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Writing a Life

November 5, 2014 | by

On reimagining what a biography can look like.

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright The University of the South; Courtesy Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright the University of the South; Courtesy Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library

In December 2012, I spent several days in Laurel, Mississippi, with my wife, researching her grandmother’s family history and childhood. I also did a lot of thinking about Stella and Blanche DuBois, the sisters who, as imagined by Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire, also hailed from Laurel. They would have been roughly the same age as my wife’s grandmother. When we left Laurel, we followed Stella and Blanche’s path down to New Orleans. While in the city, we made several visits to Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter; I’d seen a brick of a book there called Tennessee Williams: Notebooks, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton, and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Williams has been on my mind for the nearly two decades I’ve been researching W. Eugene Smith, who declared that the plays of Williams were a major influence on his photojournalism. I thought I knew the names of all the prominent Williams scholars, and I’d heard in 2011 that John Lahr was working on a major biography for Norton. So this huge volume of Williams’s notebooks (it weighs close to four pounds; Lahr’s recently published Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh weighs just over two, by comparison) and its editor were a bit of a mystery. A one-line bio on the jacket flap simply describes Thornton as “a writer and independent scholar,” with no other credentials and no photograph.

The book was puzzling in structure and detail, too. Williams’s handwritten diary entries are transcribed in chronological order on the right side of each spread—on the odd-numbered pages—in a font that couldn’t be larger than eight or nine points. On the left side of each spread are meticulous annotations by Thornton in an even smaller font, maybe six points, that correspond to numbers on the opposite page. The results are parallel tracks of text: one, a series of odd, cryptic personal notes jotted by Williams over the course of his life; the other, 1,090 annotations, occupying equal space, that contextualize Williams’s arcane references many decades later. All told, I later learned, the book contains 265,000 words. Read More »

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Hocus Pocus

March 21, 2012 | by

Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Karpeles Manuscript Museum in Charleston is housed in an old Methodist church, a grandly columned Greek Revival building with a rusty front gate and a pipe organ still intact in the back. It's home to a revolving series of manuscripts culled from the private collection of real-estate magnates David and Marsh Karpeles, a couple with very eclectic and expensive taste in papers: in any given season the glass cases wedged around the pews and pulpit contain anything from pages of Roget’s original thesaurus to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s sketched map of the Antarctic. The February afternoon I visited, a gregarious man with a low-country accent and a flair for displaying pamphlets announced the winter exhibit with pride: “The letters of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, an odd pair if ever there was one.”

The dozen or so letters and scraps of free-written scrawl were from Conan Doyle and Houdini’s brief but spectacular relationship, one that was founded on and destroyed by a shared interest in the possibility of contacting people in the afterlife. It began, as friendships often do, with a book exchange. Read More »

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