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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

13. Southern Renaissance

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Faulkner
- Zora Neale Hurston
- Flannery O'Connor
- Katherine Anne Porter
- John Crowe Ransom
- Robert Penn Warren
- Eudora Welty
- Tennessee Williams
- Thomas Wolfe
- Richard Wright
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)

Joaquin, the Mountain Robber
[7282] Dorothea Lange, Antebellum Plantation House in Greene County, Georgia (1937), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-017941-C DLC].

Tennessee Williams Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
"A morbid shyness once prevented me from having much direct communication with people," Tennessee Williams wrote, "and possibly that is why I began to write them plays and stories." Considered by many to be America's greatest playwright, Thomas Lanier Williams III was born in Columbus, Mississippi. Though some critics see Williams's work as overly obsessed with "perversion"--murder, rape, incest, and nymphomania--Williams's characters inhabit a world as emotionally unstable as their author's. Williams's mother, Edwina, was a southern belle who, despite enduring a lifetime of emotional and physical abuse from her husband, was a strong anchor for Williams and protected him from his father in his youth. Williams's father, CC, was a traveling salesman and an alcoholic with whom Williams was never close.

Williams was forever marked by the alienation and psychological pain of his childhood. After he flunked ROTC, his father forced him to drop out of the University of Missouri and got him a job in his shoe company's warehouse. Williams wrote furiously by night, but after three years the pressure of the factory work resulted in his first nervous breakdown, in 1935. Not long afterward, his beloved but reclusive sister, Rose, suffered a mental breakdown so devastating that their mother signed the papers to give her a prefrontal lobotomy. Williams changed his name to "Tennessee" while living in New Orleans, where he continued to write. During this period he also continued to explore his sexual attraction to men, which he'd discovered while finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa. Recognizing his homosexuality deepened a belief Williams had formed while watching his sister's slow decline--that the pressure to conform to the American mainstream could be a powerful and dangerous force. After producing several plays in local theaters, Williams enjoyed his first big success with The Glass Menagerie (1945) and followed it up with such powerful plays as the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). Other plays include The Rose Tattoo (1950), Camino Real (1953), and The Night of the Iguana (1961).

Although he continued writing throughout his life, by the early 1960s, Williams had already produced his greatest work. The death of his longtime companion, Frank Merlo, in 1963, as well as Williams's continued abuse of alcohol and sleeping pills, forced Williams into a decline from which he never fully recovered. Williams wrote several more plays in the 1970s, including Out Cry (1971) and Small Craft Warnings (1972). He died after choking on the cap of a medicine bottle in a New York hotel room.

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