Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

My Friend Tom: The Poet-Playwright Tennessee Williams

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

My Friend Tom: The Poet-Playwright Tennessee Williams

Article excerpt

My Friend Tom: The Poet-Playwright Tennessee Williams by William Jay Smith. U. Press of Mississippi, 2012. Pp. xxii + 173. $28.

This slight but warm volume is the first account of Tennessee Williams written by a bona fide friend of long standing. Smith is a poet of steady reputation and awesome duration, still productive and worth reading at ninety-four. He has no interest in settling scores, and the clarity of his prose will register well with readers weary of the clangorous and twaddly rot of much academic writing.

Whether or not My Friend Tom appreciably augments our understanding of Williams is another matter. We have not lacked information about the twenty-something St. Louisan in the mid- to late 1930s, the most sustained period of intercourse between him and Smith and the subject of the longest of Smith's chapters. Williams's mother and brother weighed in on the early adulthood of their famous relative in memoirs published in 1963 and 1983, respectively; the playwright's own Memoirs of 1975 chronicles the period, albeit in the woozy and haphazard manner characteristic of that volume; and selections of Williams's letters from the ages of eight to thirty-four appeared in 2000. Lyle Leverich's 1995 biography of the young Williams is profuse in its coverage of the college years, in the company of Smith and otherwise. There is no shortage of insistently chummy memoirs by acquaintances of the mature playwright; and this pertains, as Smith somewhat awkwardly extends his study to the time of Williams's death.

A fluidity of text among Smith's earlier work, Leverich's biography, and the present volume compromises My Friend Tom from the outset. The "entire chapter" on St. Louis, Smith acknowledges, "is based on chapters 3-13 of [Leverich], on which I collaborated intially and to which I have now made several additions" (158). Actually, some of the material had appeared in Smith's memoir Army Brat (1980) and other sources before finding its way to Leverich, as a result of which the "new" book often seems too familiar. Smith's addenda mostly concern Smith himself; and time and again a tendency to dwell on his own life, work, and other interests tugs the book from its stated purview. This problem is superevident in later chapters, for example in excursuses on Eudora Welty, and, bizarrely, in the illustrations, which include clever but irrelevant "typewriter portraits" by Smith of Ernest Hemingway, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Tallulah Bankhead.

The short chapters that constitute the last two thirds of the book are a mixed bag. Engaging glimpses into Williams's later life and astute if impressionistic readings cohabitate with prose (and verse) of uncertain purpose. Lacunae are sometimes filled by material from Donald Spoto's unreliable 1985 biography, at cost to Smith's ethos and, again, to the freshness of his book. Some of these chapters are remarkably diffuse. In "Williams and Frank Merlo: Florence, 1949," Smith reproduces and glosses a letter that Williams wrote him in 1974, rehashes well-known material about Williams's college girlfriend and his then inchoate homosexuality, provides a roll call of other famous writers who had visited him (Smith) and his wife in post-war Florence, notices Welty s dislike of A Streetcar Named Desire, reproduces a large portion of Kenneth Tynan's 1954 review of Streetcar and other plays, and ends with a bit on the apparent homosexuality of Welty s beloved John Robinson. Interlarded are references to the titular visit during which Williams and his lover dined with the Smiths, listened while they read poetry postprandially, and, in the morning, visited a Fascist-era building that Williams "loved" (97). The get-together was obviously memorable to Smith, but his account of it seems unlikely to prove so to readers. A chapter about President Carter's bestowal on Williams of a Medal of Freedom is hamstrung by Smith's admission that "of what went on at the Williams table we have no report" (134). …

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