- Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named DesireA Global Perspective
A Small Place begins with Jamaica Kincaid greeting a hypothetical guest on her native island of Antigua. "If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see," she insists, "since you are a tourist, the thought of what it might be like for someone who had to live day in, day out in a place . . . must never cross your mind" (Kincaid 3–4). The rest of the book records her angry response to the poverty and corruption that goes unnoticed by tourists who flock to the Caribbean for its powdery white beaches and crystal blue seascapes. Tennessee Williams sets New Orleans in A Streetcar Named Desire at a similar angle from the audience's point of view. A steady flow of migrants, commerce, and culture dissolves the borders that separate the South from the world.
Before turning to the long-range view, let us look closely at the racial conflict that remains at the heart of the southern literary canon. The feud between Stanley and Blanche has stoked a debate about race in the play. George Crandell argues "the racialized discourse spoken by Stella and Blanche serves to define Stanley as the Other, a sexual, cultural, and by implication, racial alien" (Crandell 339). Then again, Mary Brewer warns against too much emphasis on "Stanley's relation to Black masculinity," though she maintains Blanche "make[s] him appear to be something less than fully White" (Brewer 74–75). Crandell aligns immigrants with black Americans in a wash of otherness, whereas Brewer overlooks the racial terrain of New Orleans. In either case, the racial barrier stands inside the conventions of the [End Page 187] immigrant success story, functioning as a major hurdle in the transition from foreignness to assimilation. The more self-conscious Stanley becomes about race, the more we see how blackness and whiteness do not offer neat conclusions about the identity he inhabits.
Williams, after all, gives Stanley a backstory that introduces the possibility of a life across borders. His Polish heritage, the promise of assimilation, and the hardscrabble condition of immigrant neighborhoods all confront Stanley as he chases upward mobility. James Peacock, author of Grounded Globalism, might well be understood as describing the globalism grounded in A Streetcar Named Desire:
When the national framework is replaced, relations within the nation, including long-standing intranational conflicts, become less central in one's cognitive map. On a global cognitive map, regions such as the South and the North appear smaller—no longer the elements of dualistic division but some elements among many within a much wider horizon.(Peacock 7)
Immigrant stories expand the range of the drama far beyond a city, region, or nation. The Kowalski family saga—unlike that of the DuBois—steers the narrative away from the rivalry between the North and South and, more importantly, toward the world. In doing so, Williams redraws the map of southern literature on a scale that is global.
New Orleans occupies a romantic place in our cultural imagination. Frederick Starr tracks its pastel-hued charm to a postbellum travel writer named Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn's vignettes appeared in Harper's Weekly and Scribner's Magazine, drawing a national readership that, Starr claims, "invented" the popular perception of New Orleans:
The titles of Hearn's writings on New Orleans and Louisiana read like an index to the main themes of literally hundreds of novels, movie scripts, travel guides, tourist brochures, monographs, and dissertations devoted to the region. Local and national writers and musicians who make a profession of explaining the Crescent City to the uninitiated tirelessly march through Hearn's table of contents without even realizing they are doing so. But it was Hearn who, more than anyone else, identified the elements of what became the prevailing image of New Orleans and commanded the literary skills needed to communicate that composite to a large general readership.(Starr xxv) [End Page 188]
Hearn captivated readers with stories on Mardi Gras, voodoo, and other slices of French Quarter life that still loom large as treasured icons. "At the Gate of the Tropics" documented his first impressions upon arrival...