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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Thomas Lanier Williams (1911 -1983) was born in Columbus, Mississippi; he later chose Tennessee as a pen name. He spent his early childhood years in the home of his maternal grandfather, who was a rector, living most of the time with his mother and only (elder) sister, Rose. His father, a traveling salesman with a shoe company, then uprooted the family, taking them from the rural rectory to stay with him in a grim city apartment in St. Louis. Both mother and son suffered a rude cultural shock. Williams also suffered under his father, who was offended by his son's quiet pursuits and his interest in books. His mother's southern gentility also conflicted with the father's rough ways, which included long poker games, drinking bouts, and rough language.
Tennessee began writing stories at age eleven. A favorite pastime for him and his sister was to make up tales, which he would often write down. As his family atmosphere grew more unhappy, Tennessee isolated himself. To avoid the family conflicts, he increasingly took to writing stories alone behind a closed door. His sister reacted to the parents' fighting in a more tragic way. From a spirited child, she slowly grew into a passive, beautiful girl whose interaction with the world was confined to playing recorded music, attending an occasional movie, or caring for her collection of glass miniature animals. In fact, Rose became so depressed that she failed to mature into adulthood and was sent to an asylum. At the asylum, she had a lobotomy. The tragic Rose became the model for Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.
Williams attended the University of Missouri for three years but left after failing the R.O.T.C. program. His father's influence landed him a clerical job in the shoe factory but not before he had found solace in alcohol. During this period, he often wrote late into the night. After a miserable two years at the warehouse, he suffered a nervous breakdown. In order to recuperate, he went to his grandfather's house in Memphis, Tennessee. After recovering, Williams returned to college at Washington University in St. Louis, where he joined a writer's group and began to focus on creating plays. He then entered the University of Iowa in 1938, to complete his course work.
After finally completing college, Tennessee Williams performed odd jobs and led a bohemian existence in order to concentrate on his writing. In 1940, he received a Rockefeller Fellowship, allowing him to spend more time in pursuing his literary interests. His first major success was with his autobiographical play, The Glass Menagerie, written in 1944-45; it is still recognized as one of his finest works. In 1947, he wrote the well known A Street Car Named Desire, which also present the tragic picture of a Southern belle who lives in a world of illusion; it won a Pulitzer Price in 1948. He won a second Pulitzer Prize for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. Williams other popular plays include The Rose Tattoo (1951), Camino Real (1953), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and The Night of the Iguana (1961).
Williams' life was full of vicissitudes, and his Memoirs tell of his mental breakdowns, his problems with alcohol, his health problems, his constant fear of death, his acute depression after Rose's lobotomy, and his suicidal tendency after the death of his companion of fourteen years, Frank Merlo.
In his writing, Williams is an intensely personal playwright and a literary moralist. Art and life are masterfully dramatized in his work, for he felt an intense need to identify with his characters in order to bring them to life. The dominate Themes of his plays concern the conflicts between the puritan and the cavalier, between appearance and reality, and between life and art. He often portrays these Themes through his female characters, for women were always at the root of his deepest emotions.
Despite being influenced by D.H. Lawrence and Genet, Tennessee Williams wrote in the Southern tradition. He romanticized the south and presented characters with grandly idealized notions of southern people and the southern way of life. Using personal history and myth, he sentimentally highlighted the tragedy of twentieth century life in the South; as a result, Williams is judged as a distinctly regional writer. He is also known as a naturalist, who shows the loneliness and isolation of mankind.