Tennessee Williams Biography

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Tennessee Williams, originally Thomas Lanier, was born in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. He was the son of a traveling shoe salesman and a genteel minister's daughter. As a child, his family lived with his maternal grandparents of whom he was very fond. His father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, was of Tennessee frontiersman stock, his ancestors providing the state with its first governor and senator. Later in life, when Thomas Lanier changed his name to Tennessee, it wasn't difficult to determine the reason behind the name he chose. Williams said that as an adult with intentions of publishing, he had to change his name because his given name was tainted by a few publications of bad lyrical poetry from his teenage years.

In 1919 the shoe company promoted Williams' father, and the family moved to St. Louis. The move was hard on Williams and his sister Rose; until they moved to the city, the children had hardly been aware that their family was on the low end of the economic scale. Living in a Midwestern city where the schoolchildren made fun of their Southern accents, and living in a dingy apartment in one of many cookie cutter buildings, it was difficult to ignore their poverty.

Williams attended the University of Missouri for a brief while before working for three hated years at the shoe company that also employed his father. He then attended Washington University before finally landing at the University of Iowa, graduating in 1938. Williams had several menial jobs including work as a movie usher and poet-waiter, but he won a prize from the Group Theater in New York for a collection of one-act plays. After winning the prize, he became a client of the successful literary agent, Audrey Wood. He won the Rockefeller Fellowship in 1940 for his first full-length play, Battle of Angels, which had a catastrophic opening in Boston that year. Following that disappointment, he signed a six-month contract with MGM in 1943 as a scriptwriter, but the contract was broken when he submitted a script for The Gentleman Caller, which would later become The Glass Menagerie. Just before his move out to the West Coast in 1943, Williams' sister, Rose, underwent a prefrontal lobotomy because of her mental illness, and within The Glass Menagerie are echoes of his guilt for not sparing Rose from this operation.

The Glass Menagerie made its 1944 debut in Chicago and moved to New York in 1945 where it won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This play launched his success as a playwright, and the show ran for 563 performances at New York's Playhouse Theatre. After such a blazing success, Williams' won another Critics' Award and Pulitzer for perhaps his most lasting masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948. He won yet another Pulitzer in 1955 for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

His other works include Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Camino Real (1955), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), The Night of the Iguana (1961). He also published poetry collections, The Summer Belvedere (1944) and Winter of Cities (1956), as well as a collection of short stories in 1982 titled It Happened the Day the Sun Rose. Williams published The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, a novel, in 1950, in addition to writing film scripts and his own Memoirs, published in 1975. Williams died in 1983.

"[Williams'] plays, varying from darkly gloomy to seriously affirmative to comic, represent a broad and frequently searching study of life in the South, that at their best, as in Streetcar, they rise above regionalism to universality," claims Southern Writers. "While his critical reputation varied widely for years, it is now clear that Williams is one of the two or three most important American playwrights, the most important to come out of the South."

Bibliography

Adler, Jacob H. "Tennessee Williams." Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary. ed. Robert Bain, Joseph M. Flora, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1979.

Bray, Robert. Introduction. The Glass Menagerie. By Tennessee Williams. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1999. vii-xv

Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1999.

"Williams, Tennessee." Biographical Dictionary. New York: Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd., 1997.

"Williams, Tennessee." Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature. Ed. Stanley J. Kunitz. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1955.

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