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MY FRIEND TOM by William Jay Smith

MY FRIEND TOM

The Poet-Playwright Tennessee Williams

By William Jay Smith

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-61703-175-5
Publisher: Univ. Press of Mississippi

Fragmentary but affecting memories of the playwright by former Library of Congress poetry consultant Smith (Up the Hill and Down, 2003, etc.).

They met in 1935 at Washington University in St. Louis, where Williams, Smith and Clark Mills were the only male students in the Poetry Club. Williams thought of himself primarily as a poet in those days, although he had already written some one-act dramas. His first full-length plays were presented in 1937 by an amateur theatrical group, the Mummers. Smith, who attended both, provides appreciative descriptions of Candles to the Sun and Fugitive Kind, which demonstrated that Williams’ poetic gifts were best served in the theater. The adequate but unexciting verses Smith quotes illustrate the same point, but Williams continued to write poetry throughout his life. The author movingly captures the importance of poetry to Williams in his account of the disastrous 1940 Boston premiere of Battle of Angels, after which the distraught playwright asked his friend to read John Donne aloud to ease his despair. Smith’s recollections of seeing The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire are less interesting, mostly because the plays have been written about so much, but the author’s affection for his troubled friend is evident even in later chapters that show Williams making public appearances visibly under the influence of drink and drugs. Smith suggests that Williams never really got over the death of his companion Frank Merlo. The author has a knack for selecting astute, little-known critical evaluations of Williams from such unlikely sources as Kenneth Tynan and John Simon (both uncharacteristically appreciative); he also uncovers an intriguing exchange between Williams and Yukio Mishima, who agreed that Southern and Japanese literature had strong affinities. There’s nothing revelatory in these slightly scattered reminiscences, but they flesh out our knowledge of Williams with a warmly personal touch.

Especially valuable for the early chapters on the youthful, pre-fame Williams, but in its entirety a tender portrait that will appeal to scholars and fans alike.