Authorized by the dramatist five years before his death in 1983, Lyle Leverich’s Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams arrives as the first biographical study to draw extensively upon unpublished letters, as well as upon the journals and notebooks begun in 1936 that Williams termed the “emotional record” of his life. Yet even journals, like letters in which the writer can, chameleonlike, adopt a series of masks, may not necessarily present the naked truth. As Williams would admit, “These note- books despite their attempt at merciless candor . . . perhaps distort unfavorably for I seem inclined to note only the seedier things.” As Leverich is at pains to emphasize, the young Tom deliberately assumed a persona that allowed the “inferno” inside to be externalized through his art.
Born on March 26, 1911—and related on his father’s side to two minor American poets, Tristam Coffin and Sidney Lanier—Thomas Lanier Williams would one day subtract three years from his age to be eligible for a Group Theater playwriting contest that would net him a special award. He took the name Tennessee to signify his “fighting spirit” and his desired role as an avant-garde experimentalist in an American theater on the verge of a new era. Perhaps Leverich’s inclusion of both “Tom” and “Tennessee” within his book’s title is intended to intimate that there would always exist a tension, or at best an uneasy fusion, between the inner person and the outer persona, between the poet and the playwright, the lyricist and the realist, the artist and the theater practitioner and celebrity. Even Williams’ chief literary influences, the poet Hart Crane (a volume of whose works he always carried with him) and the dramatist Anton Chekhov, and his earliest mentors while at Washington University in St. Louis, the poet Clark Mills McBurney and the theaterman Willard Holland, are indicative of this oppositional pull. He saw himself, in short, as suffering from a senseless division, an “enemy inside” that made him feel at times “half-mad.”
After an introductory chapter that recounts how Leverich, a theater manager and director and, from the mid-1970’s, a friend of Williams, unexpectedly found himself designated the authorized biographer, and a prologue that details the events surrounding Williams’ death, Tom proceeds in straightforward, chronological fashion. It is structured like a scenario, narrating the tale of “the actual menagerie” that Williams the poet-playwright lived among and then recollected in his memory play The Glass Menagerie (1944). Leverich’s unearthings of unknown aspects of the absent father—the play’s “telephone man who fell in love with long distance”—and of the fearfully shy sister, renamed Laura in the play, take on new resonances as images of the playwright himself. The drama-rich story that Leverich painstakingly yet gracefully and with restraint tells is of Williams as son, as brother, as homosexual, and as artist.
Tom’s parents were mismatched and sexually incompatible from the start. Edwina Dakin, daughter of a much-loved Episcopalian rector who, in turn, loved the “high drama” of the liturgy and of a music teacher whom Tom called “Grand” in real life and in fiction and thought of as God’s embodiment on earth, was poetically nostalgic, garrulous, and full of Victorian inhibitions. Cornelius Coffin Williams was altogether crasser and more aggressive, though more cavalier, a traveling salesman who reveled in his drink, his poker, and his other women. Their children, especially the two older of the three, drove deeper the wedge between them. Leverich sees Cornelius as creating in Tom what he most feared, a bookish, withdrawn child, whom he referred to derisively as “Miss Nancy.” Tom’s unrequited love for his father resulted in a rage against him that helped fuel the son’s artistic rebellion and passion to create; in Leverich’s interpretation, the son’s hate was actually sublimated love. Only after Williams underwent analysis following a bout of depression over his father’s death in 1957 did he, according to Leverich, come to terms with and finally admit his long-repressed feelings of hatred for his mother.
If, in real life, Cornelius did not have the courage to leave his family as does the father in The Glass Menagerie, his son was always in flight. The physical dislocations early in life—from Columbus, Mississippi, where he was born, to Clarksdale, whose surroundings...
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