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 Advocate for the Unlettered, by Dale Smith.


Collecting, evaluating, and publishing Williams' letters seemed far more daunting than compiling previously printed interviews. Why? Because a trustee of the Williams estate had blocked scholarly projects year after year, intent, in all probability, upon her own editorial initiatives. Her unexpected death in 1994 opened up Williams research and encouraged Devlin, who by this time had enlisted Penn State's Tischler to collaborate, to approach the remaining trustee with a proposal to edit Williams' extensive correspondence.

As might be intuited of any professional wordsmith's communications, Williams' letters come in many voices, depending on the recipient. "He wrote as a choir boy to his parents and grandparents while a student at MU," Devlin says. "Later, he wrote earnest letters to his agent Audrey Wood, but with a literary edge that letters home rarely possessed. With influential literary and theater people he was deferential and, when necessary, conciliatory. With young gay friends and lovers, he was campy, outrageous, and extremely amusing." During an interview with Jo Ristow for the high school literary magazine Hickman Review, Devlin, alluding to the "outrageous" letters, said, "It's too bad they are not quotable" in the magazine.

The letters sometimes contained clues that helped solve mysteries related to Williams' life. What, for example, led Williams during 1938-1939 to gradually shift away from his birth names Thomas Lanier to Tennessee? The letters strengthen the explanation that Williams' desire to win a competition for young playwrights may have figured into the decision. "Young" meant below age 25; Williams was 27. So he disguised his identity by mailing the entry from Memphis, Tenn., and changing his name to Tennessee. When a contest official wrote Williams about a special award he had won from the Group Theatre, she addressed him as "Mr. Tennessee Williams."

Compiling a book filled with letters involves lots of decisions: Where to look for authentic material; what to include (as well as what to exclude); how much to explain about the content of each selected letter; and whether to alter spelling and punctuation or make other changes for reasons of clarity. Devlin and Tischler found the preponderance of letters by meticulously combing through the Williams collections at the University of Texas, Harvard University, Columbia University and the New York Public Library. They also consulted many smaller institutional collections and private sources.

Issues pertaining to guarding the integrity of the project and the expressive quality of the correspondence arose over and over. Williams was relatively silent about his sister Rose's mental illness and prolonged hospitalization, but he was unusually candid in revealing his own "blue devils" of fear and depression. He was upfront, too, in recounting coping strategies for enduring the long, seemingly unpromising period of his apprenticeship. No editorial step should be taken, Devlin and Tischler agreed, that in any way muted the distinctive voice of Tennessee Williams.

Devlin and Tischler decided to print the Williams' letters mistakes and all. But on occasions when, for example, the editors learned that Williams had misdated a letter, the correct date is supplied. For undated letters, the scholars turned into detectives, "first considering the internal evidence of the letter itself, and then such other aids as Williams' concurrent correspondence, his recipient letters, letters written among members of his immediate and extended family, and especially his journal, which begins in March 1936 and continues with only a few significant lapses. ..."

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©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.