The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin by Peggy L Fox & Thomas Keith - review by Richard Canning

Richard Canning

Plenty of Dish

The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin


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The heat and dampness are descending on New Orleans and it is like a Turkish Bath only not as socially inspiring. So I am wondering whether to go East or West. From the look of things generally, one would do well to get clear out of the country and stay out for at least the opening stages of ‘The American Century.’ I have a feeling that if we survive the next ten years, there will be a great purgation, and this country will once more have the cleanest air on earth, but right now there seems to be an unspeakable foulness. All the people at the controls are opportunists or gangsters. The sweetness of reason died out of our public life with FDR. There doesn’t even seem to be a normal intelligence at work in the affairs of the nation.

So wrote the poet, short-story writer and playwright Thomas Lanier Williams, or, as he called himself from 1938, Tennessee Williams (though he often signed off his correspondence ‘10’). The addressee, poet James Laughlin, was the founder of the avant-garde New Directions press, publisher of Henry Miller, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. It was 9 April 1947, and the friendship between Williams and Laughlin was well into its fifth year. Very casually, Williams moved on to mention the completion of two plays, one of which, referred to here as ‘A Streetcar Called Desire’, had ‘turned out quite well’ but was ‘pretty unpleasant’.

The pair had met at a party given by Lincoln Kirstein, cofounder of the New York City Ballet, and immediately developed a strong rapport. The friendship was eventually to span four decades and is richly documented in this well-edited collection of their letters. Laughlin, 6’6”, liked his diminutive, apt pupil Williams, who was in fact three years his senior (but notoriously prone to dissemblance). He also sincerely respected Williams’s verse. Indeed, Jay (as Williams usually called Laughlin) never stopped considering his friend first and foremost a poet. Just two collections of verse came from their collaboration: In the Winter of Cities (1956) and the cringingly titled Androgyne, Mon Amour (1977), one of Williams’s better-forgotten later works, written as the mental fog descended. Williams trusted Laughlin with all his prose writings too, excepting another late work of ill repute, the opportunistic Memoirs (1975), many of whose ‘truths’ were more fictional than strange.

The wildly transgressive subject matter of the stories New Directions published happily escaped wider notice, even as Williams’s dramatic career took flight with The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). The cultishness of the New Directions list, as well as Williams’s careful interventions to influence the packaging, marketing and distribution of his titles and to set their prices high, effectively kept tales such as ‘One Arm’ and ‘Desire and the Black Masseur’ at a decent remove from the wider public. Williams’s supporters within the critical establishment often knew of, and had even devoured, these challenging, brilliant works. Nonetheless, in effect the two Tennessees were kept apart. Arguably, he favoured his experimental, fiction-writing side, coming to resent the more sanitised, Southern sissy who had written the Broadway big-hitters.

Williams eventually violated this convenient separation in the plays that marked his creative decline, as he pushed the limits of both subject matter and credibility of character. He considered Suddenly Last Summer (1958), the crucial text here, ‘perhaps the most poetic’ of his plays. It serves as a reminder that poetry is not the only thing a stage play needs.

The letter to Laughlin of 9 April 1947 illustrates how the younger Williams’s innately lyrical register characterised his personal exchanges and correspondence as much as it did his stories and dramas. In it, Williams also elliptically refers to his own ‘truth’. What might the robustly heterosexual Laughlin be encouraged to understand by the ‘socially inspiring’ nature of a Turkish bathhouse?

Williams’s wider disillusionment with America here feels markedly current. But it also points to a fundamental distinction between his own perceptions and those of his contemporary Arthur Miller, against whose successes Williams’s plays are measured on every American drama course. Miller’s characters evince and act out a deep mourning for their failures and those of America, as their progenitor himself did. The experience is dark and destabilising, but, for the audience, ultimately cathartic. By contrast, whether he wished it on them consciously or not, Williams’s central protagonists exist in melancholic stasis, the condition that Freud described in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917). One play, Camino Real (1953), literalised his characters’ plight of inertia, being set in a fictional town of that name, surrounded by desert with scarcely any transport to or contact with the rest of the world. It was a critical failure when it first appeared, doomed by Elia Kazan’s naturalistic production of its melancholic dream sequences. In Williams’s many later plays, superficially set in real locations and staged in real time, a dogged refusal to allow plots to devolve or resolve took root.

In these letters Williams scarcely glances at global developments or even the nearer context of his own successes. He just as strongly accepts no responsibility for his reputational decline. Given Laughlin’s unwavering support for all that he wrote, Williams had found in him his ideal confidant. The title of one play in Williams’s oeuvre, Something Cloudy, Something Clear, first written in 1941 but only produced shortly before his death in 1983, nicely distils the essence of what each found in the other. Williams needed fog within and around him; his correspondents, by contrast, were expected to be clear and direct – and Laughlin was. The publisher was clear-headed, clear-sighted and other things Williams was not, such as methodical, restrained and naturally athletic. His letters are to the point, focused, sometimes businesslike or prosaic, but occasionally evocative too, as in this 1962 reflection on the Cold War:

Your phrase the ‘emotional astronaughts’ [sic] really hits it on the button, the kind of daze into which the whole population seems to have fallen, drugged by all the bilge that comes over the air and off the page, so that there is this unbelievable apathy about the nuclear arms race while people sublimate what’s left of their ‘souls’ playing Walter Mitty–John Glenn on trips to the moon… I must say I am disgusted with Kennedy. I had great hopes that he would turn into somebody with a touch of greatness, but as far as I can see he is just a politician.

Williams, meanwhile, could come out with quixotic opinions on anything. England, for instance, in 1948 was:

a great and indefinable horror like a sickness that has not been diagnosed but drains the life from you. The upper classes are hypocritical, cold and heartless. They still eat off gold plates and dress for dinner. They entertain you lavishly for the weekend. On Monday you get a little note enquiring if you stole a book from them. The people on the street are cheerless and apathetic: everybody is rude: the theatre stale and unimaginative.

He had presumably revised his view by 1972, when he insisted he would ‘emigrate’ to England on the back of a run of poorly received New York productions.

There is plenty of ‘dish’ here – as when, in 1949, Williams describes Truman Capote enjoying the ‘enormous sexual vitality’ that the island of Ischia’s radioactive springs allegedly generate: ‘perhaps Truman will have to leave Italy with a board nailed over his ass, which is the way a red-headed sailor once said a Mardi Gras visitor would have to leave New Orleans.’

About half the letters here have already been published in the ongoing Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams series. The gathering together here of the entire Williams–Laughlin correspondence, however, provides us with a fuller portrait of an untypical, and therefore highly instructive, relationship – one of the very few that Williams sustained for a long period. Williams was ‘possibly a little in love, with the handsome, sophisticated publisher’, as Peggy Fox and Thomas Keith suggest. His enthusiasts will want to make up their own minds, especially since biographical studies of this protean, conflicted genius – trapped, as he confided to Laughlin as early as 1946, in ‘a state of morbid alertness’ – have, to date, presented too narrow and limited an image.

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