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 Advocate for the Unlettered, by Dale Smith.

 

Devlin's serious devotion to reading and researching Southern writers began during a stint as a graduate teaching assistant at KU. Here he encountered the story "Livvie" by Eudora Welty, another Mississippi writer. The story's exotic Natchez Trace setting fired the imagination of an urbanite used to traveling on a congested turnpike. The story "perplexed and enticed me," Devlin recalls. He found it intricately wrought and sometimes impenetrable. "I resolved to tuck Welty's name away and return to her fiction for more serious study." He did just that, eventually interviewing Welty at her home in Jackson, something Devlin calls a "cherished literary experience."

The interview, he recalls, succeeded in moving Welty beyond the rehearsed, formulaic statements she often used to put off interviewers; it instead steered her toward personal reflections on moral issues only hinted at in her fiction. For Devlin, Welty's simple disclaimer regarding the transcendent -- "I don't know" -- ironically suggested the source of the highly wrought style and the engaging difficulty which Livvie presented.

While completing his dissertation at KU, Devlin knew that he wanted an academic career. When an offer from the sort-of-southern University of Missouri-Columbia arrived, Devlin did not hesitate to say yes. He has never regretted that decision, especially given the collegial and economic support for his research from MU sources.

Devlin played out his Faulkner material for a variety of publications after arriving at MU, but in 1977 shifted his publication emphasis to Welty. Devlin's research about Williams grew tangentially out of the Welty fascination. When Devlin interviewed Welty in 1985, she mentioned that she had seen the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Marlon Brando's performance in a legendary form-fitting T-shirt remained in her mind's eye. "At the time I was completing an early Williams project and perhaps felt some confirmation of my own interest in his theater," Devlin says.

In 1986, three years after the playwright's death, Devlin compiled the book Conversations With Tennessee Williams, published by the University Press of Mississippi. It contains three dozen reprinted interviews, to which Devlin contributed an introduction and a chronology of Williams' life. The book appealed to lay readers and scholars, who frequently quoted it, and it helped to lay the foundation for the proposal to edit Williams' correspondence.

Williams, for all his personal idiosyncrasies -- including well-publicized homosexual affairs, drug addictions and mental breakdowns -- lived primarily a literary life. As Devlin tells readers in the introduction, Williams "could seldom think of himself apart from writing, even when the financial rewards were slight or when the criticism, or so he felt, had turned to 'absolutely merciless ridicule.' "

Still, the letters indicate Williams felt an "acute ambition to succeed," Devlin says. The "whomped-up myth" of Williams' ambivalence toward success was, in fact, a triumph of "self-promotion and of self-defense as well, whose amplitude and cunning construction [would] impress even the most intrepid booster."

Williams spread this unique combination of myth and truth through media interviews, many of which were culled by Devlin for the 1986 book. Williams granted "an astonishing number" of these, Devlin says, even though he professed to dislike doing them.

       
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