Gore Vidal, in his introduction to this collection of fifty short stories, says that these works constitute the true memoirs of Tennessee Williams, for, beginning with the obvious autobiographical piece that prefaces the book (“The Man in the Overstuffed Chair”), they focus on the constant obsessions of Williams’ life—the members of his family and his homosexual loves. Indeed Williams himself has said that his fictions begin with sexual desires that give rise to reveries, which then develop into stories. As such, says Vidal, these stories need no explication.
Nevertheless, it may be that Tennessee Williams’ short stories have been neglected because of just such an autobiographical bias that Vidal reflects, for too often they are mentioned only because they exhibit what many think is an unpalatable obsession with Williams’ admitted homosexuality, especially such stories as “Desire and the Black Masseur” and “Hard Candy,” which shocked middle-class America in the 1940’s with their grotesque sexuality. The only other reason Williams’ stories are given much attention is because some of them seem to presage his more respected plays; for example, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” is later transformed into The Glass Menagerie (1945); “Three Players of a Summer Game” introduces the character of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1954); and “The Night of the Iguana” becomes the play of the same name in 1951.
Little attention, however, has been paid to the short stories of Tennessee Williams in their own right; no one seem interested in placing them within their own tradition and attending to them as significant examples of their own genre. This new collection, which enables the reader to chart the chronological development of Williams’ fictional art for more than half a century, may indeed force new attention to be paid to what many critics have seen to be only personal “finger exercises” by one of America’s most prolific and respected twentieth century dramatists.
Williams’ earliest fictional pieces, such as “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1928, and “Something by Tolstoi,” a previously unpublished piece written in 1931 for a contest at the University of Missouri, reflect a young writer looking for a technique, first in comic-book-type historical romance and then in a Chekhovian flat style. Nevertheless, with “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll,” also written in 1931 for a writing contest at the University of Missouri, Williams strikes the chord that he was to make his own. Here are introduced the themes of the powerful sexual male, the sexual tension between black and white, and primitive sexuality laced with hints of sadomasochism that dominate his mature fiction.
“Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton” is, however, the first successful published Williams story that firmly situates his persistent sexual concern. The story is the basis of Williams’ one-act play of the same name, as well as a partial basis of the screenplay of Elia Kazan’s 1956 film, Baby Doll. The frequent figure of the large sexual woman is introduced here, as well as the hot, sticky atmosphere of the sexual South, the sadomasochistic relationship of the earthy woman and the little man, and the lush, often-overwritten Williams style, as he identifies the woman with the land and the cotton on it, both bursting with ripeness. Similar stories, also depicting the same large woman/little man sexual configuration, are the previously unpublished “Gift of an Apple” and “In Memory of an Aristocrat,” both also written in the mid- to late 1930’s.
Williams’ first collection of stories, One Arm and Other Stories (1948), contains some of his best-known fictions, which further emphasize the sexual focus of his work and which introduce themes which are later developed into his plays. “The Field of Blue Children” is a well-known lyrical story about the discovery of adolescent sexuality, especially the encounter of the poetic and sensitive young couple, which Williams deals with again a few years later in “The Important Thing.” Yet it was such pieces as “One Arm,” “The Night of the Iguana,” “The Angel in the Alcove,” and “Desire and the Black Masseur,” all from this first collection, which attracted the most attention, for in these stories the sexual focus, especially the mythical treatment of homosexuality, becomes most emphasized.
In the title story, “One Arm,” the focus is on a one-armed male hustler who has been imprisoned for murdering, for no apparent reason, a wealthy customer. While in prison, he receives letters from the many men with whom he has had relations, who find themselves still obsessed with him and who pour out their own “litanies of...
(The entire section is 1981 words.)