Tennessee Williams: Overview

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Editors: Michael J. Tyrkus and Michael Bronski
Date: 1997
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 1,756 words

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Although his writing career spanned more than four decades, it was between the mid-1940s and the mid-1960s, that American playwright Tennessee Williams did the bulk of—and his most noteworthy—writing. His dozens of plays, most famous among them The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Night of the Iguana, enjoyed lengthy runs in New York and earned Williams a number of prestigious awards. His plays and subsequent movie versions starred some of the greatest stage and screen stars of all time, including Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. In addition, he wrote dozens of other plays, short stories, works of short fiction, essays—including a tribute to D. H. Lawrence—and memoirs.

On 26 March 1911, Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, to Cornelius Coffin and Edwina Dakin Williams. He would later be nicknamed "Tennessee"—a name that would stick. He was the second of three children.

As a young woman, his older sister Rose suffered from a number of emotional disorders, and was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic. Williams was very fond of his sister and was greatly concerned for her welfare. Although her emotional decline was difficult for him to observe, he later wrote about her mental illness. Williams believed himself to be physically frail as a result of a near fatal bout with diphtheria when he was a child. He also believed that he had suffered irreparable heart damage.

Williams kept his own company as a young boy. He was often ridiculed by other children as well as his own father, who tormented the younger Williams with the nickname "Miss Nancy," for being less than masculine. Instead of making friends, Williams remained isolated.

The third Williams child, a boy named Dakin, was born after the family moved from Columbus to St. Louis, Missouri, when Thomas was eight. It wasn't long before the general malaise and unhappiness in young Thomas Lanier's life would lead him to writing as an escape. He entered his writing in contests and often won prizes. These early writings also gleaned him formerly lacking recognition among his peers and adults.

A Commitment to Writing

Williams' first published work appeared in the magazine Smart Set in 1927. The story, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport" won third place in the Smart Set contest.

In college at the University of Missouri, Williams discovered alcohol—another way to cure life's ills or at least help him to escape from them. This early attempt at college was thought to be a failure and Williams returned home where his father found him work in a shoe factory. The emptiness of his life and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420008675