The Literary Factory of Tennessee Williams

Jacqueline O'Connor

January 2018

In the summer of 1937, Clark Mills McBurney and Tennessee Williams (born Thomas Lanier Williams) set up a “literary factory” in the basement of the McBurney family home. Huddled in the corner by the coal furnace and the washing machine, the factory consisted of two tables, two hard chairs, two typewriters, a bookcase, and a beat-up sofa.

Frank Bidart’s collected poems, Half-light, are this year’s selection for the National Book Award for Poetry. This honor is long-deferred; at seventy-eight Bidart has previously been a finalist for the Award once and the Pulitzer three times. Bidart’s selection, though well deserved, seems untimely. Given his age, his career output is greater than all of the other finalists combined. This makes for an uneven playing field. Fortunately, there’s much to discuss in the four other books on the shortlist. Here I’ll consider two.

My grandmother wore long Mexican dresses every day, had nine children in thirteen years, and could smoke cigarettes with her toes. I love telling people about her, though less so the end of the story: she died of lung cancer. Does the fact of her death make her party trick morbid? Probably, but it still makes me smile, and, for reasons I cannot fully explain, it makes her more real to me. If she sounded like a character in a story at first, she might now sound like something more. In fiction as in life, there’s something to be said for embracing the shock value of the terribly funny cracks in our lives. Few writers dig into the decrepit, comical folds of human experience quite like Lucia Berlin, whose most influential story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, was published in 2015.

In the wake of Charlottesville, I felt like my uncle’s role in The Civil War was something I shouldn’t mention, as if advertising my indirect connection to Lee potentially allied me with ignorant, hateful, and dangerous people. But reluctance to discuss our complicated past contributes in its own way to the hate that leads people to violence, doesn’t it? That reluctance is precisely what Ken Burns’ films strive to overcome.

It’d be easy for a poet to be pigeonholed by subject matter as readily sensationalized as this, but Brewer avoids melodrama in these earnest, confessional poems. The best ones aren’t about drugs so much as they use the processes of abuse as figures for the frequent failures and small triumphs of being human.

Wilbur won every major award available to an American poet: the Ruth Lilly prize, a term as Poet Laureate, two Pulitzers, and Sewanee’s own Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, among many others. Wilbur’s insistence on form buttressed his confidence in the musical capability of language, producing a body of work that is deeply thought, deeply felt, and infinitely accessible. These qualities, coupled with his impact on the American stage as a lyricist and translator, made him the most significant public poet in the United States since Robert Frost.

Linear in its unfolding and hewing to a strict realism, Manhattan Beach begins in the middle of the Depression and ends near the close of World War II. Egan has also narrowed her focus, homing in on three protagonists: Anna Kerrigan, a Brooklyn naval yard’s first female diver; Eddie, her mysteriously absent father; and Dexter Styles, a mob boss that Eddie used to work for. The result is a more introspective, and perhaps more revealing novel than any Egan has previously written.

The Fall 2017 issue of the Sewanee Review, due out in October, is the magazine’s five-hundredth, and marks the close of its 125th volume. The Review has had the privilege of publishing countless great writers since it was founded by William Peterfield Trent in 1892, but, as former editor George Core remarked, “Longevity alone does not guarantee a virtue.” With that in mind, in 2017 the Review underwent significant changes.

McDermott: In my case, a good part of imagination is memory—the familiarity of a place, but also of the people who inhabit the place (I don’t think a fiction writer can separate the two)—but it is memory filtered, shaped, and transformed by what the heart imagines. For me, character is often first, and then, inseparably, the place the character inhabits—but these choices often seem incidental, material readily at hand. I’m more interested in getting to, getting at, what the heart imagines as the story unfolds. A roundabout way of saying: you begin with what you know to discover all you don’t know.

Walking home from work not too long ago, I saw a snakeskin curled around the base of a tree. More bored than honestly curious, I picked up a stick and poked at the skin, which disintegrated, its broken bits floating up like ash from a campfire. Man, they say, is no friend to nature.

When he first arrived in Sewanee, Tennessee, in 1888, Professor William Peterfield Trent saw an opportunity to shape the intellectual destiny of the South. Just thirty years old, he had recently finished his historical training at Johns Hopkins and accepted a job at the University of the South over a higher-paid position at the University of Georgia. Sewanee, Trent hoped, would provide the foundation to invigorate the region’s literary and intellectual culture. Over the next few years, Trent did just that, compiling a wide network of friends and producing some of his most lasting work. In 1892 his biography of southern author William Gilmore Simms was published, and in the same year he produced the first issue of the Sewanee Review.

“There’s something my editor says to me whenever this happens,” Dr. Prunty said. “‘Hold the world lightly by the throat.’” He held his hand out like he was choking someone, but with his grip relaxed, so that his pretend victim wouldn’t suffocate.

In his essay “The Curses,” published in two parts in SR’s Winter and Spring 2017 issues, John Jeremiah Sullivan uncovered the history of what may be, by at least one definition, the first blues song ever written, an 1887 sheet-music hit titled “The Curse.”

Paul Dresser’s “My Gal Sal” was written as a fond reflection on one of the great loves in that songwriter’s life, his multiple-year affair with an Evansville madam called Sal Davis, real name, as research has recently shown: Annie Swanner.

Anyone interested in higher education is aware that it is in trouble.

Weihenmayer: inspirational as a concept is a double-edged sword. People can say, “look at that inspirational person over there, he’s different from me.” And it separates one person from another, and becomes a defense mechanism, because someone can say “I don’t have to do amazing things or have growth in my life, because I’m not one of those inspirational people.” So I refused to write an inspirational book. I wanted to write an honest book.

Offill: We women sometimes shoehorn ourselves into these too narrow spaces. Sometimes we fear being too loud or too ugly or too smart or too dumb. Sometimes we secretly want to be ‘taken care of’ or saved from disaster or told that we are good and kind and wreathed in light. These are all understandable and perfectly human wishes (many men want these things too), but they don’t do much to help us write brilliant, rigorous books. Audre Lorde once said “We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.” I believe this and I also believe what William Carlos Williams said: “The writer is free.” There is a lot of space to navigate between those two quotes.

There aren’t many surface similarities between Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Octavia Butler’s Fledgling—the former blends critical theory and personal history to chronicle Nelson’s marriage to Harry Dodge, her gender-fluid partner, while the latter is a speculative-fiction take on vampire lore. Yet both books upend traditional familial structures, and explore the visceral strangeness of the human body. Neither presents a manual for living beyond the usual or the binary, but each celebrates the conjunction of what American society terms deviant with what it calls domestic.

Habel: I’ve been aware of a preoccupation with the concept of “littleness” in my writing in recent years, particularly as it relates to gender. I’m also thinking about how a house that comes to house a small child fills up with small things—at least mine did. So did my mind. I’m also thinking about how when my husband and I do domestic chores, he typically does ones that are large in size while I do small ones. He cuts down branches while I weed; he assembles a piece of furniture from Ikea while I clean out a drawer.

Groff: Novels, short stories, and nonfiction all come from very different parts of my brain, and the approach differs massively between the three. I’ll live inside a novel for years, writing a great deal of junk, trying to feel my way to a tone or structure or even set of images that gives me the key to how to write the book. It’s a little like training for a marathon—it’s the daily work that matters most.

When Mary Ruefle visited Sewanee to receive the 2017 Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry at the beginning of March, SR brought poet Michael Dickman in to give a lecture on her work. While we had him here, we asked him to talk about her poetry with an English class at Saint Andrew’s Sewanee School. Here he is in one of their classrooms, reading Ruefle’s poem “Proscenium Arch”.

McGraw: I spent a couple of years immersed in Frank Sinatra, listening to his music and reading everything I could find, including James Kaplan’s massive biography. As is often the case with great artists, a chasm existed in Sinatra that separated the genius singer from the jerk of a human being, and I wanted to explore that. Along the way, I learned quite a bit about his second wife, Ava Gardner, probably his greatest love. She was no great shakes as an actress, but she was peerlessly beautiful, and for most of their short marriage, her career eclipsed his.

When I met James at the state line, it was just past dawn, and he was hallucinating. He was convinced that his water bottle was actually a gas tank—that the fluid was for the bike, not him. In the night, he was sure he’d seen bears and snakes crossing his path. But this was his third year doing the race, and he was unfazed by his altered state. “I enjoy it when it’s mild,” he said later.

I was talking to Cleverbot, an AI that (as procrastinators everywhere know) is easily accessible on the Internet; I wasn’t procrastinating, exactly, but I had just finished Louisa Hall’s Speak, a novel that consists in part of a series of conversations between a child named Gaby and a bot called MARY3. Speak reads like a blend of Isaac Asimov, Mary Shelley, and Virginia Woolf, and I was curious about the real-life equivalents of Hall’s eloquent bots.

In the summers, vines encroach upon a historical marker several miles from the Sewanee Review offices, threatening to hide a tribute to the Highlander Folk School. The folk school’s history resides in an equally-obscured part of the American memory, and I knew very little about its importance, despite the marker. Sewanee Professor and Highlander historian Emily Senefeld filled me in on the forgotten space. The school, she explained, was the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement: the Walcott sit-in at Greensboro, the Montgomery bus boycott, Citizenship Schools, and Pete Seeger’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome” grew out of the three-building operation in Grundy County, TN.

In her role as vice president and editorial director at Grove Atlantic, Elisabeth Schmitz has commanded the admiration and trust of hundreds of writers, publishing colleagues, and aspiring literary editors. We recently met at our NYC neighborhood restaurant, Community Food and Juice, to talk about editing, publishing, and the literary passion fostered by Grove Atlantic under the intrepid leadership of its publisher, Morgan Entrekin.

Jacqueline O’Connor is professor of English at Boise State University. This essay was first presented as a lecture for the Idaho Writers Guild Literary Luncheon. O’Connor’s book, Law and Sexuality in Tennessee Williams’s America (2016), was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

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