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 Advocate for the Unlettered, by Dale Smith.


Growing up in New Jersey during the 1950s, Albert Devlin had no clue his intellectual life would become irrevocably entwined with writers of Southern literature.

Today, far from the Garden State and in his 36th year with the University of Missouri-Columbia's English and theatre departments, Devlin is celebrated for scholarship involving some of the South's greatest literary talents, among them William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and, most prominently, Tennessee Williams.

Reared alternately in St. Louis and the Mississippi Delta as Thomas Lanier Williams, the once-controversial author of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth is now firmly entrenched in the American literary canon. His works are staged hundreds of times each year despite being decades removed from their debuts on Broadway. They are assigned reading for thousands of students in classrooms around the world. Less well known are Williams' letters, the best of which provide eloquent insights into the playwright's restless genius.

Williams was a prolific correspondent. Beginning with a first documented missive at age eight, a note sent to his mother in St. Louis while visiting beloved grandparents in Clarksdale, Miss., Williams gave evidence of a sharp eye for domestic detail and testified to the rigors of the road that he would later embrace. He would go on to write thousands of letters to family, friends, fellow authors, business associates, and others during his 71-year lifetime. He died in 1983.

Devlin started working with these letters -- some 2,800 of them by last count -- many years ago. Eventually he and fellow scholar Nancy M. Tischler of Pennsylvania State University decided that this epistolary wealth should be shared with a wider audience.

Five years ago, the names of Devlin and Tischler graced the cover of The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Volume I, 1920-1945, a massive project which they edited for the venerable New York City publisher New Directions. "Kinetic energy suffuses the best of these letters," wrote Bill Goldstein of the New York Times Book Review, "and their impact is cumulative, the reader's pleasure amplified by awareness of the theatrical glory that will come by the book's end, shadowed by the dissolution that will follow."

Last year volume two appeared, covering 1945 to 1957, years which saw both the rise of Williams' commercial triumph and the beginnings of his personal "dissolution." Film critic and biographer Richard Schickel, also writing in the Times Book Review, praised the second volume as "meticulously annotated," adding that it "presents a self-portrait of a brave man, harassed by his demons, yet always -- in those days, with riveting power -- trying to bend them to his artistic will."

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