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Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee Williams’

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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When Paris Learned to Smile, and Other News

October 28, 2014 | by

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Gerard Dou, The Extraction of Tooth (detail), ca. 1630.

  • The triumphs of late-eighteenth-century French dentistry—professionalization, a commitment to canine conservation and oral hygiene, skill in making and installing artificial dentures—were a crucial element in the complex process ... call[ed] the ‘Smile Revolution.’ Only when an open mouth was able to expose white teeth (or, failing that, white dentures), only when dental hygiene dispelled the miasma of halitosis, could a full smile exposing the teeth be countenanced.”
  • At eighty-five, Hedy Pagremanski likes to plant herself on street corners and paint the disappearing buildings of New York. She’s done more than eighty of them. “We have learned that whatever was, isn’t … I once went to the Landmarks Commission and said, ‘What buildings are coming down?’ And they said they never know until the wrecking ball hits. And that was about twenty years ago.”
  • Tony Kushner on Tennessee Williams: “Because he was mining himself, his self, so endlessly, at some point what you call a kind of calcification of the heart manifests itself, and the self-mining becomes a kind of self-devouring, self-cannibalism, even; the business of putting your self and your inner life on stage over and over becomes a form of self-consumption.”
  • The French culture minister, Fleur Pellerin, has never read any of Patrick Modiano’s books—actually, in the past two years, she hasn’t read any books at all. “I haven’t had time to read anything in the last two years except for a lot of notes, legislative texts, and newswires,” she said. Some have taken this news poorly. “Nothing will uplift us, the soul is an illusion,” one commentator said.
  • Lubricious opening lines: Do they attract or dispel readers? (The opening line that prompted this debate is Christos Tsiolkas’s: “My mother is best known for giving blowjobs to Pete Best and Paul McCartney in the toilets of the Star-Club in Hamburg one night in the early sixties.”)

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Blow Out Your Candles: An Elegy for Rose Williams

December 5, 2013 | by

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura Wingfield in the current revival of The Glass Menagerie.

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura Wingfield in the current revival of The Glass Menagerie.

Some memory of Rose Williams underpins all of Tennessee Williams’s plays, but it was with the 1944 premiere of The Glass Menagerie that he both immortalized his sister and launched his Broadway career. Rose is the basis for Laura Wingfield, the withdrawn high school dropout who passes her days listening to old phonograph records and caring for her collection of glass animals while the world closes in around her. Williams based Tom Wingfield, Laura’s brother, on himself. The play depicts real events, up to a point; years before he wrote Menagerie, now in a successful run on Broadway, Williams left home to pursue his own writing ambitions. During that time, Rose descended into violent insanity. “To escape from a trap,” Williams wrote in Menagerie’s production notes about Tom Wingfield, “he has to act without pity.”

The Williams family moved from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1918. Prior to that, Rose and Tom lived “agreeable children’s lives under garden hoses in the hot summer,” according to Williams’s 1975 Memoirs. Nine-year-old Rose and seven-year-old Tom danced in the living room to music playing on the Victrola. The records were gifts from Cornelius Williams, their itinerant father, who was, like Laura and Tom’s father in Menagerie, a traveling salesman.

When Edwina Williams, Tennessee’s mother, became pregnant with her third child, Dakin, Cornelius accepted an office job at International Shoe’s St. Louis branch. The family moved into a small house, not nearly as squalid as the tenement apartment the Wingfields occupy onstage, but the tension between Williams’ parents made the atmosphere even more explosive. Cornelius, like the character of Tom and Laura’s father, was restless, alcoholic, and abusive. After the family moved to St. Louis, he was, however, not absent. Edwina and Cornelius’s marriage reeked of dysfunction; she withheld sex to punish his infidelity and abrasive presence. Williams recalled hearing his mother’s screams, futile protestations as his father cornered her in their bedroom. Tom, Rose, and Dakin would run out of the house and to the neighbors’ to escape. Read More »

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Long Pregnant Summer: Kim, Kate, and Stella

August 13, 2013 | by

Streetcar-MPAA-Code-Paris-Review

“The subject of childbirth is an old and honorable one on the screen and on the stage,” wrote Tennessee Williams to Irene Selznick and Elia Kazan, his producer and director for the 1947 Broadway premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire. “It has been treated so frequently that a good many well established conventions have sprung up about it, so that it can be treated realistically and without offence to good taste.”

Williams was not, of course, here to witness the 2013 summer of public pregnancies: the Kardashians, amply exposed in tabloids; and the royals, followed everywhere, including through The Daily Show’s segment, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Cervix.” If he were, he could have also tracked my own experience, important not only to my friends and family but apparently also to old men passing on the sidewalk (“Talk about timing, you must be hotter’n hell!”), Whole Foods shoppers (“Did you read that piece last week about cord clamping?”), and a young female officer in a police buggy stopped at a light, noticing me under my umbrella at the crosswalk (“Is this your first? Are you nervous? Ooooh, it’s gonna huuuurt!”). Read More »

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Laughing in the Face of Death: A Vonnegut Roundtable

April 11, 2013 | by

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Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

A well-constructed e-mail and some guts on my part had one day inspired Harold Bloom to send me the phone number of his editor. A few days later I began writing for his literary criticism series with what was then Chelsea House and what is now Infobase Publishing. I put together two works on Tennessee Williams and a revamp of a guide to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before I was contracted to write a book called How to Write About Kurt Vonnegut. Most of what I had read of Vonnegut’s work I had read long ago, and I had seen Vonnegut only once at a forum in Connecticut in 2006, where he appeared onstage with Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner, the three of them parodying a dysfunctional family in a scene that led to much laughter. The theater, however, was completely absent of sound when an audience member asked a cultural-political question and Weiner sputtered, “I wasn’t expecting to have to deliver a message about humanity tonight.” “Well, leave,” was Vonnegut’s response. It was this Vonnegut moment that featured prominently in my mind’s reel as I packed notebooks, an inordinate number of pens, and several of Vonnegut’s novels in my bag that July in preparation for a trip to Boston. Once there, I read and took notes on one Vonnegut book per day from my room. (The hotel that I checked into, the Liberty, had served as a jail until a revolt over poor inmate conditions in the early 1970s led to its obsolescence and subsequent evolution into luxury accommodations.)

When I got tired of being cooped up I moved to the lobby, where I witnessed absurdities such as a woman pushing a very small dog in a stroller and smiling, goofing tourists wandering the open tiers of what had once been rows of jail cells, and sometimes I wandered up Charles Street and popped into the local antique stores. I couldn’t afford most of what was in them, but haggled in one shop over the purchase of an antique blue-and-white tile which featured a single bird—a bluebird. It was a difficult trip, hot and coming on the tails of a year in which nothing went as planned and which involved the full stock and variety of deaths that is possible in one human year. And so I had to have this tile (symbol of happiness, you understand), and I turned over my last ten dollars to acquire it, and I read each book that week with the tile tucked away next to me, wrapped in paper in my bag. And in the strange, beautiful ways that life and art—life and fiction—can converge, I became certain that I was now living in a Vonnegut novel, filled with dark and strange humor and impossible—weren’t they? shouldn’t they be?—absurdities. The only highlight of the trip was an evening concert, one of Beethoven’s symphonies played live by the Charles River, and I sat on the ground listening with my pants growing damp from the remnants of a recent downpour. “Music,” Vonnegut said, “makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it.” But I wasn’t feeling fond, and I returned home having worked hard but defeated. I put the tile away on one of my bookshelves. It wasn’t until one day—after I had finished the book and had grown tired of burdens and hungry for laughter—that I saw it again. I had placed the tile so that the bird was caught in an endless nosedive. And look at its tail! What had made me think that it was a bluebird? It had the tail of a peacock! With it seeming like the natural thing to do, I turned it so that its beak was pointed skyward, so that this strange bird—a bluebird with the tail of a peacock—was now a triumphant phoenix. A ridiculous bluebird-peacock-phoenix. The summer had ended and so had the heat. And things had gone on. Poo-tee-weet.

On the eve of the anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, I asked Ben Greenman, David Holub, Rick Moody, Josip Novakovich, and Avi Steinberg about their own memories of Vonnegut’s work and about why everyone else should remember it, too.

How has Vonnegut influenced or informed your own work?

Ben Greenman: Through moral rigor, though not in any of the predictable ways. As a younger reader, which is when I had my strongest connection to Vonnegut—maybe not my most meaningful, but my strongest, in the fashion of first love—I took a preteen tour through Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. The things that I dimly and germinally felt about war and technology and religion and the different—but similar—risks to humanity inherent in all of them were laid out quite clearly. As time has moved along, the sources of the risks have shifted slightly, for purposes of camouflage, but the risks remain. Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Carson, Hatterr, Fidel

February 8, 2013 | by

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If you’re going to judge a book by its endpapers, then I recommend Julie Morstad’s The Wayside. I’ve spent a fair amount of time imagining them on the walls of the drawing room I don’t have. It helps that the rest of the book—all new drawings by the Canadian illustrator—is equal parts charming and strange. There’s definitely an Edward Gorey–esque feel to her work, but I also see occasional hints of William Pène du Bois (in a troupe of women acrobats) and Amy Cutler (in the wonderful patterned textiles). I think my favorite drawing may be a double gatefold depicting groups of flatly rendered performing-arts kids doing their thing. It’s Attic form meets Fame. —Nicole Rudick

In the early fifties, a married Cuban socialite has an epistolary romance with a dashing political prisoner. They meet for one night, and the woman bears his child. Meanwhile the young man, freed from prison, seizes command of the struggle against Batista and becomes ruler of their country. It sounds (and reads) like a novel, but Havana Dreams, Wendy Gimbel’s 1998 portrait of Naty Revuelta and her daughter Alina, is a work of intimate reportage, and the relationship of these two women to Fidel Castro takes on an uncanny symbolic weight. The book invaded my own dreams. —Lorin Stein Read More »

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