(Callow’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 9/27.)

The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin

edited by Peggy L. Fox and Thomas Keith

Norton, 392 pp., $39.95

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.

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