Magazine article The Spectator

Sweet Bird of Youth

Magazine article The Spectator

Sweet Bird of Youth

Article excerpt

THE SELECTED LETTERS OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS (VOL. 1, 1920-1945) Edited by Albert J. Delvin and Nancy M. Tischler Oberon Books, 19.99, pp.581 ISBN 1840022264

Frederic Raphael

Dear 10,

Thanks for your letters. Interesting to discover you chose your stately forename during a stay in Memphis, when you also lied about your age to qualify for an award. You tried to stay forever young after that, but with increasing desperation. Precocious you certainly weren't though. I don't know how pleased you'd be to see with what recuperative diligence even your most bread-and-buttery epistles have been collected and annotated by the usual duo of hagiographic academics. If these were selected, what kind of trivia got dumped?

Al and Nancy lead us down every by-way of your sad, often tedious, early history. Your sister Rose, who was finally lobotomised for unsocial - and embarrassingly outspoken - behaviour proved central to your rebellion against fate, obscurity and stigma (as a sissy). She was your unlucky (for her) lucky star: if she hadn't suffered as she did, and you hadn't watched her agony with such helpless vigilance, where would Blanche Dubois and all those other unembellished, yet haunting, Southern belles have come from?

Tenn the artist transformed the trite into the translucent. Letter 58, for dull instance, reminded me of a story of yours I read years ago, entitled - wasn't it? - Players of a Summer Game, about a kid watching a group of doomed people playing croquet; it reflects a sense of imminent, small catastrophe, like the lurid prelude to a summer storm. Shades of Carson McCullers, whom you rightly admired (and, unusually, never dumped on).

Your capacity for rendering fugitive experience into something emblematic was primed, I guess, by your own sexual - as they would now say - preference. You'd probably smile (or giggle helplessly, which was more your style, we gather) at the decorousness with which your world of screaming queens and flagrant exception has been politically corrected into a mundane 'community'. We're told that you had only one (but apparently pleasurable) heterosexual experience - with a Jewess, as Rose might have been tactless enough to emphasise - and then opted for a succession of male lovers, and hustlers, who varied from those, like Paul Bigelow, for whom you had a sustained and garrulous affection, to the pick-ups and rough trade, whose violence you didn't crave exactly, but did not entirely dislike.

I didn't get much out of these letters until you were on the lam in Mexico, living rough. The early years of aspiring writers have a lot of banality in common: good teachers/bad teachers, encouragement/ discouragement, supportive/unsupportive family. Your dad, Cornelius, was the father from hell, but even he was turned to immortal use as a maquette for Streetcar's Stanley Kowalski, whose name was filched from someone you worked with. Nothing was wasted on you, except prudent advice.

You were evidently never a manifest case of raw, natural talent waiting to be broached: you didn't shine at school or college, but your provincial literary education was a lot more prolonged than that of any barefoot boy. I never realised how central to your 'philosophy' was the work and character of D. H. Lawrence. Your long efforts to make a viable play out of his story You Touched Me recalls how liberating (if addled) Lawrence's genius was in the days before Ken Tynan made 'fuck' famous and ordinary, and DHL started to signify a delivery service. …

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