The Magazine

The Tennessee Waltz

Dancing with genius and despair.

Apr 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 30 • By JOHN SIMON
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by Tennessee Williams

Edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton

Yale, 856 pp., $40

The Notebooks of Tennessee Williams is really two books. On the verso pages we get Williams's text in rather fine print. On the facing recto pages, in minuscule print, are Margaret Bradham Thornton's annotations plus illustrations, and what annotations and illustrations they are! There are explications, quotations, cross references, biographical and historical notes (generous information about, say, George S. Kaufman and Ernest Dowson and the Spanish Civil War, which we may find supererogatory). There are long excerpts from letters by and to Williams, with sometimes only marginal bearing on him, and frequent passages from the plays, stories, poems, and his Memoirs.

There are useful corrections of his atrocious misspellings, even of the names of people with whom he was closely connected. And then the illustrations: Profuse reproductions of Williams's handwriting at all stages, typescripts without even handwritten corrections, the covers of the 30 notebooks wherein these journals were kept, and countless photographs of their pages.

Numerous photos also of Williams at all ages, even in the nude, of relatives close and distant, of persons he had even the slightest contact with--though not, of course, of the innumerable young men who were his almost nightly (or daily) pickups. Further, photographs of the sundry Williams habitations, including hotels in the many towns he stayed in. Also townscapes and copious reproductions of Williams's rather undistinguished paintings.

If nothing else, they reduce the space for the annotations, which, especially in that diminutive, hard-to-read print, are, however useful, a trifle fulsome. Do we need to know whether some fleeting figure in Tennessee's life supplied his or her name to this or that, often quite minor, character in one of the many stories or plays, some of them unproduced?

Thornton's notes are almost archival rather than merely editorial. Who, one wonders, is this editor of whom we are told only that she is "a writer and independent scholar in Bedminster, New Jersey"? Of the writer, we know nothing further; of the independent scholar, we get rather too much. Life must be very uneventful in Bedminster, and heaven only knows how many years of it she expended on this mammoth project.

In other words, unless you are an independent Williams scholar, or a rabid fan, you may want to read the book selectively. You certainly get Williams warts and all, with him supplying the warts and Thornton the all. Fortunately, some of the pictures crowding the note pages overflow into the text pages, thus shortening those as well. Even more fortunately, although Williams's life dates are 1911 to 1983, the notebooks cover only 1936 to 1981, and feature a hefty lacuna from 1958 to 1979, for which years no journals have been found. As Dr. Johnson delicately observed about Paradise Lost, "None ever wished it longer than it is."

What do we get here? Williams suffered from some real ailments, but still more from psychological and hypochondriacal ones. The notebooks are full of detailed aches and pains, his fears of going mad like his beloved sister Rose, and dread of imminent death thanks to a bad heart, which in fact he didn't have.

Next, paranoia. He saw enemies everywhere, sometimes even in his close friends, including Audrey Wood, his devoted agent, who performed wonders for him. "I'm a lonely person," he writes, "lonelier than most people. I have a touch of schizophrenia in me and in order to avoid madness I have to work." And he did toil like a madman, usually on several works simultaneously. When, however, he was blocked, he also loafed like a lunatic, bemoaning his inability to work.

There is also dromomania, Williams's inability to stay put anywhere for long. We find him ceaselessly traveling in search of renewal to various parts of Italy and Spain, to Paris and Vienna, to Mexico and North Africa, more rarely to Scandinavia and Germany. His chief American hangouts were in New York, New Orleans, and Key West, but he also spent time with his family in St. Louis and on trips to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In Key West he eventually owned a house; everywhere else he kept changing addresses like shirts, if not more often. Thornton produces pictures of even his least abiding abodes. As he writes during a 1936 stay in St. Louis: