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  • Law and Sexuality in Tennessee Williams's America by Jacqueline O'Connor
  • Alexander Pettit (bio)
Jacqueline O'Connor. Law and Sexuality in Tennessee Williams's America. Law, Culture, and the Humanities Series. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016. Pp. xii + 215. $80.00.

In this diffuse but suggestive study, O'Conner considers a sampling of Tennessee Williams's plays and stories—and the Memoirs—alongside "the history of laws that governed sexual behavior" in the American twentieth century (16). I intend "alongside" as a visual metaphor, as the elements do not often converge. The focal plays are A Streetcar Named Desire, Orpheus Descending, The Night of the Iguana, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Mutilated, The Gnädiges Fraulein, and Small Craft Warning are among those accorded slighter consideration. The laws at issue are for the most part concerned with sodomy, adultery, prostitution, and, confusingly if less frequently, pedophilia. "Contextualized" thus, O'Conner asserts, "[Williams's] life and work become striking in their focus on the formation, maintenance, and [End Page 240] revision of multiple illegal bodies, his characters' and his own." She continues: "From this rich site of critical common ground emerges a narrative positioning Williams's work as central to our understanding of twentieth-century American life" (16).

This claim previews a rhetoric both expansive and unmoored, a balloon-y sort of method at which one sometimes grasps without purchase. Frustratingly, O'Connor can be a reluctant participant in her own enterprise. Exegesis and close reading are often outsourced to precedent scholars, and not the least dispiriting aspect of the book is its profusion of long paragraphs that recycle previous work, much of it well known. O'Connor generally agrees or merely quibbles with her referents; this unavoidably blunts her own purposes. Neither, contrary to her perhaps metaphorical assertion, does the book assume a "narrative" force that might have offered a compensatory reward.

O'Connor's interest in "illegal bodies" is more promising than her grander claim for Williams as a sort of Casaubonian key to all mythologies. Like other intriguing topics herein, however, this one remains undeveloped. For example, O'Connor's observations about Williams's "recognition of his own illegal [i.e., queer] body" in his "letters and notebooks" (39) suggest a useful way of reading these materials and of course the Memoirs. But their application to what O'Connor is fond of calling Williams's "creative texts" is less compelling. Williams's aging body certainly helps us understand the pathos of decrepitude in The Mutilated, as O'Connor notes (182). Illegality is less clearly at issue, however, notwithstanding Trinket and Cricket's umbrous legal status. Elsewhere, a riff on the "illegal body" of the adulterous Carol Cutrere seems off-key (117–18), given both the protections afforded by that character's economic status and the infrequency of adultery convictions in mid-twentieth century America. Alma Winemiller from Summer and Smoke might have offered more: her body's tumble into illegality (loitering and solicitation) signals an abandonment of social status and thus provides a sense of consequence that would seem relevant to O'Connor's interests.

Far more successful is O'Connor's mapping of Val Xavier's and Carol Cutrere's development across the tortuous textual history of Orpheus Descending. Although O'Connor overstates her case by declaring the manuscriptal record of Orpheus Descending a "unique opportunity to trace [Williams's] depictions of law and sexuality" (145), she productively embeds a familiar play in a tangible "context" of undeniable pertinence, thus illuminating Williams's apparent habit of making his characters more and less responsive to legal pressures as thematic need and the law itself change. The documentary records of, for example, Period of Adjustment and Kingdom of Earth might have provided backup, given the interest they reveal in queerness and, in the latter instance, homosexual and heterosexual rape. Perhaps the declared focus on "Tennessee Williams's America" absolves O'Connor of the [End Page 241] responsibility of considering Williams's canon broadly. If so, this is unfortunate: the book will attract more Williams scholars than cultural or legal historians, its game gestures at interdisciplinarity aside.

A tendency to overstate is...


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