Lasting Legacies: The Tennessee Williams Collection

In anticipation of the official opening of the newly transformed Olin Library on May 1, 2018, this blog series will preview some of the new spaces and exhibitions. Lasting Legacies, the inaugural exhibition of the Thomas Gallery on Level 1 of John M. Olin Library, pays tribute to seven influential Washington University alumni whose work has enriched their respective professions and communities.

Lasting Legacies celebrates alumni’s unique passions, diverse accomplishments, and intellectual curiosityand will be on view through Fall 2018.

Remembering Tennessee Williams

A signed photograph of Tennessee Williams and friend Maria St. Just. Washington University Libraries, Tennessee Williams Collection.

Tennessee Williams (1911–1983) was considered one of the most important American dramatists of the 20th century. Two of his plays, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, received the Pulitzer Prize and went on to become successful films. He was a prolific writer who also published poetry, fiction, essays, and a volume of memoirs. In 1980, he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter and is today acknowledged as one of the most accomplished playwrights in the history of English speaking theater.

Williams at Washington University

 

The Staff of Eliot Review, 1937. Washington University Libraries, Tennessee Williams Collection.

Williams’ university career did not start or end at Washington University, but he did spend an academic year here in 1936-7, when he was 25 years old. While here, he formed a poetry club with William Jay Smith and Clark Mills McBurney, and worked with  A.E. Hotchner on Washington University’s literary publication Eliot Review. Williams continued to contribute poems to Eliot even after leaving Washington University for the University of Iowa.

 

Tennessee Williams’ “Sonnet to Pygmalion,” 1935. This  is a signed and dated draft of a poem published in Eliot in November 1936, On the back is a pencil working draft of another, unfinished poem. Washington University Libraries, Tennessee Williams Collection.

As you can see from his University College grade card (below), Williams was not a star student, but he clearly had talent. While at Washington University, he enrolled in Professor William Carson’s play writing course. According to Literary St. Louis: A Guide, Williams “rarely attended class. When he did, he brought with him compelling character sketches of his mother and sister, which Carson would read with great spirit to the class, and with much praise for the author” (194).

Tennessee Williams’ grade card from a semester at University College. Washington University Libraries, Tennessee Williams Collection.

These sketches are believed to be the basis for Williams’ later play, The Glass Menagerie, which makes a brief reference to Washington University in a scene when Amanda criticizes Tom for smoking, saying,

You smoke too much. A pack a day at fifteen cents a pack. How much would that amount to in a month? Thirty times fifteen is how much, Tom? Figure it out and you will be astounded at what you could save. Enough to give you a night-school course in accounting at Washington U ! Just think what a wonderful thing that would be for you, Son !

Tennessee Williams’ niece, Francesca Williams, has generously loaned Washington University typescript draft fragments of The Glass Menagerie for our display on Williams in the Thomas Gallery.

Draft fragments of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, generously on loan from Francesca Williams. This page of the script includes a mention of Washington University.

At the end of Carson’s course each year, three student plays were selected to be staged by the Washington University drama club, Thyrsus. Based on his early sketches, Williams was believed to be a favorite to win, but he surprised the class by submitting the play Me, Vashya, a political farce that was a strong departure from his earlier sketches. Due partly to anticipating trouble casting the role of Lady Vashya, the judges awarded Williams fourth place–honorable mention–much to his displeasure. He was soon gone from the university and left the play behind as well. Me, Vashya was not staged until twenty years after his death when Washington University’s Performing Arts Department first premiered it in 2004.

A page from Tennessee Williams’ play, Me, Vashya, which he wrote while a student at Washington University in St. Louis. Washington University Libraries, Tennessee Williams Collection.

More on the Williams Collection

Washington University Libraries’ Tennessee Williams Collection contains an assortment of materials from Williams’ life and career, especially items related to his time at Washington University. Notable components of the Tennessee Williams Papers are three poem drafts by Williams written during his time at Washington University, a draft of a libretto, a film script for A Streetcar Named Desire, two inscribed publicity photographs of Williams, and four play scripts, including Me, Vashya. A research guide to the Tennessee Williams resources at Washington University is also available.

Tennessee Williams’ poem “Blue Song,” written in a bluebook for a Greek exam at Washington University, 1937. It was published posthumously in the New Yorker in 2006.Washington University Libraries, Tennessee Williams Collection.

Selections from the Washington University Libraries’ Tennessee Williams Collection are currently on display in the Thomas Gallery, along with a number of additional items generously on loan from Francesca Williams. Come and see them before the exhibit ends!

The Thomas Gallery fosters discovery and inspiration through the display of Washington University Libraries’ vast and distinct collections. The exhibition space is stewarded by the Department of Special Collections and is a lively pathway that spans the distance between the north and south entrances of John M. Olin Library.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.