- Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life by John S. Bak
As Jon S. Bak makes clear in his preface, “any new biography of [Tennessee Williams] is likely to tread on well-beaten ground” (viii), and the mission undertaken in writing the book, as he states, echoing a turn of phrase from Strindberg’s preface to Miss Julie, is “new wine, as it were, in old bottles” (viii). What Bak has written is a thoroughly researched, engaging, but at times exasperating portrait of Tennessee Williams the writer. To be clear, it is Tennessee Williams that is exasperating and not Bak’s book, for the book is a meticulous and rewarding exploration of a “literary life.” It is a biography that is provocative and illuminating and is especially valuable in challenging the reader to reconsider the post–Night of the Iguana years as a time that was productive, creative, and artistically (if not commercially) rewarding for Williams and not simply two decades of personal and literary decline.
Williams’s restless—some might argue neurotic—energy permeates the book, so much so that although it is organized chronologically, the chapter titles reference travel patterns and destinations but not time—the first chapter, “Columbus to Columbia (via St Louis): Separating Fact from Fiction,” begins the narrative in 1918, when Tennessee is already seven years old; the fifth chapter, “Hollywood to Rome (via Chicago): The ‘Catastrophe’ of His Success,” chronicles the months leading up to the Broadway premiere of The Glass Menagerie; and the last chapter, “Chicago to St Louis (via Vancouver): ‘Right (Write) On!,’” covers the last few months of his life. It proves to be a useful framing device that captures the nomadic wanderings/haunted wanderlust of Williams. Bak suggests that while Williams’s constant motion stemmed in large part from his inability to escape ever-present low spirits and depression, what Williams [End Page 359] called the “blue devils,” this restlessness was essential to how he worked as a writer. Bak suggests that despite the overwhelming movement in his life and travels, much of it, at least in terms of enjoying the exotic or escaping his depression, was unsuccessful. As a tourist, Williams found travel unrewarding, but he was constantly writing, and his inability to “stay put” was mirrored in a work ethic that often saw him working on four or five projects at any one time. Williams could not let his work sit any more than he himself could sit. Working on several pieces at once was a method of combating writer’s block, but it was also Williams’s way of keeping at bay the mental illness he so feared.
Bak’s narrative conceives Williams’s literary career through tropes of endurance and tenacity. This is perhaps not surprising from someone whose motto was en avant, but Bak makes it clear that when Williams was committed to a notion, good or bad, he refused to surrender. Williams spent more than eight years working on The Glass Menagerie, and Bak traces the development of earlier and shorter works like “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” “Blue Roses and the Polar Star,” and “If You Breathe, It Breaks,” arguing that they “were essentially steps in the achievement of his first masterpiece” (109). One of the delights of this book lies in gaining an understanding of how Williams would develop ideas, characters, and situations into a variety of narrative forms and then slowly collage those elements into a long-form play. As one might expect, this is a painstakingly slow way of working, and there was no prescribed gestation period: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof took months to write, Sweet Bird of Youth took years, and Orpheus Descending took decades. This said, Bak does observe that “the more [time] Williams spent writing a play, the less likely were its chances of success” (149). Nothing, however, demonstrates Williams’s tenacity better than how he endured the ongoing personal attacks levelled against him and his work by a misunderstanding and often homophobic press. He and his work had been vilified since...