On 26 March 1911, Edwina Dakin Williams of Columbus, Mississippi, had a baby. At the time of the delivery, Edwina’s father, the Rev. Walter Dakin, was conducting services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. A few days later, Rev. Dakin baptized his grandson, Thomas Lanier Williams III, but the world later came to know him as Tennessee Williams, one of the most significant American playwrights. The details of that birth were indicative of the remarkable life the child grew up to live, including the elements of the southern setting, the involved family connections, and the religious overtones.
Tom’s father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, was a traveling salesman who was rarely at home. Williams came from a prominent Knoxville, Tennessee, family, and his background and social standing made him seem the ideal match for Edwina. However, Williams proved a disappointment to both the young bride and to her parents—a heavy drinker and gambler. Edwina and her children—Tom and Rose, who was two years older—consequently continued to live with her parents, first in Columbus and later in the Delta town of Clarksdale, while Cornelius traveled. Something of the psychological strain this arrangement placed on Edwina and her children can be found in The Glass Menagerie, a Tennessee Williams play that changed the history of modern drama.
Williams spent only a small percentage of his life in Mississippi, but the state’s influence on his character and his work illustrates how much his early childhood shaped his psyche. When he was two, the family moved briefly to Nashville, Tennessee, returning to Mississippi in 1915 when Rev. Dakin became Episcopal rector first in Canton and then in Clarksdale.
Edwina and her parents frequently read to Tom, especially after he was unable to leave the house because of the effects of diphtheria, and he and Rose loved the stories their black nurse, Ossie, told them. Riding around the county with his grandfather as he visited parishioners, the boy heard and absorbed stories of Delta families, experiences that always seemed to him larger than life. He retained an amazing treasury of memories, and his mother later recalled that “he was a little pitcher with big ears.” He was impressed by the landscape of the Delta, “so flat,” he later wrote, “that the seasons could walk across it abreast.” He also described Mississippi as “a deep wide world you can breathe in.”
In 1918 Cornelius Williams moved his family to St. Louis, a “cold northern city” where he had taken an office job with the International Shoe Company. Tom and Rose hated their new home. From that point onward, the Mississippi landscape and their childhoods there became and remained precious memories of a lost Eden from which they had fallen or been dragged by their father into “the broken world,” to quote one of Tom’s favorite lines from poet Hart Crane. The following year, Tom and Rose received another shock when Edwina had a third child, Walter Dakin Williams. Cornelius Williams seems always to have preferred Dakin over Tom, whom Cornelius called “Miss Nancy” because he wrote poetry and was not good at sports.
In 1920 Tom was sent back to Clarksdale for an extended visit while his mother recuperated from an illness. It was probably during this stay that the Delta made its permanent imprint on his imagination as he traveled with his grandfather around the county and listened to Rev. Dakin’s stories. By this time Tom was already writing prose and had begun publishing. Rose, however, was beginning to show signs of schizophrenia and was sent to All Saints College in Vicksburg.
After graduating from high school in 1929, Tom entered the University of Missouri at Columbia to study journalism, but in 1932, when he failed the Reserve Officers Training Corps, Cornelius withdrew his financial support and put Tom to work as a clerk at the International Shoe Company. In 1935 he suffered a nervous collapse, and his father allowed him to go to Memphis to stay with his grandparents. While there he wrote a short play, Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!, that was produced by a local amateur group. When he returned to St. Louis, he enrolled at Washington University, where he became involved with an amateur drama group, the Mummers. In 1937 he studied drama at the University of Iowa, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English, and at the end of the next year he went to New Orleans for a few months. There he found a new setting for his work, new material, and, as he frequently said, “a freedom I had always needed.” He had recently adopted the nom de plume Tennessee Williams, which he continued to use for the rest of his life.
While in New Orleans, Williams wrote poetry, short stories, and short plays and soaked up the ambience of what he called “one of the last frontiers of Bohemia.” His next stop was California, and after a few months there he moved to New York to study drama with John Gassner. On Williams’s first night in the city, he later recalled, he wrote a short play “about home,” This Property Is Condemned, which was set in the Mississippi Delta. Late in 1940 the Theatre Guild produced his play Battle of Angels, also set in the Mississippi Delta. Although the play never reached Broadway, it continued to haunt the playwright, and in the 1960s he rewrote it as Orpheus Descending.
In 1943 Rose Williams received a prefrontal lobotomy. The influence of this episode is reflected in Tennessee Williams’s first major drama, The Glass Menagerie (1944), which, though set in St. Louis, is infused with memories of the Mississippi Delta. Amanda Wingfield recalls her early life there, citing real locales and family names as she drifts away from harsh reality into an idyllic reverie about her past.
A tremendous success, The Glass Menagerie established Williams as a major playwright. The next year, he settled in the French Quarter of New Orleans with his friend and lover, Pancho Rodríguez y González, to complete a play that had long germinated in his imagination. A Streetcar Named Desire was completed and produced on Broadway in 1946, with Elia Kazan directing. Set in New Orleans, the drama, raw and sexually explicit in a innovative way for the American stage, was haunted by the memories of the Mississippi Delta, to which Williams, like his protagonist Blanche DuBois, seemed to cling.
The years between 1945 and 1961 were the richest and most productive of Williams’s career. In addition to The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, others works written in this period included The Rose Tattoo (1951), set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; Camino Real (1953); Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), set in the Mississippi Delta; the movie Baby Doll (1956), for which Williams wrote the screenplay and briefly visited his native state for the filming; Orpheus Descending (1957), also set in the Mississippi Delta; Garden District (1958); Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; Period of Adjustment (1960); and The Night of the Iguana (1961). Several of the plays became successful movies. Even after that fertile period ended, Williams continued to write plays, often at a feverish pace. He ultimately wrote more than seventy plays, two novels, numerous short stories and essays, and an abundance of letters.
For all of his adult life, Williams was something of a vagabond, bouncing between New York, Italy, New Orleans, and Key West as the spirit moved him. Nevertheless, he remained connected to Mississippi, never failing to acknowledge the inspiration and character traits it provided him. He explained that “out of a regret for a South that no longer exists . . . I write of the forces that have destroyed it.” That Old South featured “a greater sense of honor, of decency,” and represented “a way of life that I am just old enough to remember.” In a more jocular but surely no less pertinent vein, he loved to relate the words spoken by one of his ancestors, John Sharp Williams, when he left Congress: “I’d rather be a hound dog and bay at the moon from my Mississippi plantation than remain in the United States Senate.”
Williams choked to death in a New York hotel suite on 25 February 1983. According to the coroner’s report, drugs and alcohol may have played a role in his death. Today one can visit Tennessee Williams homes in Columbus and Clarksdale as well as in Key West, Florida. Annual festivals in his honor take place in Clarksdale, New Orleans, and Provincetown, Massachusetts.
- Kenneth Holditch and Richard F. Leavitt, Tennessee Williams and the South (2002)
- Michael D. Hooper, Sexual Politics in the Work of Tennessee Williams: Desire Over Protest (2012)
- Esther Jackson, The Broken World of Tennessee Williams (1965)
- David Kaplan, ed., Tenn at One Hundred: The Reputation of Tennessee Williams (2011)
- Matthew C. Roudane, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams (1997)
- Nancy Tischler, Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan (1961)
- Ralph F. Voss, ed., Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams (2002)