Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Tennessee Williams's St. Louis Blues

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Tennessee Williams's St. Louis Blues

Article excerpt

He called it "that dreaded city," the City of St. Pollution. When asked what brought him to New Orleans, he would answer "St. Louis!" New Orleans is so glamorous that biographers and critics tend to pass over St. Louis, and Williams fostered this neglect. When he became known as the Southern playwright, he found it useful to transfer to a Southern setting plays and characters whose actual locale was St. Louis. Yet he lived in Mississippi only eight years and in St. Louis twenty-five. If the trauma of his youth in St. Louis was the condition that impelled him to write, I believe St. Louis was the catalyst that transformed him into a writer.

The scenario is well known and was the germ for the future playwright's sense of loss: a sensitive seven-year-old, torn from the grandparents who had reared him and the sister who was more like a twin--Rose had been left behind for a year--transported overnight from an agrarian setting to a huge, smoky city, to be met by a father he scarcely knew, whose first gesture was to slap his hand for plucking a grape from a fruit stand in Union Station. Tom, sensing his mother's misery at the move, would always see St. Louis through her eyes. As the Episcopal rector's daughter in a town of 6,000, Edwina had enjoyed social prestige. Now, in the fifth largest city of the United States, she was nobody. With a reverse snobbery, she impressed on her children that St. Louis was a town where only status mattered. They could not hope to attend private schools: Mary Institute, where a girl was enrolled at birth, or the Country Day School, where the Bishop's grandson who was Tom's age attended. Years later Williams would still remember: "That name, public school, kept stabbing at my guts till I wanted, as old as I was, to sit down and cry." He wrote that in St. Louis he first learned that there were the rich and the poor and that they were poor. The sense of being an outsider would become a dominant theme in his writing.

To Cornelius Williams, when they arrived in 1918, it was the city of opportunity. He would have a managerial job with the largest shoe company in the world. St. Louis had an outstanding school system, universities and libraries, a famed Symphony Orchestra, a splendid Art Museum. Its Forest Park, the most elaborate in the country next to Central Park in New York, had one of the earliest natural-habitat zoos and was building the largest outdoor theatre in the United States, the Municipal Opera. St. Louis also had more motion picture theatres per capita than New York City.(1) Future biographers would assume that Tennessee learned his cinematic techniques from his six months at MGM, whereas he had spent twenty years at the movies before he went to Hollywood.

Actually, they were not poor. "C.C." made a good salary, but as the frustrated Edwina held back affection, he held back money. Their new life together soon became a sort of warfare. Cornelius, lusty and boisterous, took his disappointment out in drinking; Edwina, aggressively puritanical, resorted to scolding. She would use Tom as her confidant; C.C. would retaliate by calling Tom "Miss Nancy." Caught between father and mother, the sensitive boy felt trapped. When he would escape to Forest Park, it was perhaps at the zoo that he first envisioned his household as a menagerie, each member caught in a separate cage.

As Streetcar is the New Orleans play, The Glass Menagerie belongs wholly to St. Louis. It is Williams's least disguised work. Most of the places he mentions are intact.(2) The "mustard-yellow brick" flat with its dark rooms at 4633 Westminster Place is now called "The Glass Menagerie Apartment." finis is commonly pointed out as the site of the play, but the Williams family lived there much earlier, when Tom and Rose were small. It shows something about his distorted view of St. Louis that neither of the buildings related to The Glass Menagerie was a tenement as described. Westminster Place in 1918 was still a good residential district with some fine stone mansions in Renaissance style. …

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