TOM: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverieh
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TOM: The Unknown Tennessee Williams

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Artistically and psychologically acute biography of the great American poetplaywright. Tennessee Williams (1911--83) named theatrical producer Leverich his authorized biographer in 1979, but a hostile executor of the estate blocked his work's publication until her death in 1994. First in a projected two volumes, this thoughtful assessment seems only to have benefited from the enforced wait: The novice author has ably organized well-known facts about Thomas Lanier Williams III's early years and provided a refreshingly in-depth perspective on the apprenticeship that ended in 1945 with the triumphant New York premiere of The Glass Menagerie, the first mature work of selfchristened playwright Tennessee Williams. A complex, three-dimensional portrait emerges, far superior to previous shallow efforts by Donald Spoto and Ronald Hayman. Leverich identifies the principal conflict of Williams's life as the battle between his puritan and pagan instincts, a split reflected in his plays' central theme of the sensitive, artistic soul battered by a materialistic world and in his lifelong fear that he would go insane, like his beloved sister, Rose. Leverich places the writer's homosexuality in context, acknowledging it as a fundamental aspect of his personality but avoiding other biographers' tendency to make it the sole wellspring of his art, which Leverich convincingly argues owed at least as much to such literary influences as D.H. Lawrence, Anton Chekhov, and Hart Crane. The book has some faults: Its clearly defined main themes are repetitiously reiterated, and some judgments seem simplistic, such as the idea that ""Tom"" and ""Tennessee"" were always at odds and the contention that the writer never recovered from his inability to win his disapproving father's love. Leverich's serviceable prose could use a little of Williams's lyrical eloquence, but he nearly equals his subject in compassion and understanding of the tangled human heart. Affectionate and affecting, dense with arresting detail, likely to be definitive.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1995
Page count: 672pp
Publisher: Crown