New Tennessee Williams short story published
Texts labelled as “classics” often seem static and immovable as they maintain a firm position within literary history. A newly discovered Tennessee Williams story, however, makes us rethink this preconception. Catherine Nock explores this recent publication and how it destabilises our notion of the literary canon.
A new short story has appeared. Not from a fresh-faced, up-and-coming newbie to the literary scene – but rather from within the sheaves of Tennessee Williams’ manuscript pages, and the eaves of Harvard’s Houghton library. We have editor Andrew Gulli of The Strand to thank for this act of literary archaeology – but what does it mean? What happens when a dead author rises and gifts us something we haven’t seen before? Does that author have another heyday, hailed by the Gods of Relevance?
Tennessee Williams needs no renaissance of interest. Classics such as A Streetcar Named Desire have made their way firmly into popular culture, where they have stayed – helped along by stellar (pardon the pun) performances from the likes of Marlon Brando and Gillian Anderson. Clips of the 2014 Young Vic production float tantalisingly on Facebook to herald a recent streaming of Streetcar for National Theatre at Home. Anderson wavers in genteel white kitten heels, with a look of affected shock on her face: “At Elysian fields?” The audience watch, knowing what is going to happen.
Tennessee Williams needs no renaissance of interest. Classics such as A Streetcar Named Desire have made their way firmly into popular culture, where they have stayed
The early life of Tennessee Williams was marked by illness and family tensions. After almost succumbing to a bout of childhood diphtheria, he recuperated indoors for a year. Family life was unpredictable, and marked by the tension of his parents’ enduringly unhappy marriage. After working at the International Shoe Company factory and moonlighting as a writer in his bedroom, Williams suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 24. Years of university and menial jobs would follow before his big break.
However, The Summer Woman evaded the limelight. It was originally written in 1952, and follows a young academic protagonist with ‘cold, nervous fingers’ who is returning to Italy to meet with his lover, Rosa. The escape to Italy and the return to Rosa are conflated – replete with the same romantic appeal of promise, of abundant expectation: this was “the existence that his heart longed for: Bohemian, sensual, not at all academic”. His new life is figured as a gift she has ‘handed’ to him. That said, all is not well – and the story refuses the tempting insularity of the rosy romantic narrative. A distinct pessimism and grittiness underlie the story as the faces of the railway workmen are described as ‘harder’ and ‘less gentle’ than before, and the narrative notes the growing of bad feeling as a sort of Chinese-whispers: more and more unfriendly voices are raised at the passing carriages.
In this short story we see a man pursuing ‘his other life, the existence that his heart longed for’. The desire for a new life, the turning over of the proverbial new leaf, is close to the bone for many of Williams’ characters. From Maggie’s unhappy marriage in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Stella’s attempt to wipe the slate clean after a string of failed relationships in Streetcar, the hope for a new life is both desperation and defiance. When new words arise from great writers, there too is a burst of new life as history surprises us – a reminder, perhaps, in Maggie’s words, that ‘my hat is still in the ring’. New discoveries do more than keep writers relevant: they maintain our ability to be surprised at a canon that isn’t fixed, and remind us of what we don’t know.