- Sons and Writers
If happy families are all alike, then the families of writers—at least the families of these three white, male southern writers—are dysfunctional in the same ways too. There would be no writer without a strong mother: no Tennessee Williams without Edwina Dakin (1884-1980), no Larry Brown without Leona Barlow (1922-2012), and certainly no William Faulkner without Maud Butler (1871-1960). The sons lived many more years with their mothers than with their fathers. Brown's mother outlived her son; Faulkner's and Williams's mothers died two and three years, respectively, before their sons. And no writer without a feared, despised, or otherwise avoided father: no Faulkner without Murry Falkner (1870-1932), no Tennessee Williams without Cornelius Coffin Williams (1879-1957), and no Larry Brown without Willis Knox Brown (1922-1968).
William Jay Smith and Thomas Lanier Williams were both southern boys who grew up in St. Louis coping with alcoholic fathers who [End Page 126] did little to understand or support their sons' literary ambitions. Smith's memoir complements and in certain respects repeats Lyle Leverich's story of Williams's life from his formal education up to the premiere of The Glass Menagerie in 1946. After that, Smith's coverage is sparse and sometimes repetitive. Among the more striking sections of the memoir are Smith's descriptions of meetings of the Poetry Society at Washington University where Smith and Williams read and discussed T. S. Eliot, Auden, Spender, French symbolists like Jules Laforgue, and, of course, James Joyce. This was in the 1930s. A decade earlier another fraternity of young men with literary ambitions had met in Nashville to discuss many of the same authors. There is work to do in assessing the formative influence such literary socialization had on the male southern writers who were incubated in poetry societies.
After the staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, which Smith did not initially like but came to admire, he seems to lose contact with Williams. Both men had professional careers that took them separate ways. From the middle to the end of Smith's memoir, reunions with Williams seem few and spread over years, even decades. Still, Smith saw one more trait that knits these three writers into one fabric: the race in Williams's life between his addictive and self-destructive behavior and the drive of his genius to write all of the poetry singing in his head. Smith had seen his friend struggle against his addictions to alcohol and drugs as early successes tapered off and reviewers lamented the loss of Williams's power. Attending a reading Williams gave at Lynchburg College in 1979—the kind of gig the poet-playwright had to take to satisfy his needs for income and audience—Smith witnessed the painful endgame of Williams's later years. He watched in one moment the drunk and self-parodying Williams of 1979 and his friend and classmate of forty years earlier when they were both young and on fire with poetry.
The story of Larry Brown's short life (1951-2004) is in many ways an echo of Williams's. His mother was the strong family-unifying force; his father was a troubled man deeply scarred by experiences in World War II, an alcoholic given to violent episodes in which his sons fled from the house in their pajamas. There was no Poetry Society in Brown's education, no formal education at all after high school. After graduation he joined the Marine Corps, was fortunate not to be deployed to Vietnam, returned to Oxford, Mississippi, and a series of makeshift jobs. At about the age of thirty, he decided he wanted to be a writer. His idols...