Tennessee Williams Biography
The following abbreviated biography of Tennessee Williams is provided so that you might become more familiar with his life and the historical times that possibly influenced his writing. Read this Life and Background of the Playwright section and recall it when reading Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, thinking of any thematic relationship between Williams' play and his life.
More than with most authors, Tennessee Williams' personal life and experiences have been the direct subject matter for his dramas. He uses his experiences so as to universalize them through the means of the stage. Thus, his life is utilized over and over again in the creation of his dramas.
Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi. Because his father was a traveling salesman and was often away from home, he lived the first ten years of his life in his maternal grandparents' home. His father was a loud, outgoing, hard-drinking, boisterous man who bordered on the vulgar, at least as far as the young, sensitive Tennessee Williams was concerned. In contrast to his father, his mother seemed to be rather quiet and possessive, demonstrating a tremendous attachment to her children. Tennessee was himself a rather delicate child who was plagued with several serious childhood diseases which kept him from attending regular school. Instead, he read profusely in his grandfather's library.
His maternal grandfather was an Episcopal rector, apparently a rather liberal and progressive individual. Even though there are several portraits of the clergy in Williams' later works, none seemed to be built on the personality of his real grandfather.
Perhaps because his early life was spent in an atmosphere of genteel culture, the greatest shock to Williams was the move his family made when he was about twelve. The father accepted a position in a shoe factory in St. Louis and moved the family from the expansive Episcopal home in the South to an ugly tenement building in St. Louis. Their cramped apartment and the ugliness of the city life seemed to make a lasting impression on the boy. Here in school he was often ridiculed for his southern accent, and he was never able to find acceptance. Likewise, his father, who had been a traveling salesman, was suddenly at home most of the time.
It was here in St. Louis that Williams' slightly older sister, Rose, began to cease to develop as a person and failed to cross over the barrier from childhood to adulthood. She, like Laura in The Glass Menagerie, began to live in her own world of glass ornaments. Eventually, she had to be placed in an institution. She became the model for Laura Wingfield. The description of Laura's room, just across the alley from the Paradise Dance Club, is also a description of his sister's room. Laura's desire to lose herself from the world was a characteristic of his own sister. And both were seen by Williams as being shy, quiet, but lovely girls who were not able to cope with the modern world.
After Tennessee finished high school, he went to the University of Missouri for three years until he failed ROTC. At the university he began to write more and discovered alcohol as a cure for his over-sensitive shyness. After his third year, his father got him a position in the shoe factory. He worked there for two years; he later classified this time as the most miserable two years of his life. He spent dreary days at the warehouse and then devoted his nights to writing poetry, plays, and short stories. After two years of working all day and writing all night, he had a nervous breakdown and went to Memphis, Tennessee, to recuperate with his grandfather, who had moved there after retirement. His years of frustration and his dislike of the warehouse job are reflected directly in the character of Tom Wingfield, who followed essentially the same pattern that Williams himself followed. In fact, Tennessee gave this character his own first name, Tom.
During all of this time, Tennessee had been winning small prizes for various types of writing, but nothing significant had yet been written. After his rest in Memphis, he returned to the university (Washington University in St. Louis), where he became associated with a writers' group. Here he wrote and had some of his earlier works produced. He later attended the State University of Iowa and wrote two long plays for a creative writing seminar. After leaving Iowa, he drifted around the country, picking up odd jobs and collecting experiences until he received a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1940. He spent his time writing until the money was exhausted and then he worked again at odd jobs until his first great success with The Glass Menagerie in 1944-45.
Williams has used his early life in most of his plays. His favorite setting is southern, with southern characters. In Stanley Kowalski, we see many of the rough, poker-playing, manly qualities that his own father possessed. In Laura and Amanda, we find very close echoes to his own mother and sister. In Tom Wingfield, we find again the struggles and aspirations of the writer himself re-echoed in literary form. Thus he has objectified his own subjective experiences in his literary works.
Tennessee Williams' plays are still controversial. There are many critics who call his works sensational and shocking, but his plays have attracted the widest audience of any living American dramatist, and he is established as America's most important dramatist.