Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr (W.W. Norton)
If words on a page are the measure of a man, then Tennessee Williams, author of more than 30 full-length and 70 one-act plays over six decades, stands at the pinnacle of the 20th-century playwriting establishment. But as former New Yorker chief drama critic John Lahr shows in his brilliant, exhaustive biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, the writer’s climb to the top was as sensational—and sorrowful—as the plight of any character he brought to life on the stage.
It’s all there in the words—not Lahr’s but those of Williams himself. The book includes scores of letters, diary entries and journals kept by the playwright over the course of his writing life, and together they paint a portrait of an artist at once lucid and hysterical, focused and dissolute. Lahr, who spent 12 years completing this definitive work, draws not only from Williams’ personal writings but also from those of the directors, producers, agents, actors, lovers and friends who populated his incredible career, launched just prior to World War II when the obscure, 20-something Tom Williams, born in Columbus, Miss., won a $1,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant for an early play, Battle of Angels.
A burst of creative momentum followed as Williams escaped his family’s unhappy home in St. Louis, moved to New Orleans and took the raffish name “Tennessee” as a tip of the hat to pioneer lineage on his father’s side. Williams then began sketching the first tentative lines of the great memory play that would launch him to instant stardom. That 1945 masterwork, The Glass Menagerie, sets the stage for Lahr’s chronicle of the playwright’s march through the glory days of postwar American theater, as early 20th-century traditions gave way to works of transcendent lyrical power.
Lahr expertly intertwines passages from the play with facts from Williams’ family story to show just how closely art imitated life: a largely absent father; a mother reeling from marital neglect; a socially awkward sister who actually owned and cherished glass figurines; and, of course, “Tom,” the brother and narrator, who, like Williams himself, leaves his family behind in order to save his soul but spends the rest of his life mourning the loss.
The seminal works that followed—A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Night of the Iguana and many others—all drew from that same mysterious mix of hope and atonement, though Lahr takes care to show that Williams’ genius was shaped and sharpened at every turn by skilled directors such as Elia Kazan and powerhouse actors such as Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page and Paul Newman.
Alcohol, drugs and a series of tempestuous love relationships with other men would eventually chew Williams to bits. He died in 1983, at age 71, with most of his best work two decades behind him. But he never lost his will to write or his ambition to touch the spirit. “Out of the sad little wish to be loved, Williams made characters so large that they became part of American folklore,” Lahr writes. This piercing look into the playwright’s soul reminds us of the special hold he will always have on the American imagination. —Tony Farrell
The Civil War, Library of America
To commemorate the sesquicentennial of the most epochal event in American history, the Library of America has published an extraordinary multivolume series titled, simply, The Civil War. It is a four-year, four-volume chronicle of the war as told, in vivid first-hand accounts, by those who lived through it—whites and blacks, men and women, soldiers and politicians, public intellectuals and private citizens. The Library of America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering greater appreciation for the country’s literary heritage, has just published the fourth and concluding volume—The Final Year—with contents selected, annotated and introduced by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, professor in Southern studies at Louisiana State University. The price for the 914-page 1865 volume, cloth cover, is $40, and it is also available in all major e-book formats. True aficionados may want the entire series, and it is now available as a hardcover, four-volume boxed set, including four hand-drawn, color battlefield maps from Civil War cartographer Earl McElfresh. Price: $157.50. For more information, visit loa.org.