What's Eating Anthony Burns? Dismembering the Bodies That Matter in Tennessee Williams's "Desire and the Black Masseur"

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Tennessee Williams may be forgiven if his short fiction never approached the phenomenal success of his dramatic works. While his plays explore subjects that were, during the postwar period, considered unseemly (such as rape, psychosis, or incest) or dangerous (such as homosexuality), they are almost always viewed through a theatrically translucent, if thinly veiled, scrim of allegorical existentialism) More often than not, however, this veil is lifted in Williams's short stories, laying bare renderings of miscegenation, violent brutalization, and barely sublimated homosexual desire. Although by applying a sense of "unreal reality" Williams attempts to move his fiction into the realm of atmospheric theatricality, the stories nevertheless retain too much of a "hyper-real" quality that, paradoxically, prevents any lasting imposition of fantasy. As Dennis Vannatta notes, Williams was "the most autobiographical of writers," full of "contradictions and clashing passions" (4), and he easily transmutes these reality-based passions into his short stories, concatenating them together with bursts of sound and fury, signifying everything.

That said, it is difficult to imagine what passion could have inspired the notorious short story "Desire and the Black Masseur," written in 1946 but not widely published until 1954, in the midst of Cold War paranoia over the "alarming proliferation of 'commies, niggers, and queers'" that presaged the nascent civil rights and homosexual movements (Saunders 137). While "Desire" is rife with themes of loneliness, pain, violence, and death common in Williams' work, the transformation of these themes into explicit representations of sadomasochism and cannibalism is both surprising and disturbing. The titular Black Masseur's devouring of Anthony Burns is, of course, disturbing, but I would assert that the story's more sinister subject matter lies in the undercurrent of explicitly racial violence both accompanying and as a consequence of the interracial homosexual desire shared between Burns and the Black Masseur. This violence, I argue, manifests itself in "Desire and the Black Masseur" as an allegorically-rendered lynching narrative.

Considering the little-disputed claim that Anthony Burns is ultimately cannibalized by the unnamed Black Masseur, my consideration of "Desire and the Black Masseur" as a lynching narrative may seem surprising given the historical antecedents of lynching. James W. Clarke, for instance, points out that lynching in America is usually associated with white supremacists who "used terror, making lynching a public spectacle, to exert absolute power over the [South's] black population. Lynching replaced whipping after emancipation as the public exhibition of raw primordial power of white over black" (274). (2) On its surface, "Desire and the Black Masseur" contains no white supremacists, no public spectacles, and no outright displays of "raw primordial power of white over black." As well, Williams' portrayal of the passions shared by Anthony Burns and the Black Masseur seem, at first glance, to be rather straightforward. Nevertheless, as a southern writer, Williams would have been keenly aware of the angst-ridden postwar dynamics surrounding interracial desire, as well as the penalties exacted for violations of this strictly delineated racial and sexual divide.

Southern historian Victoria Bynum states that there was a palpable hypocrisy associated with America's World War II position as a "defender of democracy abroad while tolerating racial discrimination at home" (249), particularly in the South, where the contours of racial discrimination extended deep into the terrains of normative sexual mores. After all, southern society had long been obsessed with the myth of the "black beast rapist" who would, given the opportunity, willingly ravage the pure, virginal, and (of course) white paragons of southern womanhood) Even the merest suggestion that a black man would, in effect, "cross over" into the white world would set off a cascading chain of dangerous events, as Trudier Harris observes: "to violate the inviolable, as any Black would who touched a white woman or became mayor of a town, is taboo. …