LOVE AND DEATH
IN TENNESSEE WILLIAMS

by John J. Fritscher, Ph.D.
(aka) Jack Fritscher, Ph.D
.

INTRODUCTION

        Literature is itself not only product by expression of its engendering context: its present force, coming from the past, thrusts formatively into the future. The writer writes not in a vacuum, but is collector of his past heritage, spokesman for the present moment, and seminal re-integrator for the future. Thomas Lanier Williams, the writer in point, personalizes in historic and psychic biography the bent of the American Experience since the first unsettlement of this country. Williams himself is profoundly aware of the parallel between his own biography and the unfolding of the American Pilgrims' progress. Indeed, it may be adjudged, that the experience with which Tennessee Williams works has certainly been explained more abstrusely, technically, or dogmatically; but the retort is that a life esthetically unexamined is not worth literature. To deny such a forty-year interpreter of the mid-century scene is to deny generic esthetic witness in favor of specific sociological clinicians. To one lamenting the lack of the latter there can only be offered the comfort of the intuitive esthetic which includes its own sociology.

        Williams gives example:

        America was built of paranoia by men who thought themselves superior to the common lot, who overlooked the ignominy of death, who observed the mysteries by did not feel belittled by them, who never paused to consider the vanity of their dreams and who consequently translated them into actions.1/

          Anxiety, Tennessee Williams writes, is the "occupational disease, of the American Experience; the tension between what he considers the truth of the human condition and the paranoiac myth of his country has proved the matter of his four-decade literary career. His work chronicles the tension consequent upon a basic Puritan-Cavalier antagonism whose artificial dichotomy belies the mixed realities of balanced human existence. It is Williams' duty as a romantic writer to expose for eradication any imbalances which hinder the optimum perfectibility of the individual and society. It is, however, his lot as neo-romantic dramatist to reflect that not only is perfectibility impossible, but that the individual is basically an almost incurably alienated isolato. The romantic in Williams opts for enough improvement to cure the existential jaundice in the neo-romantic. But in his latter day and age Williams, tending more to the jaundice, has written: "Of course, America, and particularly the Southern states, is the embodiment of an originally romantic gesture....Then of course, the businessmen took over."2/

        The fact is that the playwright's experience recreates in personal scale the basic tensions of his choice focus: soul-body, good-evil, introvert-extrovert, material spirituality versus forthright materialism. He is a product not only of his family home, but of the whole cultural and literary heritage of his country. The fact that his familial background parallels the nation's cultural experience serves only to make him an even more sensitive observer of the later. Even more is this the case, if the common report is true--as Parrington would have it, that Puritan New England was "the native seat and germinal source of such ideals and institutions as have come to be regarded as traditionally American.3/  For the insularity of New England was never better matched geographically, ideologically, or religiously than by the American South. The essentially romantic sensibility of each, which saw the beginning of each as utopian Eden, ran headlong into a deflating realism. The South, for instance, has not yet recovered morally from the Civil War; and while New England survived the Revolutionary War, the unlimited potential the Founders projected has not been without its compromises. For Williams, life has likewise been alternation of promise, alienation, and partial adjustment to frustration.

        But while the origin of Williams' promise was maternal, the myth of America had a source that was biblical. The popular tracts of the Age of Discovery characterized the new Continent as the New-Found Eden. For the Puritans the new Eden became the Promised Land of the Old Testament, the new Elysian Fields. Harassed and exiled, bred on scripture, the Puritans easily identified with the ancient Hebrews.

Had they not also in establishing their church entered into a "covenant of the Lord"? Were not Israel's experiences strikingly similar to their own?...Had not England been their Egypt? James I their Pharaoh? The Atlantic their Red Sea?4/

Such living metaphor accomplished, certain inherent tensions became obvious: The Puritans were not the Hebrews; God was not a direct interventionist--the influence of William Bradford's "providential" history notwithstanding;5/  and America was certainly no unspoilable Eden. Nevertheless the initial belief that the apple was good has long withstood the reality it can no longer withstand: the unspoiled goodness, if not the very apple, is a myth and the romantic new Adam is overmuch like the old. But before this discovery, the momentum of the biblical analogy asserted itself quite vocally in the early Puritan concept of Calvinistic culture.

        Culture is just another name for the duty of mankind to develop the raw materials of this world as found in nature and in man himself, to demonstrate the great possibilities inherent in creation, which the Creator has put there, and make them serve the purpose which God has intended they should....It is Christianity which gives to sinful man the regenerative power of the spirit [which enables him to seek out and ennoble a new order. The task of regenerating the world is very much] the task assigned to Adam when God caused the animals to pass by him. It was Adam's business to discover the nature of each animal, the essential idea of it, and then name it accordingly.6/

Americans have ever after worked within this regenerative dimension, although the Adamic act of naming things has become more generic: now it is the more subtle things which are to be named up and out of their primal darkness, the nameless remaining no longer nameless. This finer "naming" has become precisely the province of the artist whose duty it is to impose some order, some meaning, some name upon the disconnected moments of his perceived reality.

        This naming, because it is a communicative gesture of man in society, is radically at variance with the basic Calvinistic isolation of the individual. For in strict Calvinism the worshipper, in individual communication with God, endures virtual alienation from his fellows. The early American experience, however, initially liberalized this to a more democratic communion of saints. There remained indeed the Calvinistic elect, but they became nameable in small and vocal congregation. These identifiable colonial congregations of spiritual election involved almost invariably communal business associations whose material success was judged to be proof of the spiritual election.

From the Puritan conception of the stewardship of talents came a new ethic of work that provided a sanction for middle-class exploitation, by supplanting the medieval principle of production for consumption with the capitalistic principle of production for profit; and from the conception of the dignity of the individual came the sanction for the self-pride of the merchant that sustained him in his encounters with a domineering aristocracy. A prosperous merchant who accounted himself a son of God...was no mean foe to be awed by the rustlings of a Cavalier.7/

Thus the Calvinistic theological isolation became a righteous Yankee individualism; thus the identifiable elect were able to name the spiritual myths of which their mercantile successes were witness; and thus, through logical fallacy akin to circular definition, was initiated the paranoia so schizophrenic to the embryonic American sensibility.

        However, with the Enlightenment the colonial rationalizing of material success changed from basically religious tones to a more political semantics concerned with general social toleration, civil rights, and comprehensive government. Jonathan Edwards and Ben Franklin, few recall, were contemporaries. Because the new Americans were reading Lock and Shaftesbury, Quesnay and Rousseau, the semantics changed while the sensibility covered did not. The political theory of socially contractual government grew, as John Quincy Adams intimated (recalling the Pilgrims' Compact), out of that Lutheranized Calvinism, the priestly congregation of believers; in addition, hard against the rise of American Deism collapsed the providential exceptions of Puritan myth; God was evident no longer in his exceptions, but in his immutable harmonized machinery. Yet the rationalistic revolution quickly waned cool on the new and alien shore; the immediate reaction was a warmer romanticism whose germination in life and literature is seminally traceable back to the hebraicized Puritans. They had seen the whole land as existent metaphor of the paradise lost. From such a literate base sprang the essence of the American romantic sensibility which tried to will the "broken world" of Eden into new perfectibility.

        Irving, Cooper, and Bryant innovated a native romantic tradition and in terms of the American experience glossed the hard core of man, nature, and society. What other concerns are there for the romantic unless they be some explanation of this tripartite reality? Melville emphasized the symbolic dimension as Emerson had the ethical.8/  Every Stoic was a stoic, Emerson said, but where is the Christian in American Christendom? This he asked as he tried to establish his morally all-encompassing Over-soul, the fundament of man thinking and artist creating. For him Whitman would prove to be the ideal American poet; for with his curious ambivalence, Whitman attempted to establish the romantic American identity in an encompassing Over-personality explanatory of much in the diffracted new Eden experience of the Children of Adam.

        Seven years after Whitman's death, Hart Crane was born. The ideological connection is not nebulous, although the coincidence of biographical dates might seem tenuous; for while Crane's poetry is often closely allied to his fellows in the wasteland, it is by his own admission joyfully in the Edenic tradition of Whitman. Perhaps what has been called the Pound-Eliot bias in Crane can be easily explained by a more essential reciprocity: the other side of any Eden's coin is necessarily the wasteland. Whitman, for example, beyond the paranoiac optimism traditionally imputed to him, vocalized his glimpse of the other America in the nadir of Drum Taps. For him at his time, the Civil War had been the puberty rite ending America's seemingly endless adolescence. But while Whitman's rather manic-depressive Over-personality recovered to a placid if not self-satisfied maturity, others saw the process of American change not as one of maturation but as one of rot and desiccation. The Brooklyn Bridge image of Hart Crane is a composite location for viewing the American experience in a truly focussed Whitmanesque way, although the purgatorial tone of "The Tunnel" section is more specifically allied to the depressing under-pits of the wasteland poets.

        Of his poem, "The Bridge," in its early stages of composition, Hart Crane specified his aim:

Very roughly, the poem concerns a mythical synthesis of America. History and fact, location, etc., all have to be transfigured into abstract from....The initial impulses of our people will have to be gathered up toward the climax of the bridge, symbol of our constructive failure, our unique identity, in which is also included our scientific hopes and achievements of the future.9/

        "What I am after," he said in 1927,

is an assimilation of this the American experience, a more organic panorama, showing the continuous and living evidence of the past in the inmost vital substance of the present....What I am really handling, you see, in the Myth of America....I am really writing an epic of the modern consciousness. 10/

For Crane, man was the creative namer, the master and architect of the American dream.

        Tennessee Williams' admiration for Hart Crane is hardly masked. Not only was a volume of Hart Crane the only book Williams carried with him in his hobo days, but his Streetcar Named Desire and Sweet Bird of Youth carry epigraphs from that poet; You Touched Me, this 1945 romantic comedy suggested by a D. H. Lawrence short story and written in collaboration with Donald Windham, has a heroine who has published certain poems:

Hadrian: [Opening the scrapbook] Poems!
Matilda: [With embarrassed pride] They're clipped from various papers that printed them.
Hadrian: [Reading at random] "How like a caravan my heart--Across the desert moved toward yours!" [Looks up, grinning.] Toward whose? Who is this H. C. it's dedicated to?
Matilda: ...Hart Crane. An American poet who died ten years ago.
Hadrian: Well, that's all right. A perfectly safe romance.11/

        Hadrian in the context of the play may rightly have judged the romance of small import; however, what is of wider significance is that Matilda, a Britisher, specifies Crane as American. Williams has acknowledged that Crane, like Whitman--the professional American--was interested in the organic American experience. Both poets exude, to much debate, an artistically functional sexual sensibility which in Williams matures to existential alienation metaphor. In the roundrobin of influences, Whitman was a forerunner of another influence on Williams, D. H. Lawrence,12/  in his redeeming "the phallus and the orgasm to the imagination."13/  Leslie Fiedler pinpoints and nationalizes what is a peculiar dissociation in Whitman: "How careful he is in separating sex from sentiment (Children of Adam), and sentiment from sex (the Calamus poems)--and how American.14/

        The point at this juncture is that within the polarized tensions of the national experience, American writers in imposing some order on reality have worked with the various dissociations in one of two basic ways. Like Dos Passos or Steinbeck or either Crane, they have externalized into tractable social study the more difficult dichotomies of the interior American experience; or like Williams they have made direct advancing retreat into a more internalized character study. The former is rather much artistic comment by sociological induction--and this, precisely, is Williams' province.

        To examine the setting Williams' country is to study a geography that is spiritual, intellectual, and emotional: intuitive. The present study intends neither to reproduce American literary history as leading to-then-from Williams nor to retread already trod critics. Both are necessary as incidental. The emphasis is placed upon the very pages of Williams' poetry and prose; for as a map is not the ground so are the critics not the text. This study, therefore, hopefully precariously, intends to be not a relisting of recommended and beaten paths but rather a fresh run across Williams' wild terrain.


© Jack Fritscher, Ph.D. & Mark Hemry

Editor's Note: Anyone caught co-opting or paraphrasing these concepts, facts, names, titles, word-coinage, and timelines without crediting Jack Fritscher as the precise source will be aggressively prosecuted to the full extent allowed by law and such violation will be publicly announced in print. Fair use of this material with proper credit is, of course, acceptable. For permission for quotation exceeding fair-use, which will always be gladly given, please EMail Jack Fritscher at j_fritscher@earthlink.net or use the EMail button found on home web pages. --Mark Hemry, Editor



1.        Tennessee Williams, The Knightly Quest (New York: New Direction, 1967), p. 82.

2.        Ibid. p. 81.

3.        V.L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1926), p. 3.

4.        Joseph Gaer and Ben Siegel, The Puritan Heritage: America's Roos in the Bible (New York: New American Library, 1964), p. 3.

5.        William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation contains in the fifty-three pages of Book One forty-six references to Providence. He is thus far removed from the forbidding, alienated Deity that will emerge on the other side of Eden in Williams' work.

        There is, however, a most interesting similarity, a gloss on Bradford by Williams. Although the parallel may be a totally accidental, the tone of the two texts indicates just how closely Williams works with the early American Puritan sensibility.

Bradford: "Marvelous it may be to...consider how...wickedness did...break forth here, in a land where the same was so much witnessed against and so narrowly looked onto, and severely punished when it was known....Yet all this could not suppress the breaking out of sundry notorious sins....One reason may be that the Devil may carry a greater spite against the churches...and the gospel her, by how much the more they endeavor to preserve holiness....Satan hath...power in these...lands." Of Plymouth Plantation, edited by S.E. Morison (New York: Knopf, 1952), p. 316.
Williams: "All at once...there was an outbreak of crime in the town of Gewinner interrupting a long period of...extreme orderliness....This was like the first eruption [in this town of the ideal American Project] of some epidemic small pox...increased to a score. Then to a hundred. [As a result] a record number of religious converts were made by all the churches and optimists in the pulpits referred to the crime wave...as 'the Devil's Last Stand.'" The Knightly Quest, pp. 71-72.
6.        H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Kriegel's, 1956), p. 91.

7.        Parrington, op. cit., p. 7.

8.        James R. Hurt, "Suddenly Last Summer: Williams and Melville," Modern Drama, III (1961), pp. 396-400.

9.        Walter Blair, et al., The Literature of the United States (Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1966), II, p. 1085.

10.        Ibid.

11.        You Touched Me (New York: Samuel French, 1942), p. 19.

12.        The influence of Lawrence on Williams has long been obvious

        Tennessee Williams has frequently stated that he considers D. H. Lawrence the greatest writer of our time, and has freely acknowledged a considerable debt to him. Lawrentian themes and characters appear in every Williams play; there are recognizable quotations from Lawrence; there is a play You Touched Me!, based on the Lawrence short story, and a one-act play, I Rise in Flames..., based on the last days of Lawrence; and there is a poem dedicated to Lawrence, Cried the Fox. Cf. K. K. Sagar, "What Mr. Williams Has Made of D. H. Lawrence," Twentieth Century (August, 1960), p. 143.

13.        Leslie A Fiedler, An End to Innocence: Essays on Culture and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). p. 159.

14.        Ibid., p. 160.

Copyright 2007 by Jack Fritscher, Ph.D. & Mark Hemry - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED