[(essay date 1988) In the following essay, Weaver provides an overview of Williams's early short stories.]
His name was not really Tennessee, of course; it was Thomas Lanier Williams. Nor was he from Tennessee; he neither was born nor lived there, except for two years in Nashville when he was too young to have remembered it and a few months with his grandparents in Memphis one summer. The nickname was hung on him at the University of Iowa by fellow students who could not remember just which of the Southern states this quiet young man with the broad accent was from.
The source of the nickname is not so important as the fact that Williams chose to keep it--he could have abandoned it at any point after leaving Iowa, obviously. Perhaps it represented for Williams a certain gentility, a golden age of sensibility and sociability that was lost when his family moved, in his seventh year, from small-town Mississippi to industrial, grimy, brutal St. Louis. Or perhaps in assuming the name, Williams was attempting to change an identity that was becoming increasingly disturbing to him. It probably will not do to make too much of the name, though. It was given in friendship and may have represented no more to Williams than affability fondly remembered. He depended heavily, after all--as his biographer, Donald Spoto, suggests--on the kindness of friends and strangers.
Tennessee Williams was the kindest, the most sensitive of men. He could also be cruel, insensitive, suspicious, and paranoid. He was generous and loving and elicited generosity and love from others. Many of those whom he loved the most and to whom he owed the most he hurt and rejected: his brother, Dakin, his longtime agent Audrey Wood, his lover Frank Merlo. The one person to whom he never wavered in his love and loyalty was his sister, Rose, who represented for him all the beauty and sensitivity that could blossom in the world and all the horrors that life could marshal against such vulnerability. Tennessee Williams loved life with an enormous passion and took his own. If we do not officially call it suicide, it is only because we hesitate to apply that term to a process of selfdestruction taking two decades to complete.
Williams was a man of contradictions and clashing passions, and so is his short fiction, which, claims Gore Vidal, constitutes "the true memoir of Tennessee Williams."1 He was the most autobiographical of writers. If he thought it, felt it, or lived it, it would likely show up in his fiction either directly or indirectly. For this reason, although it is not the purpose of this study to provide extensive biographical data, a gloss on Williams's life might provide a useful introduction to his short stories.
Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on 26 March 1911. His father was Cornelius Coffin Williams, a dashing, roguish salesman and a surprising choice for lovely young Edwina Estelle Dakin, who had her pick of...