Navigate / search

John Lahr delves into “treasure trove of Williams material” for new biography, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh”

By Marlene Renz

Cover of John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”
Cover of John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”

John Lahr, a renowned theater critic who wrote for The New Yorker for more than two decades, took up the task of continuing to record and analyze Tennessee Williams’s life in 2007.  In Lahr’s new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton), he draws upon his subject’s plays, letters, and even his own experience of meeting the writer to give readers greater insight into the complicated mind of one of America’s greatest playwrights.  His research included a 2011 visit to the Harry Ransom Center, which houses and extensive collection of  Williams’s papers, including original manuscripts.

 

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which has been nominiated for a National Book Award, was released today.  To read more about the book and its reviews, visit John Lahr’s website.

 

In a Q&A with Cultural Compass, Lahr discusses how he stayed true to Williams by spending time with primary sources, including items in the Ransom Center’s holdings.

 

Was there a particular aspect of Williams’s life or work that you were particularly drawn to?

So much new primary source material—diaries, letters—had been published about Williams since the first biography was written, that I felt a new narrative was needed to tell the story with a deeper sense of event, and a surer knowledge of the internal issues with which Williams was struggling. Also, the plays needed to be interpreted not just recapitulated. Williams always said the plays were a map of his internal life at the time of the writing. My goal was to chart the trajectory of the mutation of Williams’s consciousness, to show how the plays reflected the man and how the man re-presented his internal turmoil in his plays. The book, which has just been shortlisted for the National Book Award, seems to have met a need for the public for a change in narrative about Williams, to see the man and his work with a new lens.

 

In this biography you sought to avoid capitalizing on the sensationalism of Williams’s public life.  How useful were primary sources in helping keep an objective perspective?

In my other biographies, I had primary sources to hand. For Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, I had my father to depose and the experience of a lifetime of living with him; in Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, I had exclusive use of Joe Orton’s diary of the last eight months of his life as a backbone of the narrative; in Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage with Barry Humphries, I was backstage with him at the Drury Lane Theatre and on the road. With Williams, my tactic was to stay as close to his words and what he wrote at the time of writing each play to get a sense of the man and to give the reader the pulse of his metabolism. His published diaries, his published letters (which only go up to 1957), and the remaining correspondence of nearly a quarter of a century to which I had access formed the primary source for my narrative. I think of this as a sort of “global positioning device” for the interpretation both of the plays and the man.

 

Do you recall if there was a particular item that you found interesting?

The Ransom Center is a treasure trove of Williams material; so it’s really impossible to say which item was more revelatory.  For me, I think the letter from his institutionalized sister Rose (“I’m trying hard not to die”) and the typing lessons which the blighted Rose, who never in the end held a job, were scorching. Miss Edwina, her mother, had her typing Puritan platitudes about the blessings of work and rigor and attainment—a regimen that finally helped to drive her crazy. And of Williams, there is a beautiful valedictory letter to his first real companion, Pancho Roderiguez, telling him in later life to walk tall in the world.

 

 

Related content:

Dramaturg uses archival materials to edit new version of Tennessee Williams play for production at The Old Vic

In the galleries: Tennessee Williams interviews… Tennessee Williams

In the galleries: Tennessee Williams tinkers with his Southern image

Q and A: Playwright Tony Kushner speaks about influence of Tennessee Williams

In the galleries: The productive, but complicated, relationship between Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan

In the galleries: Stella Adler’s notes on Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie

In the Galleries: “Love and Relationships”

In the galleries: The “Ruins of a Play” evolve into “The Glass Menagerie”

In the galleries: “Girls! Girls! Girls! Did You Marry Your First ‘Gentlemen Caller’?”

 

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

Read Turner Classic Movie Host Robert Osborne’s introduction to the book “The Making of Gone With The Wind”

By Alicia Dietrich

A fully illustrated catalog by Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson has been co-published by the Ransom Center and University of Texas Press to complement the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind.

 

Featuring more than 600 images from the Ransom Center’s archives of David O. Selznick, the film’s producer, and his business partner John Hay “Jock” Whitney, The Making of Gone With The Wind offers fans and film historians alike a must-have behind-the-camera view of the production of this classic film.

 

Read the foreword of the book by Robert Osborne, film historian and host of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), where he notes that Gone With The Wind was the first film aired when TCM launched in 1994.

 

Join the conversation about the exhibition online with the hashtag #makinggwtw. Stay up to date with the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, the Center’s monthly email newsletter. Subscribe today.

 

Related content:

View blog content related to Gone With The Wind

New biography sheds light on life and work of Dashiell Hammett

By Jane Robbins Mize

Sally Cline, a British award-winning biographer and short story writer, recently published the biography Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery (Arcade). She received a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies from the Harry Ransom Center in 2003-2004, which supported her work in the Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman collections. Below, Cline answers questions about her new Hammett biography.

 

You have previously conducted research on both Dashiell Hammett and his lifelong companion, Lillian Hellman. What led to you revisit the topic and ultimately to write a biography of Hammett?

Publishers were more interested in having separate smaller biographies about Hammett and Hellman than the big joint biography I had envisaged. The American publishing firm Arcade commissioned a compact biography of Hammett, and that is what I wrote. I have, of course, a great deal more research material left on Hellman as an individual and Hellman in relation to Hammett, so I plan to also write a short study of Hellman using the theme of memories and myths.

 

 

What aspects of Hammett’s character and work are of special interest?

His writing, of course, and in particular the way in which he transformed and subverted the detective novel. Through his moral vision expressed in every book he wrote, he effectively elevated the genre of mystery writing into the category of literature.

 

His near-nihilistic philosophy (especially his root idea that the world is ruled by meaningless blind chance), which becomes the thematic context to all his work and much of his behavior.

 

Relevant to this interest is my choice of the anecdote about Flitcraft (in The Maltese Falcon), which stands out as his most memorable piece of nonfiction prose. Ironically, despite the fact the anecdote was key to the novel’s theme, when John Huston made the most famous of the several films about the Falcon, he left it out. Hammett would have appreciated the irony.

 

I am interested in another irony whereby a writer whose creed is moral ambiguity and random results chooses to write crime novels that are generally predicated on linear clues and an orderly progression of facts.

 

I am interested in his relationship to other men and to women. He always preferred male company but was terrified of being thought homosexual. Yet, apart from his affectionate and initially sexually successful relationship with his wife Josie, he did not have a genuinely equal sexual, emotional, and interdependent relationship with any other woman, not even Lillian Hellman. He coped sexually by using prostitutes and was sometimes violent towards women, especially when drunk.

 

Two more things fascinate me. One is his series of debilitating illnesses that made him virtually an invalid in an era when masculine identity was predicated upon robust health. Real Men were not sick!

 

The other part that intrigues me, as it has intrigued his many other biographers, is his long literary silence.

 

What I felt was important was not the myth that he stopped writing—indeed as his daughter Jo testified, he never stopped writing; he merely stopped finishing. But the sad fact is that despite the constant agonized writing, he never again published a full novel after The Thin Man.

 

 

How did the Ransom Center’s archives serve you in your research process? Did they provide any new insights and/or understandings of Hammett?

The Center’s archives provided an enormous amount of information, which along with Hammett’s own family helped answer many of my most significant questions. Two people at the Ransom Center in particular must be singled out: Margi Tenney and Pat Fox. I have so far held four or five fellowships at the Ransom Center over a great many years, and in every case these two women have been unfailingly helpful, flexible, kind, efficient, and brilliant in making my work flow and focus.

 

Image: Cover of Sally Cline’s Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery.

Enter to win a signed copy of Geoff Dyer’s “The Missing of the Somme”

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center’s current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918 marks the centenary of the start of World War I. Triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Bosnian-Serb student, open conflict began the following month when Austria-Hungary invaded the Kingdom of Serbia in retaliation. Within weeks, nearly all of the nation-states of Europe were drawn into a war that lasted four long years and killed ten million servicemen.

 

Tomorrow, June 28, marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination that sparked outbreak of the First World War.

 

Enter to win a signed copy of Geoff Dyer’s book The Missing of the Somme, a book that is part travelogue and part meditation on the remembrance of the First World War. To enter, tweet a link to this blog post with the tag @ransomcenter.

 

Not on Twitter? Email hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Somme” in the subject line. By entering via email, you are also opting-in to receive the Ransom Center’s monthly email newsletter.

 

All tweets and emails must be sent by Monday, July 1, at midnight CST. A winner will be drawn and notified on Tuesday.