 Enright Avenue.
And a little more:
My younger brother, Dakin, always an indomitable enthusiast of whatever he got into, had turned our little patch of green behind the apartment on Enright into quite an astonishing little vegetable garden. If there were flowers in it, they were, alas, obscured by the profuse growth of squash, pumpkins, and other edible flora. (p. 16)
That's an aside and a segue into the next posting.

Williams went on to study at the University of Missouri and Washington University in St. Louis. It was at the university that he began writing plays. His big break came with The Glass Menagerie (1944). His other plays include A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Orpheus Descending (1957), Suddenly, Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and The Night of the Iguana (1961), all of which were made into movies. For his work, Williams won two Pulitzer Prizes and many other awards. And, as befitting a writer in the Southern Gothic tradition, he died alone in a hotel room either by choking to death on the lid of a medicine bottle or from the effects of drug use. But when he was seventeen, a story in Weird Tales opened a door for him.

Thomas Lanier Williams' Story in Weird Tales
"The Vengeance of Nitocris" (Aug. 1928)

Further Reading
You can read "The Vengeance of Nitocris," which is in the public domain, here.

I previously wrote that E. Phillips Oppenheim may have been the only author to have contributed to Weird Tales who also had his picture on the cover of Time magazine. Well, here's another, Tennessee Williams, from March 9, 1962, with art by Bernard Safran.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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