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Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories (original 1985; edition 1985)

by Tennessee Williams (Author), Gore Vidal (Introduction)

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The vengeance of Nitocris -- A lady's beaded bag -- Something by Tolstoi -- Big black: a Mississippi idyll -- The accent of a coming foot -- Twenty seven wagons full of cotton -- Sand -- Ten minute stop -- Gift of an apple -- The field of blue children -- In memory of an aristocrat -- The dark room -- The mysteries of the Joy Rio -- Portrait of a girl in glass -- The angel in the alcove -- Oriflamme -- The vine -- The malediction -- The important thing -- One arm -- The interval -- Tent worms -- Desire and the black masseur -- Something about him -- The yellow bird. The night of the iguana -- The poet -- Chronicle of a demise -- Rubio y Morena -- The resemblance between a violin case and a coffin -- Two on a party -- Three players of a summer game -- The coming of something to the Widow Holly -- Hard candy -- Man bring this up road -- The mattress by the tomato patch -- The kingdom of Earth -- "Grand"--Mama's old stucco house -- The knightly quest -- A recluse and his guest. Happy August the tenth -- The inventory at Fontana Bella -- Miss Coynte of Greene -- Sabbatha and solitude -- Completed -- Das wasser ist kalt -- Mother yaws -- The killer chicken and the closet queen.… (more)
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Title:Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories
Authors:Tennessee Williams (Author)
Other authors:Gore Vidal (Introduction)
Info:New Directions Pub. Corp (1985), Edition: First Edition, 574 pages
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Collected Stories by Tennessee Williams (1985)

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A nice assemblage of Vidal's shorter prose fiction with a good introduction by Gore Vidal. The quality of the stories themselves is ragged, however, with the best being actually not fiction but autobiographical memoir. ( )
  CurrerBell | Jan 7, 2015 |
Tennessee Williams

Collected Stories

Ballantine, Paperback, 1986.

12mo. xxviii+611 pp. Preface by Tennessee Williams, c. 1960 [ix-xx]. Introduction by Gore Vidal, 26 March 1985 [xxi-xxviii]. Cover portrait of TW by Andy Warhol.

First published by New Directions, 1985.
First Ballantine Books Edition, November 1986.

Contents*

Preface: The Man in the Overstuffed Chair [c. 1960, 1980, not previously collected]
Introduction by Gore Vidal

The Vengeance of Nitocris [?, 1928, not previously collected?]
A Lady’s Beaded Bag [?, 1930, not previously collected?]
Something by Tolstoi [1930/31, not previously published]
Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll [1931/32, not previously published]
The Accent of a Coming Foot [1935, not previously published]
Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton [1935, 1936, not previously collected, basis for the eponymous play and the film script Baby Doll]
Sand [April 1936, not previously published]
Ten Minute Stop [c. 1936, not previously published]
Gift of an Apple [c. 1936, not previously published]
The Field of Blue Children [1937, 1939, OA]
In Memory of an Aristocrat [c. 1940, not previously published]
The Dark Room [c. 1940, not previously published]
The Mysteries of the Joy Rio [1941, 1954, HC]
Portrait of a Girl in Glass [1941-43, 1948, OA, basis for The Glass Menagerie]
The Angel in the Alcove [1943, 1948, OA, partial basis for Vieux Carré]
Oriflamme [1944, 1974, EMLP]
The Vine [1939-44, 1954, HC]
The Malediction [1941-?, 1945, OA]
The Important Thing [?, 1945, OA]
One Arm [1942-45, 1948, OA]
The Interval [September/October 1945, not previously published]
Tent Worms [1945, 1980, not previously collected]
Desire and the Black Masseur [1942-46, 1948, OA]
Something about Him [?, 1946, not previously collected]
The Yellow Bird [?, 1947, OA, partial basis for Summer and Smoke]
The Night of the Iguana [1946-48, 1948, OA, partial basis of the eponymous play]
The Poet [?, 1948, OA]
Chronicle of a Demise [?, 1948, OA]
Rubio y Morena [?, 1948, HC]
The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin [October 1949, 1950, HC]
Two on a Party [1951-52, 1954, HC]
Three Players of a Summer Game [1951-52, 1952, HC, basis for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof]
The Coming of Something to the Widow Holly [1943-?, 1953, HC]
Hard Candy [1949-53, 1954, HC]
Man Bring This Up Road [1959, KQ, basis for The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore]
The Mattress by the Tomato Patch [1953, 1954, HC]
The Kingdom of Earth [1942-?, 1954, KQ**, basis for the eponymous play aka The Seven Descents of Myrtle]
“Grand” [?, 1964, KQ]
Mama's Old Stucco House [?, 1965, KQ]
The Knightly Quest [1949-65, 1966, KQ, partial basis for The Red Devil Battery Sign]
A Recluse and His Guest [?, 1970, not previously collected]
Happy August the Tenth [1957-70, 1971, EMLP]
The Inventory at Fontana Bella [1972, 1973, EMLP]
Miss Coynte of Greene [November 1972, 1973, EMLP]
Sabbatha and Solitude [1973, 1973, EMLP]
Completed [1973, 1974, EMLP]
Das Wasser Ist Kalt [1973-79, 1982, not previously collected]
Mother Yaws [?, 1977, not previously collected]
The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen [1977, 1978, not previously collected]

Bibliographical Notes

------------------------------------------------------

*In square brackets: year of writing (if known) and year of first publication (if applicable) in any form (magazine/book), and other relevant bibliographical information. In case of revisions, the whole time span between starting and finishing the story is given (as far as it is known); this does not, of course, imply that Tennessee worked on it all the time. The codes refer to TW's collections where the story in question has previously been collected:

OA = One Arm (1948)
HC = Hard Candy (1954)
KQ = The Knightly Quest (1966)
EMLP = Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974)

**This story was included in the limited edition of Hard Candy (1954) and the trade edition of The Knightly Quest (1966).

===============================

This is the definitive collection of Tennessee’s short stories. First published two years after his death, it contains 50 pieces spanning some 50 years (including the preface which, though presumably non-fiction, is as good as a short story); nine of them had never been published before, at least six others had never been collected in book form. The editorial work, apart from “a special note of thanks to Andreas Brown and Lyle Leverich for their assistance in dating the stories”, is uncredited but very well done. Each story is supplied with short history of writing and publication, all cross-links with the plays are noted, and so are the whereabouts of unpublished typescripts. One of the stories, “The Accent of a Coming Foot” (a quote from Emily Dickinson), even enjoys a note reprinted from the manuscript itself; the part from the Foreword to Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) concerned with Tennessee’s first published story is also quoted. As you can see from the question marks in the table of contents above, relatively few details remain unclear; all of the rest is taken from the Bibliographical Notes.

Gore Vidal has written a tremendous introduction. He knew Tennessee intimately for decades and had the necessary erudition, not to mention the elegant bluntness or the ironical insolence of his style, to write a provocative, controversial, thought-provoking, amusing, perceptive and poignant piece. So he did. It was first published, in a somewhat different form, in the New York Review of Books, and it offers a number of salient points on which to build some sort of review (which of course Mr Vidal’s piece originally was).

We may begin with the thorniest issue of all. Yes, that’s right. Homosexuality. The only important thing about it is to realise its relative unimportance, I should think. Mr Vidal seems to agree, but only up to a point. The problem itself is trivial. But its social implications, alas, are not.

There are some things of a biographical nature that the reader should know. Much has been made of Tennessee’s homosexual adventures (not least, alas, by himself); and, certainly, a sense of other-ness is crucial to his work. Whether a woman, Blanche, or a man, Brick, the characters that most intrigue him are outsiders, part of “that swarm of the fugitive kind.” Although there is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person, there are, of course, homo- or heterosexual acts. Unhappily, it has suited the designers of the moral life of the American republic to pretend that there are indeed two teams, one evil and sick and dangerous, and one good and normal and – that word! – straight. This is further complicated by our society’s enduring hatred of women, a legacy from the Old Testament, enriched, in due course, by St. Paul. As a result, it is an article of faith among simple folk that any man who performs a sexual act with another man is behaving just like a woman – the fallen Eve – and so she is doubly evil. Tennessee was of a time and place and class (lower middle class WASP, Southern airs-and-graces division) that believed implicitly in this wacky division.

Thirty years ago I tried to explain to him that the only way a ruling class – any ruling class – can stay in power and get people to do work that they don’t want to is to invent taboos, and then punish those who break them while, best of all, creating an ongoing highly exploitable sense of guilt in just about everyone. Sexual taboo has always been a favorite with our rulers though, today, drugs look to be even more promising, as alcohol was in 1919 when old-time religionists prohibited it to all Americans. But Tennessee had been too thoroughly damaged by the society that he was brought up in to ever suspect that he had been, like almost everyone else, had. He thought he was wrong; and
they were right. He punished himself with hypochondria. Happily and naturally, he went right on having sex; he also went right on hating the “squares” or, as he puts it, in “Two On a Party,” where Billy (in life the poet Oliver Evans) and Cora (Marion Black Vacarro) cruise sailors together: “It was a rare sort of moral anarchy, doubtless, that held them together, a really fearful shared hatred of everything that was restrictive and which they felt to be false in the society they lived in and against the grain of which they continually operated. They did not dislike what they called ‘squares.’ The loathed and despised them, and for the best of reasons. Their existence was a never-ending quest with the squares of the world, the squares who have such a virulent rage at everything not in their book….”

[…]

Although Tennessee came to feel a degree of compassion for his persecutors, they never felt any for him. For thirty years he was regularly denounced as a sick, immoral, vicious fag. Time magazine, as usual, led the attack. From The Glass Menagerie up until The Night of the Iguana, each of his works was smeared in language that often bordered on madness. “Fetid swamp” was Time critic Louis Kronenberger’s preferred phrase for Tennessee’s mind and art. Then, in the fifties, the anti-fag brigade mounted a major offensive. Ironically, most of these brigadiers were Jews who used exactly the same language in denouncing the homosexual-ists that equally sick Christians use to denounce Jews. Tennessee turned to drink and pills, and then, worse, to witch doctors. One, a medical doctor, hooked him on amphetamines; another, a psychiatrist, tried to get him to give up writing and sex. Although the Bird survived witch doctors and envenomed press, they wore him out in the end.

A lengthy but fully justified quotation. I reluctantly omitted the details about Tennessee’s seeing “the squares in a more compassionate light”. But this is linked with a fascinating analysis of “The Knightly Quest” that will be quoted later in this so-called review. Perhaps “the Bird” needs an explanation. It comes from the “Glorious Bird”, a nickname of Tennessee invented by Gore Vidal.

If I understand Mr Vidal correctly, and if he is right of course, Tennessee’s homosexuality appears to have been one of the most potent sources of negative reactions against him. Such reactions, in turn, were probably instrumental in his mental breakdown in the 1960s, no doubt additionally helped by the untimely death of his long-term companion, Frank Merlo. Whether this precipitated Tennessee’s natural development towards a more experimental and less commercially successful theatre or caused him a creative shock from which he never quite recovered, I don’t know yet; I suspect the former notion is closer to the truth but that’s sheer speculation.

If homosexuality is to be accepted as a major generator of prejudice, among the critics in particular and the society in general, one cannot but admire how unabashedly homosexual are some, though by no means all, of Tennessee’s stories. As early as the late 1940s, you can find some totally unambiguous references in his short fiction:

[First lines:]
In New Orleans in the winter of '39 there were three male hustlers usually to be found hanging out on a certain corner of Canal Street...

[Two paragraphs below:]

Conversations like this would occur on the corner.
''Aren't you afraid of catching cold, young fellow?''
''No, I don't catch cold.''
''Well, there's a first time for everything.''
''Sure is.''
''You ought to go in somewhere and get warmed up.''
''Where?''
''I have an apartment.''
''Which way is it?''
''A few blocks down in the Quarter. We'll take a cab.''
''Let's walk and you give me the cab-fare.''


Nothing even remotely like this will you ever find in Tennessee’s plays (at least those written until the mid-1960s) where homosexuality is referred to, if at all, in a most oblique way. These lines come from “One Arm”, a harrowing tale about a boxer who lost one of his arms in a car crash and was reduced to prostitution. It is one of the most explicitly homosexual and, incidentally, one of the finest stories in the whole volume. It was first published in book form in 1948, and it even gave the name of the collection. At that time, Tennessee was at the very height of his fame. Streetcar had just taken Broadway by storm and was still running with Marlon Brando (later Anthony Quinn) as Stanley Kowalski. I wonder why he published at this very time a work that could possibly have damaged his reputation a good deal. There are two possible explanations. It has been suggested by fellows far more knowledgeable than myself that collections like One Arm and Other Stories were sold only under the counter and never enjoyed the wide circulation of mainstream fiction. Another possible explanation, and I believe this is closer to the truth, is that people at large, or at least the circles Tennessee moved in, didn’t care all that much. Maybe both reasons were true. In any case, it was a bold and audacious decision to publish this collection in 1948.

Gore Vidal knew all this very well indeed. One of his most “homosexual” novels, The City and the Pillar, was first published in 1948, too. So far as I know, Tennessee and Gore were never in danger of imprisonment because of their sexual orientation. But it may be that their theatrical and political careers, respectively, were harmed by the frank nature of their fiction. Maybe it exposed their art to unjust critical obloquy and damaged the sales of their books with the general reading public. If so, I hope we have learned and changed since.

Many years later, in 1973 when the world – or at least the US – had apparently become more liberated, in one of his essays Tennessee made the finest reply to all queries about the putative influence of his homosexuality on his work. Note his using “One Arm” as an example and his brilliantly summarizing the whole matter in a single paragraph.

[Please note, if you care, that the following quote contains spoilers.]

Frankly, and at the risk of alienating some of my friends in Gay Lib, I have never found the subject of homosexuality a satisfactory theme for a full-length play, despite that it appears as frequently as it does in my short fiction. Yet never even in my short fiction does the sexual activity of a person provide the story with its true inner substance. The story “One Arm” was the study of a social victim and of an emotional cripple, as well as a physical cripple, who grew into emotional completeness (an ability to return to love) only a day before his execution in a prison.[1]

There really is nothing more to be said – except perhaps one thing. The frequent charges of misogyny levelled in such cases (cf. Maugham) have been dismissed by Mr Vidal with another beautifully written paragraph (the quote in the end comes from the last line of “One Arm”):

Let us now clear up a misunderstanding about Tennessee and his work. Yes, he liked to have sex with men. No, he did not hate women, as the anti-fag brigade insists. Tennessee loved women, as any actress who has ever played one of his characters will testify. […] But that makes him even worse, the anti-fag brigade wail, as they move to their fall-back position. He thinks he is a woman. He puts himself, sick and vicious as he is, on the stage in drag; and then he travesties all good, normal, family-worshipping women and their supportive, mature men. But Tennessee never thought of himself as a woman. He was very much a man; he was also very much an artist. He could inhabit any gender; his sympathies, however, were almost always with those defeated by the squares or by time, once the sweet bird of youth is flown – or death, “which has never been much in the way of completion.”

Tennessee himself, in an interview with Dotson Rader in 1981[2], put the matter much more forcefully:

In my work, I’ve had a great affinity with the female psyche. Her personality, her emotions, what she suffers and feels. People who say I create transvestite women are full of shit. Frankly. Just vicious shit. Personally, I like women more than men. They respond to me more than men do, and they always have. The people who have loved me, the ratio of women to men is about five to one, I would say.

The only fault in Mr Vidal’s otherwise perfect introduction is also connected with the mightily important homosexuality. Towards the end of the piece he insists on telling us about Tennessee’s three most important love affairs in his life. Why they should be regarded as “three relevant biographical details” is hard to fathom. Yes, they were important for Tennessee at the time of their existence. Yes, the separations caused him a lot of pain. But how did they shape his personality? How did they affect his work? Mr Vidal’s only justification in this respect – any respect – is that one story, “Rubyo y Morena”, conveys Tennessee’s feeling of guilt after he parted with Pancho, his second fairly long-term lover. This sounds plausible, but it’s hardly of earth-shaking importance.

But this is a very miniature quibble; just a half page or so. The rest is consistently stirring. I don’t always agree with Mr Vidal, of course, but he always makes me think. A case in point is a penetrating parallel with Mark Twain, a conventional and superficial comparison with Chekhov, and one bold biographical speculation.

These stories are the true memoir of Tennessee Williams. Whatever happened to him, real or imagined, is here. Except for an occasional excursion into fantasy, he sticks close to life as he experienced or imagined it. No, he is not a great short story writer like Chekhov but he has something rather more rare than mere genius. He has a narrative tone of voice which is totally compelling. The only other American writer to have this gift was Mark Twain, a very different sort of writer (to overdo understatement); yet Hannibal, Missouri, is not all that far Saint Louis, Missouri; and each was a comic genius. In any case, you cannot stop listening to either of these tellers no matter how tall or wild their tales.

Why does everybody give Chekhov as an example of “great short story writer”? It seems to be an automatic reaction, a mindless reflex, that occurs without the faintest participation of the cerebral cortex. Is there such a massive shortage of great short story writers? No matter. The parallel with Mark Twain is profound, not so much because of the authorial voice but because of the “comic genius”. This is a much underappreciated side of Tennessee’s work. He is most famous for violent dramas and harrowing tragedies, but even these plays, much like Shakespeare’s but in a more subtle way, contain many touches of comedy. But the real expression of Tennessee’s comic genius is to be found in his short stories. “In Memory of an Aristocrat” and “The Yellow Bird” are but two examples of deliciously ironical pieces, written with irresistible charm and flair for comic effect. Both, needless to say, have serious overtones, and both, incidentally, deal very much with prostitution which is treated with affectionate understanding worthy of Maupassant.

Mr Vidal’s reference to tellers and tales may be a little misleading. It may mislead you, for instance, to think that these are plot-driven stories. This simply is not true. Tennessee’s stories, on the whole, are of the plotless type that attempts to create an atmosphere, to convey an impression, to reveal a character. A good deal happens, but seldom is there any sense of direction; bold climaxes or surprise endings are conspicuously rare. It’s all very Chekhov-like indeed – except for the writing. It lacks the austere clarity and precision of the Russian master. It is often florid, verbose and long-winded, and the Tennessean poetry in prose, so compelling and suggestive in his plays, doesn’t always come off. But when it does, it creates miracles. Who would have thought that such a simple act as eating an apple could be described as the ultimate sensual experience:

He seated himself on the bottom step, at the same time raising the apple to his mouth. The hard red skin popped open, the sweet juice squirted out and his teeth sank into the firm white meat of the apple. It is like the act of love, he thought, as he ground the skin and the pulp between his jaw teeth. His tongue rolled around the front of his mouth and savored the sweet-tasting juice. He licked the outside of his lips and felt them curving into a sensuous smile. The pulp dissolved in his mouth. He tried not swallowing it. Make it last longer, he thought. But it melted like snow between his grinding teeth. It all turned to liquid and flowed on down his throat. He couldn’t stop it. It is like the act of love, he thought again. You try to make it last longer. Draw out the sweet final moment. But it can’t be held at this point. It has to go over and down, it has to be finished. And then you feel cheated somehow.

This is lovely writing. After reading Robinson Crusoe, a much less well-written book, I was convinced, and it has proven true so far, that I would never again taste bread with the same nonchalance as before. Having now read “Gift of an Apple”, I don’t think I am ever again going to eat an apple without remembering this marvellous prose. This steamy sensuality pervades almost every story in this collection. It is quite un-Chekhov, quite unlike anything I have ever read. It puts Tennessee in a class entirely of his own.

It is not true, as Mr Vidal claims, that these stories are “the true memoir of Tennessee Williams”. Certainly, they are not. His plays are; all of them, including the short ones (and he wrote some 65 of these, not to mention 35 full-length ones, in the course of 53 years, 1930-83). Tennessee was a born dramatist: drama was his most natural means of expression. He was a short story writer by way of accident. Indeed, reading this collection one might be tempted to conclude that he wrote short fiction mostly as a kind of notebook for ideas to be fully worked out in his full-length plays. Mr Vidal disagrees, and goes a great deal further:

It has been suggested that many of the stories are simply preliminary sketches for plays. The truth is more complicated. Like most natural writers, Tennessee could not possess his own life until he had written about it. This is common. But what is not common was the way that he went about not only recapturing lost time but then regaining it in a way that far surpassed the original experience. In the beginning, there would be, let us say, a sexual desire for someone. Consummated or not, the desire […] would produce reveries. In turn, the reveries would be written down as a story. But should the desire remain unfulfilled, he would make a play of the story and then – and this is why he was so compulsive a working playwright – he would have the play produced so that he could, like God, rearrange his original experience into something that was no longer God’s and unpossessable but his. The frantic lifelong desire for play-productions was not just ambition or a need to be busy, it was the only way that he ever had of being entirely alive.

Compelling theory. It may well be right. But it doesn’t interfere with my own that Tennessee’s short stories that later served as basis for plays are no more than shadows. They merely hint at the vast possibilities of certain subject. They do not explore it at all. The importance of these stories, as Mr Vidal also seems to suggest, lied in their function as storage of moods, impressions, ideas and reflections while they were still fresh. Later they would, somehow, miraculously, be transformed into plays. One of the minor pleasures while browsing this collection is to compare such stories with the plays they later became. It is nothing short of astonishing how undeveloped, how immature the “originals” look. Several examples will make this clear.

“Portrait of a Girl in Glass” is the only one of these stories that resembles fairly closely the play: it contains, more or less, all characters and the complete plot of The Glass Menagerie. Yet the differences are enormous. First of all, only the character of Laura is developed in some detail, as one might expect from the title. Tom, Jim and the mother (not even named here) are much more insubstantial than their stage incarnations; they are obviously the same people, but if you haven’t read the play they may well strike you as sketchy and one-dimensional. And there is at least one crucial difference in the plot. Tom and Laura do “cut the rug” together, but their singular and touching romance, the heart of the last scene if not of the whole play, is completely missing.

“The Night of the Iguana” has nothing to do with the eponymous play but the picturesque setting, the Costa Verde hotel somewhere on the West coast of Mexico. The story revolves around the three residents in the off season, one Miss Jelkes, a neurotic Southern spinster, two writers, one young and one older, who are obviously much more indifferent to their female neighbour than they are to each other, and the Iguana tied up below the veranda that constantly tries to sever the rope and escape into the surrounding bushes. Only the charming reptile, burdened with a mammoth symbolic significance, made it to the play. The “affable and rapaciously lusty” Maxine, the colourful proprietor of the hotel, is reduced to the barely mentioned “Patrona” in the story. The Reverend Shannon, who may be said to be something of a protagonist in the play, does not even exist in the story, nor do Hannah, Charlotte or Mrs Fellowes, none of whom is even remotely similar to Miss Jelkes.

The only thing “Three Players of a Summer Game” has in common with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a Brick Pollitt who has a drinking problem. That is all. Yes, there is his wife, Margaret, but she is just as close to Maggie the Cat as are the Seven Hills of Rome to the Alps. Both plots could not have been more different. I won’t spoil the story for you, but I insist on telling you that it contains no Big Daddy, Big Mamma, Gooper, Mae, odour of mendacity or hypocritical squabbling over vast fortune.

Compared to the two previous examples, “Man Bring This Up Road” is very close to The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Without the dubious benefit of this comparison, it is a very different affair. The plot – if you can call it that – is very similar: the aged, and mercilessly aging more still, Mrs Goforth accepts an uninvited visitor, a destitute not-so-young-anymore has-been poet, to her secluded Mediterranean mansion, plays with him a little bit, and then dismisses him. On this flimsy basis, Tennessee built up a good story but a better play. The latter develops greatly the incongruous character of Mrs Goforth, with her hypochondria, obsession with death, loneliness and vulnerability, adds many further nuances to the poet’s make-up and one new character, the Witch of Capri. The play is a strange spectacle, amusing on the surface but disturbing and sinister below. In any case, it’s very different than the much lighter story.

Perhaps I am doing an injustice to these pieces. It occurred to me that, having read the plays, I may be subconsciously prejudiced against the stories, involuntarily prone to pointless comparisons between very different mediums. As I hope I have shown above, it is foolish to say that any of these pieces, with the possible exception of “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”, served as basis, or even partial basis, for this or that play merely because there are several exceedingly superficial similarities between the two works. Trying to look dispassionately at them, these are fine stories indeed. The endings of “The Night of the Iguana” and “Man Bring This Up Road” are somewhat rushed and unconvincing, but the former still has a most fascinating character in the mind of Miss Jelkes, and the latter is a poignant depiction of the fickle notoriety that so many young authors enjoy before they sink into pitiful oblivion.

So I have made the opposite experiment. I have read a story first and only then the play it is supposed to be the basis of. I have chosen two such couples: Vieux Carré and its “partial basis”, according to the Bibliographical Notes, “The Angel in the Alcove”; The Kingdom of Earth (aka The Seven Descents of Myrtle) and the story of the same name. The results, surprisingly or not, proved to be pretty much the same. I thought the stories were excellent, beautifully written and quite sufficient by themselves. Yet the plays improved greatly on them. Not much was left in the transformation. The process is something like a thick scroll being unfolded before your eyes: all kinds of secrets are revealed that you never suspected were there. It’s a real challenge to enter Tennessee’s mind and follow him in this quest. I succeed but seldom and then only for a short while. But I do recommend the experience.

The stories are roughly arranged in the chronological order of their writing and that’s how they should be read. Tennessee’s development is not especially spectacular – apparently he was a born writer, not a made one – but the time span is so enormous that some changes are bound to happen. Consider the basic figures. “The Vengeance of Nitocris”, a sort of historical fiction set in ancient Egypt, was first published in the appropriately titled Weird Tales for April 1928; and a pretty good achievement for a lad of 16 it is (he was 17 when it first appeared). Tennessee’s last piece of short fiction, the superbly titled “The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen”, was first published in 1978 (and written in November 1977 when he was 66 years old, not 71 as stated by Mr Vidal).

All in all, 50 years of writing. If one drew some sort of graphic representation, it would look much like the “graph” of Tennessee’s plays. The early attempts during the 1930s are tentative, by no means without promise, but it’s no coincidence that almost all of them remained unpublished or uncollected during his lifetime. From the early 1940s on, imperceptibly, Tennessee enters his most prolific and successful phase as a short story writer. This quietly expires some time in the mid-1950s, a decade or so before his string of failures on Broadway started, not to mention his “stoned age”. In later years, short stories became rarer and wackier; some are brilliant, some are not. It pays, while browsing the collection at random, to keep in mind the general outline of Tennessee’s life and work. It explains much that otherwise might be perplexing.

“Quite likely this volume”, raves The Kirkus Reviews, “will bring Williams a startling new reputation – rivaling his stature as a playwright – as a great American short story writer”. Since I am woefully unfamiliar with the history of the genre in America, I don’t know if Tennessee qualifies as a “great American short story writer”. But the claim between the dashes is nonsense. Whatever reputation he may acquire as a short story writer, certainly it will never rival his legendary fame as a dramatist. That said, I think everybody even remotely interested in the art of short fiction should read this collection – provided, of course, that they first suppress any traces of homophobia and prudishness they may conceivably possess. Don’t be too hasty in declaring yourself open-minded and tolerant. Look carefully inside yourself and see for sure that you have nothing against singular forms of sexuality, either different in direction or voracious in degree.

If you’re seriously interested in Tennessee Williams and the personality that emerges from his plays and essays, I take it such problems don’t exist. Then you have no excuse to leave his stories unread. But you may want to avoid this Ballantine paperback: small font and very narrow margins do make the reading uncomfortable. The original edition is preferable and still in print; used copies are offered at prices quite out of proportion to the book’s value. Get it. You won’t regret it.

The previous two paragraphs were the official conclusion. The rest consists of trivial reflections on several personal favourites. It seems to me that each one of them merits a few words. I have chosen only a limited number as not to exceed LibraryThing’s limits. Truth is, I can count on the fingers of one hand the stories in this volume that failed to stimulate my imagination, such as it is; to give me this unique thrill, a symbiosis of entrancing escapism and non-religious spirituality, that only great literature can provide. The fact that most of the stories wander aimlessly in all directions, or that Tennessee is often unduly intoxicated with words, really doesn’t matter. As far as I’m concerned, that’s great writing all right.

“The Man in the Overstuffed Chair” is Tennessee’s most candid discussion of his family, “as dry and precise an account of his early life as we will ever have” as Mr Vidal aptly describes it. One thing that becomes clear from this essay is that Tom, the poet working in the warehouse of a shoe company from “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” and The Glass Menagerie, was firmly based on Tennessee himself. More importantly, he had very ambiguous feelings, to say the least, about his parents, the inveterate drunkard Cornelius Williams and the southern belle Edwina Dakin, while he retained much warmer ones about his grandparents on his mother’s side. The piece is extremely personal and revealing. It contains everything from a graphic description of his grandmother’s death (“Grand” as he always calls her) to his father’s frightful drinking fits (“I’m keeping your parents here, they’re not paying board!”). Occasionally, as if just by the way, Tennessee opens his whole heart for a sentence or two. Reading such passages, one no longer wonders why so much of his best work contains substantial amounts of violence and hysteria; it is amazing that after such upbringing it should also contain so much poetry, beauty, humanity and compassion.

This overstuffed chair, I don’t remember just when we got it. […] Its color was originally blue, plain blue, but time has altered the blue to something sadder than blue, as if it had absorbed into its fabric and stuffing all the sorrows and anxieties of our family life and these emotions had become its stuffing and its pigmentation (if chairs can be said to have a pigmentation). It doesn’t really seem like a chair, though. It seems more like a fat, silent person, not silent by choice but simply unable to speak because if it spoke it would not get through a sentence without bursting into a self-pitying wail.

Over this chair still stands another veteran piece of furniture, a floor lamp that must have come with it. It rises from its round metal base on the floor to half a foot higher than a tall man sitting. Then it curves over his head one of the most ludicrous things a man has ever sat under, a sort of Chinesey-looking silk lamp shade with a fringe about it, so that it suggests a weeping willow. Which is presumably weeping for the occupant of the chair.


[…]

It would be false to say that he was ever outwardly kind to his fantastic older son, myself. But I suspect, now, that he knew that I was more of a Williams than a Dakin, and that I would be more and more like him as I grew older, and that he pitied me for it.

I often wonder many things about my father now, and understand things about him, such as his anger at life, so much like my own, now that I’m old as he was.


[…]

I understand that he knew that my mother had made me a sissy, but that I had a chance, bred in his blood and bone, to some day rise above it, as I had to and did.

[…]

I’m afraid it is true that my father taught me to hate, but I know that he didn’t plan to, and, terrible as it is to know how to hate, and to hate, I have forgiven him for it and for a great deal else.

Sometimes I wonder if I have forgiven my mother for teaching me to expect more love from the world, more softness in it, than I could ever offer?

The best of my work, as well as the impulse to work, was a gift from the man in the overstuffed chair, and now I feel a very deep kinship to him. I almost feel as if I am sitting in the overstuffed chair where he sat, exiled from those I should love and those that ought to love me. For love I make characters in plays. To the world I give suspicion and resentment, mostly. I am not cold. I am never deliberately cruel. But after my morning’s work, I have little to give but indifference to people. I try to excuse myself with the pretense that my work justifies this lack of caring much for almost everything else. Sometimes I crack through the emotional block. I touch, I embrace, I hold tight to a necessary companion. But the breakthrough is not long lasting. Morning returns, and only work matters again.


Stirring lines. They bring to mind, as so often happens with me, Somerset Maugham. He would have agreed both about the disciplined habit of writing every day in the morning and about the rest of the day being a sort of anti-climax. It is fascinating to observe how many similarities, far more important than the homosexuality, there are between these two great, and greatly different, authors. Tennessee also was a compulsive writer who never stopped writing for more than fifty years, a string of stage flops in the last twenty notwithstanding. He too was in the habit of writing every morning and he too was a restless traveller. Both were more often at their very best when they dealt with women, and both created some of the most unforgettable female characters in fiction and drama. I would even go as far as to claim that Tennessee deliberately chose remote and wild locations (e.g. the Mexican hotel in The Night of the Iguana or the Mediterranean island in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore – or the poorest quarters of New Orleans and Saint Louis if you like) for the same reason as Maugham often chose the tropics: to observe his characters in the raw. But this is probably too fanciful a notion; and it is not here the place to reflect on it.

Some stories are heavily autobiographical. It is dangerous, yet irresistible, to draw conclusions about the author from them. All writing is, of course, autobiographical. What else can it be? It is the expression of the author’s whole personality: even the most dreadful potboiler is conditioned by it. I would go further and say that the greater the writing, the more autobiographical it is. Ay, there’s the rub. The greater the writer, the more ingeniously he transforms his life into his fiction. Ergo, this is an area of thin ice where skating must be done with the greatest care. But some of Tennessee’s stories, very much unlike any of his plays, really are autobiography.

Biographers will grandly tell you, as if they have made a great discovery based on years of hard research, that in his youth Tennessee had rather ambiguous feelings about his sister, quite different than the unqualified affection he developed for her later. Well, these fellows have only discovered the hot water. Nothing more. “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin” documents Tennessee’s childhood attitude to his sister, not to mention her budding insanity and his budding homosexuality, with explicit yet stylish precision. Incidentally, it was one of his most successful stories. It was even reprinted in Best American Stories of 1951.

““Grand”” is, of course, another tribute to Tennessee’s beloved grandmother – and an even more graphic account of her death than the one in “The Man in the Overstuffed Chair”. It was this Rose, not his sister, whom Tennessee probably loved more than any other human being. She died in January 1944 when Tennessee was not yet 33 years old and quite unknown to the world. Fourteen months later, in March 1945, The Glass Menagerie made him famous overnight.

Tennessee writes with great love and tenderness about Grand’s visits to his childhood home in St Louis (she was living in Memphis) which meant “nickels for ice cream, quarters for movies, picnics in Forest Park [...] a return of grace from exile in the South and it meant the propitiation of my desperate father’s wrath at life and the world which he, unhappy man, could never help taking out upon his children – except when the presence, like music, of my grandmother in the furiously close little city apartment cast a curious unworldly spell of peace on all there confined.” (Could Tennessee write a ravishing prose!) Grand was “all that we knew of God in our lives!” He admires tremendously her spirit and character that enabled her to endure a life of hardship that would have broken a lesser woman. In one of the greatest revelations in his complete short fiction, Tennessee confides:

I think the keenest regret of my life is one that doesn’t concern myself, not even the failure of any work of mine nor the decline of creative energy that I am aware of lately. It is the fact that my grandmother died only a single year before the time when I could have given her return for all she had given me, something material in partial recompense for that immeasurable gift of the spirit that she had so persistently and unsparingly of herself pressed into my hands when I came to her in need.

This was published in 1964. If it was written around the same time, then “the decline of creative energy that I am aware of lately” becomes especially poignant. Oddly enough, it was reprinted in New Selected Essays (2009).

One of the most fascinating things about this story/essay is Tennessee’s rather less warm feeling for his grandfather, the Reverend Walter Dakin. I don’t know if biographers have already made this “discovery”. I wouldn’t be surprised if they haven’t. They are not very fond of reading very carefully the works of their subject. Tennessee remained close to his grandfather until his death in 1955 at the grand age of 97. But his fondness was not unmixed with resent. “My grandfather still is, and no doubt always has been, an unconsciously and childishly selfish man”, he begins with brutal candour. “He is humble and affectionate but incurably set upon satisfying his own impulses whatever they may be”, he continues mercilessly.

If Tennessee is to be believed, and this part is concerned largely with facts and must therefore be taken with a greater pinch of salt than passages of feeling coming de profundis, the Reverend was much to blame for Grand’s lifelong unhappiness. He was a schoolteacher when they married, she was a music teacher, and they were so good that their “combined incomes made them quite well off for those days.” Then Walter suddenly made up his mind to enter the church and “my grandmother never again knew what it was to live without personal privation.” Grand nevertheless managed to save the considerable sum of $7500 over the years. One fine day “a pair of nameless con men came to call upon my fantastically unworldly grandfather.” So $5000 went to “this pair of carrion birds” and was never seen again. When the Reverend told his wife, her only reply was to repeat “Why, Walter?” again and again. Her husband’s only reply was emotional blackmail: “Rose, don’t question me any more because it you do, I will go away by myself and you’ll never hear of me again!”

“Ten Minute Stop” is a perfect example how the plotless type of story should be written. Nothing much happens here. A penniless young fellow goes all the way from Memphis to Chicago, looking for job, only to find out that the Big Boss he is supposed to meet has gone on a lake cruise. So he can do nothing but take the bus again. On his way back there is a ten minute stop in Champaign, Illinois. That’s all. Only it isn’t. Against this mundane background, Tennessee puts before you a real human being, uncertain and confused, with dark past and darker future, desperate yet invested with hope. And this isn’t all, either. The meagre spatial and temporal dimensions of the story – a few hours journey, at most, and “’bout hundred fifty mile” between Chicago and Champaigne – are geographically extended to contemporary Memphis and historically expanded at least until the Restoration. It’s a grim picture of humanity that the first person narrator draws, reminding one of a mindless herd with fictional past and dubious future, knowing nothing, going nowhere. And yet, the finale strikes an optimistic note that brings to mind those immortal words from one of Tennessee’s non-fiction pieces: “There was never a moment when I did not find life to be immeasurably exciting to experience and witness, however difficult it was to sustain.”[3] You get all this and much more in less than ten pages. It takes a great writer to do that.

“The Kingdom of Earth” is pure pornography. This is unusual. Tennessee is a notoriously naughty boy: “I cannot write any sort of story, unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire”, he once said to Gore Vidal. Indeed, smouldering desire, if not sexual congress, permeates nearly all of his short stories; “Gift of an Apple”, for example, is a tale of seduction. But usually these steamy nuances are stylishly written, vaguely suggested rather than bluntly stated. This is erotica, a form of art. “The Kingdom of Earth” is not. It is told in the first person singular and in some sort of Southern dialect that must sound as melodious as it looks on the page. The narrator doesn’t refrain from using at least three taboo words which the Knights of Decency feel compelled to write in the cryptic way with asterisks. These are the words “fuck”, “shit” and “cunt”. Don’t look too horrible, do they? This is how the protagonist describes his existential philosophy:

Yes, you could come on home to a house with a tin roof on it in blazing heat and look for water and not find a drop to drink and look for food and not find a single crumb of it. But if on the bed you had you a naked woman, maybe not even terribly young and good-looking, and she looked up and said, I want it, Daddy… why, then I say you got a square deal out of life and anybody that don’t think so has just not fucked the right woman.

Unbelievable as this may seem to more sensitive readers with sky-high moral standards, the story is a minor masterpiece. For one thing, it is relentlessly hilarious. It delivers light entertainment of the highest quality; seldom, indeed, has Tennessee’s comic genius been so fully revealed in a single story. Furthermore, I was wrong in my initial description. The story is certainly pornographic (then again, so is life!), but it’s definitely not “pure pornography”. Deeper themes are also present, most notably religion and racism, and the narrator’s reflections, simple-minded as they look on the surface, however haltingly expressed in broken phrases, should not be dismissed outright just because they are not clothed in refined and grammatically correct language or because the reader doesn’t share his brutal common sense. If you by any weird chance happen to enjoy this story, I suggest you read also The Seven Descents of Myrtle.

It was Mr Vidal and his magisterial analysis that made me read “The Knightly Quest”, by far the longest piece in the book (over 60 pages). This is the passage I have omitted above because it is not directly related to the homosexual issue. I think it is worth quoting and I give it here complete:

The squares had indeed victimized the Bird but by 1965, when he came to write “The Knightly Quest,” he had begun to see that the poor squares’ “virulent rage” is deliberately whipped up by the rulers in order to distract them from such real problems as, in the sixties, the Vietnam war and the Watergate and Operation Armageddon then – and now – underway. In this story, Tennessee moves Lyndon Johnson’s America into a near future when it seems as if the world is about to vanish in a shining cloud. In the process, the Bird now sees the squares in a more compassionate light; he realizes that they have been equally damaged and manipulated; and he writes an elegy to the true American, Don Quixote, now an exile in his own country. “His castles are immaterial and his ways are endless and you do not have to look into many American eyes to suddenly meet somewhere the beautiful grave lunacy of his gaze….” Also, Tennessee seems to be bringing into focus at last the craziness of the society which had so wounded him. Was it possible that he was not the evil creature portrayed by the press? Was it possible that they are wrong about everything? A lightbulb switches on: “All of which makes me suspect that back of the sun and way deep under our feet, at the earth’s center, are not a couple of noble mysteries but a couple of joke books.” Right on, Bird! It was a nice coincidence that just as Tennessee was going around the bend (pills and booze and a trip to the bin in 1969), the United States was doing the same. Suddenly the Bird and Uncle Sam met face to face in “The Knightly Quest”. What a novel he might have made of this story! instead of that flawed play, The Red Devil Battery Sign. He was, finally, beginning to put the puzzle together.

Dystopian fiction is not something Tennessee Williams is naturally associated with, but “The Knightly Quest” proves that he could write even that. It is not entirely successful, as it might be expected since Tennessee is ever so much more interested in the individual than in the society, but it’s a satirical gem written in the best of his Mocking Mode. It is certainly true, as Mr Vidal reflects, that all characters, machos and sissies, rich and poor, highbrow and lowbrow, squares and oblongs, seem equally abused by the system, however little they may realise it. Powerful piece with a large cast of sharply revealed personalities. Too bad, indeed, that Tennessee never expanded this novella into a full-length novel. It might have proved an experiment very much worth reading.

“Two on a Party”, I agree with Mr Vidal, is “marvellous”. It is not much of a story plot-wise, but Cora and Billy are marvellously vivid and compelling characters. She’s a “lush”, he’s a “queen”, both are “on a party”, which is to say they make a living with “cruising”. When it comes to endearing misfits, nobody beats Tennessee Williams. The story ends in a Chekhovian way where it might as well begin, but Cora, “such a nice person, so nice that at first you thought it must be phony and only gradually came to see it was real”, and the not-so-nice Billy are unforgettable. We are all really “on a party”, if only we knew it. Perhaps it’s better that we don’t.

I conclude with two favourite quotes. The first is about sex, a matter on which Tennessee was an expert; and I don’t think many people, if they are honest, would fail to identify with it at least to some degree. The second is rather famous and I have indeed already quoted it above via Gore Vidal; it is definitely worth quoting again, this time a little longer.

That night in the shared compartment of the Pullman was the first time they had sex together. It happened casually, it was not important and it was not very satisfactory, perhaps because they were each too anxious to please the other, each too afraid the other would be disappointed. Sex has to be slightly selfish to have real excitement. Start worrying about the other party’s reactions and the big charge just isn’t there, and you’ve got to do it a number of times before it becomes natural enough to be a completely satisfactory thing. The first time between strangers can be like a blaze of light, but when it happens between people who know each other well and have an established affection, it’s likely to be self-conscious and even a little embarrassing, most of all afterwards.

It was a rare sort of moral anarchy, doubtless, that held them together, a really fearful shared hatred of everything that was restrictive and which they felt to be false in the society they lived in and against the grain of which they continually operated. They did not dislike what they called “squares.” They loathed and despised them, and for the best of reasons. Their existence was a never-ending contest with the squares of the world, the squares who have such a virulent rage at everything not in their book. Getting around the squares, evading, defying the phony rules of convention, that was that was maybe responsible for half their pleasure in their outlaw existence. They were a pair kids playing cops and robbers; except for that element, the thrill of something lawless, they probably would have gotten bored with cruising. Maybe not, maybe so. Who can tell?


__________________________________________________
[1] “Let Me Hang It All Out”, 1973, reprinted in New Selected Essays, 2009, ed. John S. Bak.
[2] The Paris Review, No. 81, Fall 1981. Read this fascinating interview here.
[3] “Facts about Me”, 1952, reprinted in New Selected Essays, 2009, ed. John S. Bak. ( )
5 vote Waldstein | Sep 30, 2013 |
A collection of Tennessee Williams shorter fiction which encompasses a staggering 50 years of written output.

Added to this there is a sympathetic and insightful introduction by Gore Vidal. ( )
  Chris_V | Jun 7, 2009 |
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The vengeance of Nitocris -- A lady's beaded bag -- Something by Tolstoi -- Big black: a Mississippi idyll -- The accent of a coming foot -- Twenty seven wagons full of cotton -- Sand -- Ten minute stop -- Gift of an apple -- The field of blue children -- In memory of an aristocrat -- The dark room -- The mysteries of the Joy Rio -- Portrait of a girl in glass -- The angel in the alcove -- Oriflamme -- The vine -- The malediction -- The important thing -- One arm -- The interval -- Tent worms -- Desire and the black masseur -- Something about him -- The yellow bird. The night of the iguana -- The poet -- Chronicle of a demise -- Rubio y Morena -- The resemblance between a violin case and a coffin -- Two on a party -- Three players of a summer game -- The coming of something to the Widow Holly -- Hard candy -- Man bring this up road -- The mattress by the tomato patch -- The kingdom of Earth -- "Grand"--Mama's old stucco house -- The knightly quest -- A recluse and his guest. Happy August the tenth -- The inventory at Fontana Bella -- Miss Coynte of Greene -- Sabbatha and solitude -- Completed -- Das wasser ist kalt -- Mother yaws -- The killer chicken and the closet queen.

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