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 Advocate for the Unlettered, by Dale Smith.


Jackson Bryer, an English professor at the University of Maryland and co-editor of playwright Eugene O'Neill's letters, says the Williams letters as selected and edited are a boon to scholarship. The letters "give us many glimpses of the lyrical gift which makes him our pre-eminent theatrical poet," Bryer says.

They also demonstrate how Williams' life, including his years as an MU student, was fascinating by any standard. How Devlin's research came to intersect with Williams' life is fascinating, too.

Devlin calls his childhood "fairly conventional." Nobody pushed him toward Southern writing, but both his parents read avidly. By age 15, Devlin says, "I was seriously interested in theater and was reading Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the glamour and artistic importance of Broadway were still intact and alluring to me."

For college, Devlin stayed close to home, attending "a no-frills university," Seton Hall in Newark, N.J. It was, he says, "a fairly obvious choice, if choice is the right word. In retrospect, I don't regret the experience, although in those days one had to look carefully at Seton Hall for intellectual stimulation." One professor in particular, Lawrence MacPhee, provided that stimulus and helped point Devlin toward an academic career.

Deciding to pursue graduate studies in English after earning a bachelor's degree in 1964, Devlin overcame geographic inertia to enroll at the University of Kansas. There he received an MA in English literature in 1966 and a doctorate four years later. His dissertation topic was on the familial relationships in the novels of William Faulkner, Mississippi author extraordinaire. Devlin later published studies related to his dissertation in the journals Mississippi Quarterly and Notes on Mississippi Writers.

"The topic was of personal interest and relatively unexplored at the time," Devlin says, noting that several Faulkner novels are pitched toward the passage from adolescence to adulthood. "I had no particular interest in things Southern, nor did I select Faulkner with any sense that I would immerse myself in the culture. He was simply an engaging writer."

When pushed to explain the genesis of his fascination, Devlin responds sheepishly. "I used to deflect the question by answering that a recent president of the Southern Historical Association was also a New Jersey native. But that dodge is out of date. Suffice it to say that when I began seriously to look South, I found a great deal of exciting work under way, particularly by the Marxist historian Eugene Genovese and the literary historian Lewis P. Simpson, who was kind and encouraging to a New Jersey boy."

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