(Casey Cep’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 7/10,17/23; Photograph by Vandamm Studio © Billy Rose Theatre Division / NYPL for Performing Arts.)
A collection of previously unpublished stories offers a portrait of the playwright as a young artist.
Williams’s early stories feature the outlines of the spinsters, sirens, hotheads, and ministers whom he later made famous.
If you ever have to lie about your age, try to do it with as much creativity and conviction as Tennessee Williams. When he was nearly twenty-eight, the playwright submitted a handful of one-act plays to a contest for writers under twenty-five. Worried that his deception would be discovered, he changed his name and mailed the submission not from St. Louis, where he lived, but from Memphis, using his grandparents’ home there as the return address. Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Mississippi, he first considered calling himself Valentine Sevier, after an ancestor on his father’s side whose brother was the first governor of Tennessee. But he decided to instead keep his last name and change only his first.
“Mr. ‘Tennessee’ Williams got a telegram last night,” he wrote to his mother a few months later, in March, 1939, letting her know that he’d won the contest, receiving a hundred-dollar prize from the Group Theatre, in New York City. “Do not spread this around till the checque has arrived, as some of my ‘friends’ . . . might feel morally obliged to inform the Group that I am over 25.”
If Williams had any scruples of his own, he shed them with an elegant explanation. After dropping out of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he’d spent the fall of 1932 through the spring of 1935 as a clerk at the International Shoe Company, in St. Louis. His father, a sales manager there, got him the position, which Williams described as “hard labor,” though it mostly involved dusting sample shoes in the morning and typing factory orders for the rest of the day. He took a smoke break every half hour and got paid sixty-five dollars a month. “The job was designed for insanity,” he later remembered. “It was a living death.” He therefore felt entitled to excise that period from his personal history. That’s why Tennessee was three years younger than Tom, and eligible to enter the playwriting contest that brought him to the attention of East Coast agents and West Coast directors.
But all that is only a technical explanation of how Tom became Tennessee. The deeper questions about Williams’s transformation are the stuff of endless debates and dissertations, fuelled by interviews, letters, memoirs, biographies, and Williams’s own writing, including posthumous publications. Most of us don’t mind literary grave robbing, especially when it comes to authors we love, in which case we don’t mind cradle robbing, either: the boyhood diary of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the miniature books of the young Brontë sisters, the childhood newspaper of Virginia Woolf. In this spirit, New Directions is publishing a volume of the early work of Tennessee Williams, who died forty years ago. Slightly less jejune than the abovementioned efforts, this set of short stories is more like the university-era poetry written by T. S. Eliot in the notebook he titled “Inventions of the March Hare,” or Vladimir Nabokov’s blank-verse play “The Tragedy of Mister Morn,” which he wrote as a twentysomething.
“The Caterpillar Dogs and Other Early Stories” includes seven works of short fiction by Williams, culled from the seventy-six boxes of his archival materials at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. They are introduced by Tom Mitchell, an emeritus theatre professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who previously adapted several of Williams’s stories for the stage. Written during the Great Depression, the stories are mostly from the era of Tom’s life that Tennessee erased, when he was living in what he called the City of St. Pollution, writing in the evenings after work, hopped up on black coffee and cigarettes, struggling to find a form and an audience for his art.