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 Advocate for the Unlettered, by Dale Smith.


Additional detective work ensued when letters contained a name unknown to the editors, or a partial name. Successful detection of those individuals resulted in annotations. "The few persons whom we have failed to identify no doubt deserved a better fate," Devlin commented wryly, while acknowledging that privacy considerations led occasionally to his deleting the name of a living person.

For the first volume, ending in 1945 with the "smash success" of The Glass Menagerie, Devlin and Tischler accumulated about 900 pieces of correspondence. Of those, Devlin says, they selected and then annotated 330.

"The selected correspondence traces Williams' youthful visit to Clarksdale, Miss., his continuing life in St. Louis and residence at three Midwestern universities with as little repetition as possible and with as many hints of an artist's life in the making as the early letters permit. Tom's wandering began in earnest in 1939 and necessarily complicated the process of selection by virtue of a larger cast of correspondents and intensified artistic endeavor."

As Williams matured, Devlin wanted to "catch the alternating rhythms of life on the road, at the Williams' unhappy home in St. Louis and upon the Broadway stage." The second volume contains 347 letters. In a masterful introduction, Devlin explains how the correspondence begins in 1945 "as a restless playwright, beset by fame, prepares to leave for Mexico City. They end a dozen years later as a dejected playwright, still mulling the hazards of Broadway, prepares to sail for the Far East after the failure of Orpheus Descending. If volume one was 'a manual of survival,' of timely escape from 'two-by-four situations,' volume two is an account of the rising odds against escape in the years of Tennessee Williams' maturity."

Both volumes were enriched by consultation with informants who knew and worked with Williams, especially Dakin, the playwright's younger brother. He answered questions that no one else "could presume to address," Devlin says.

When published, the books attracted unexpected attention. Professional actor Robert Sean Leonard read letters from the first volume during the "Writers in Performance" series on stage at New York City Center. Devlin attended the performance, which was billed as A Distant Country Called Youth by the director, Steve Lawson.

Publication of the second volume led to the production of Blanche and Beyond, a second stage performance at City Center. Noted actor Richard Thomas read in the lead role. Devlin was pleased: "English professors usually don't get such notice," he says, contentedly, although knowing full well that Tennessee Williams is the enduring attraction.

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