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In the galleries: Tennessee Williams tinkers with his Southern image

Page one of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Page one of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Page two of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Page two of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.

In 1938, Tennessee Williams entered Candles to the Sun in a competition sponsored by the Dramatists Guild in New York City. Williams wrote Candles to the Sun, a play about striking coal miners and the powerlessness of the individual against the collective consciousness, at a time when his sister Rose’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating. His work was singled out as having a “pronounced” individual style but was not selected for an award.

Williams was keen to present himself to the Guild as more poverty-stricken than he was. Worried that the Guild would investigate his family’s finances if they knew his real address, Williams asked his grandfather to mail the application letter from Memphis rather than St. Louis. The letter can be seen in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, on display through July 31 at the Ransom Center.

Williams’s relationship with his maternal grandparents, Reverend Walter Edwin Dakin and Rosina Otte Dakin, in many ways proved more stable and supportive than his relationship with his own parents. During the first years of his life, while his father traveled for business, Williams lived at his grandparents’ home in Mississippi. As a result of his father’s absence, his grandfather came to play the role of surrogate father, one that he would never really give up. Even after the family moved to St. Louis, Williams remained close to his grandparents, writing to and visiting them frequently. He grew to resent St. Louis and wished he could spend all his time in his grandparents’ happier home in Mississippi.

In 1940 the Guild awarded him $1,000, which allowed him to return to New York and attend a playwriting seminar taught by the renowned professor and critic John Gassner (1903–1967), whose archive is also at the Ransom Center.

Ransom Center Celebrates Tennessee Williams's Induction into Poets' Corner

Tennessee Williams visiting the Ransom Center reading room, November 2, 1973. Photograph by Frank Armstrong.
Tennessee Williams visiting the Ransom Center reading room, November 2, 1973. Photograph by Frank Armstrong.
Tennessee Williams will be inducted into the Poets’ Corner in The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, with celebrations beginning today. Previous inductees include Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.

The Ransom Center holds materials that document the family, life, and work of the American playwright Tennessee Williams, born Thomas Lanier Williams. The collection contains numerous manuscript drafts, including those for the plays The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Also included are large amounts of newspaper clippings, correspondence, and photographs.

The Tennessee Williams collection was built from four major acquisitions in the 1960s with smaller amounts of material added over the years. The nucleus of the collection began with Williams’s own papers, acquired by the Ransom Center from 1962 to 1969. These materials included over 1,000 separately titled works, numerous clippings, and several boxes of correspondence. In 1964, the Center expanded the collection with the purchase of the correspondence between Williams and his agent, Audrey Wood. In 1965, the Center acquired a large number of manuscripts, including Williams’s first full-length play, Candles to the Sun, from Williams’s official bibliographer, Andreas Brown. Brown’s materials also included a complete run of Williams’s publications, and Brown’s own correspondence, notes, and drafts from his work on Williams’s bibliography.

The Williams family papers were also acquired in 1965 from Williams’s mother, Edwina Dakin Williams. These materials included original manuscripts and works of art by Williams, over 700 letters, scrapbooks, personal memorabilia, and 650 photographs.