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In the Galleries: "Love and Relationships"

By Christine Lee

Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

In one of Tennessee Williams’s early writings in which he interviews himself, he identifies his audience as “the wild at heart kept in cages.” He also notes that the play Battle of Angels is a prayer for “more tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and so often is forced to repress in order to avoid social censure and worse.”

The human heart and its freedom becomes a theme in both of the current exhibitions, whether about the personal life and work of Tennessee Williams, as seen in Becoming Tennessee Williams, or in the characters and novels featured in Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

Williams’s draft of The Glass Menagerie, when it was still titled The Gentleman Caller, represents Williams’s personal and professional life. You see him working through what will become his iconic play, but you also see doodles and a dedication to his grandma Rose, who “perforated the lid of my own particular cubicle, thus preventing suffocation and allowing me to continue certain activities inside.” Another important Rose in his life was his sister, whose correspondence to her brother demonstrates their close bond. She writes: “The memory of your gentle, sleepy, sick body and face are such a comfort to me… if I die you will know that I miss you 24 hours a day.”

A more tempestuous relationship is brought to a close in an elegantly written letter from Williams to former lover Pancho Rodriguez. Williams writes: “One thing for which I don’t pity myself is the two years we spent together… You were you, wild, wonderful, a poem.” He caringly instructs Rodriguez to “keep faith with all the beautiful things in your heart… Walk tall, walk proud through this world.”

The exhibition demonstrates how film adaptations modified relationships in Williams’s written work. In Sweet Bird of Youth, the ending was changed to achieve a happy Hollywood resolution, and in A Streetcar Named Desire, the dialog about Blanche’s first love was heavily revised to appease the censors.

Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century reiterates the topic of love and relationships, specifically in writings by Tim O’Brien, Don DeLillo, and James Salter. In Tim O’Brien’s typescript from The Things They Carried for the chapter “Stockings,” love supersedes borders and war zones. Henry Dobbins uses his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a talisman, and we see O’Brien crafting the passage, crossing through lines and adding a large handwritten section of notes. The story ends with the girlfriend breaking up with Henry, but the power of the remembered love keeps him, and his fellow soldiers, going.

A strong marriage bond connects Jack Gladney and his current wife Babette in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Gladney muses: “Sometimes I think our love is inexperienced. The question of dying becomes a wise reminder. It cures us of our innocence of the future. Simple things are doomed, or is that a superstition?” He continues: “Babette and I tell each other everything… turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night… In these night recitations we create a space between things as we felt them at the time and as we speak them now.” DeLillo’s handwritten notes for the novel are featured in the exhibition.

James Salter’s novel The Light Years charts the trajectory of another marriage. At the start, the husband, Viri, “wants to enter the aura surrounding her [his wife], to be accepted… [but] soon after they were married, perhaps an hour after… the desperate, unbearable affection vanished, and in its place was a young woman of twenty condemned to live with him… the mistake she knew she would have to make was made at last… She had accepted the limitations of her life.” Later in the novel Nedra explains how impossible it is to live with her husband and summarizes it as ”what turns you to powder, being ground between what you can’t do and what you must do. You just turn to dust.” The novel portrays what happens when one’s heart’s passion is not pursued, as Williams seems to warn against in his “prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.”

The exhibitions are rich with original materials that give glimpses into human emotion, fictional and personal. Becoming Tennessee Williams and Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century are on view through July 31, 2011.

In the galleries: David Foster Wallace's affinity for grammar and usage

By Courtney Reed

David Foster Wallace, who was regarded by many as the best writer of his generation, was a talented essayist who was commissioned by several publications, from Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly to Rolling Stone and Gourmet, to write on topics as disparate as a luxury cruise, tennis, the Illinois State Fair, and the first presidential campaign of John McCain.

Wallace, whose affinity for and comprehension of the rules of grammar and usage were widely known, published an essay entitled “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” in Harper’s in April 2001. An early draft of his essay can be seen in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century. The draft is a veritable rainbow, covered in red, black, blue, and green ink. Wallace notes his argument at the bottom of the page: “Language & grammar are the distinctive human attainment. They make possible almost everything we value as human (and beyond: ‘In the beginning was the Word). Facility with language… may be one of our responsibilities (like care of the earth, decency to our fellows).”

David Foster Wallace’s affinity for grammar is also seen in his library, which includes a number of books related to language, usage, and writing. One of his books about the history of the English language is underlined extensively throughout by Wallace. On one page, Wallace highlights with an exclamation point the following text: “[The average person] is likely to forget that writing is only a conventional device for recording sounds and that language is primarily speech.”

It seems that none of Wallace’s books were safe from his inquiring pen. Wallace deeply admired novelist Don DeLillo. His library includes more than a dozen books by DeLillo, whose influence on Wallace can be seen in Wallace’s extensive handwritten notes about the novels and DeLillo’s writing style. On a page of DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names, Wallace writes with his red and green pens: “D doesn’t use commas between independent clauses—only uses ‘and.’ See p. 19. Why? It gives narrative a more oral quality—We never hear this comma.”

In the galleries: "Girls! Girls! Girls! Did You Marry Your First 'Gentlemen Caller'?"

By Courtney Reed

Promotional poster for marketing contest related to the film 'The Glass Menagerie.'
Promotional poster for marketing contest related to the film 'The Glass Menagerie.'
The 1950 screen version of The Glass Menagerie has been judged the “first and worst” adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. Williams himself abhorred it as “the most awful travesty… horribly mangled,” lacking any vestige of the poetic techniques of the play. Although Williams helped to adapt the script, he was particularly upset by its characterization of Tom as a ridiculous philosophizer.

Williams’s copy of the screenplay includes his own note: “A horrible thing! Certified as such by Tennessee Williams.” The film’s manufactured happy ending is reinforced in the flyer for a promotional contest in which “Girls! Girls! Girls!” are invited to send in a letter describing how “I Married My First Gentleman Caller” with the chance to win a second honeymoon at the Sheraton Hotel (breakfast in bed Sunday morning!) and a 1951 Wilcox-Gay Portable 3-Speed phonograph recorder and 3-speed record player.

In a 1950 letter to Jack Warner after seeing the film, Williams outlines his major grievances with the adaptation, centered around his own understanding of Menagerie as a play full of dignity and poetry. Williams calls the inclusion of a flashback scene in which a young Amanda receives numerous gentleman callers and marriage proposals, “a bit of an MGM musical suddenly thrown into the middle of the picture.” He also takes issue with the script changes to Tom’s “drunk scenes,” which are treated in a comic manner that does “untold damage to the dignity of the picture as a whole.”

Williams’s greatest complaint, however, is that the producers have cut lines from Tom’s farewell to his sister Laura, allegedly in response to worries that the lines imply an incestuous relationship between the two. The outraged Williams writes: “I cannot understand acquiescence to this sort of foul-minded and utterly stupid tyranny, especially in the case of a film as totally clean and pure, as remarkably devoid of anything sexual or even sensual, as the ‘Menagerie,’ both as a play and a picture. The charge is insulting to me, to my family, and an effrontery to the entire motion-picture industry!”

The disastrous film adaption of The Glass Menagerie clashes with the play’s positive reception. The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago for its pre-Broadway run on December 26, 1944. Claudia Cassidy’s positive review in The Chicago Sunday Tribune, dated January 7, 1945, is widely credited with helping make The Glass Menagerie a box-office success in Chicago and ensuring its transfer to Broadway. The least disguised and most autobiographical of Tennessee Williams’s plays, The Glass Menagerie elevated Williams to immediate celebrity where he was applauded as loudly for Menagerie as he was booed for his first play, Battle of Angels (1940). Williams later described this “thrust into sudden prominence” as “the catastrophe of Success.”

Behind this accomplishment was a process that Williams had begun to master, that of transforming individual life experience into art. Place, family, hopes, dreams, and desperation converge in this “memory” play in ways that highlighted the universal qualities of individual experience and that changed the American theater.

Williams was not new to frustrating Hollywood experiences. While visiting Frieda Lawrence, the widow of the British novelist D. H. Lawrence, in Taos, New Mexico, a year before the great success of The Glass Menagerie, Williams writes to his agent, Audrey Wood, on a post card embossed with the image of an ear-clipped burro, “Picture = me after several adventures with cinema and stage!”

The marketing poster and burro postcard can be seen in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Front of postcard featuring an image of a burro from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Front of postcard featuring an image of a burro from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Back of postcard from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Back of postcard from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.

In the Galleries: "Lark and Termite"

By Courtney Reed

'Lark And Termite' by Jayne Anne Phillips
'Lark And Termite' by Jayne Anne Phillips
Born in West Virginia in 1952, writer Jayne Anne Phillips published her first story collection in 1976. The publication of Black Tickets in 1979 prompted Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer to call Phillips “the best short story writer since Eudora Welty.” Phillips’s subsequent publications, which have been praised for their poetic prose and in-depth examinations of war and family dynamics, have continued to garner critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including her most recent novel, Lark and Termite, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2009. Materials related to Phillips and Lark and Termite are highlighted in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

Lark and Termite explores the effects of the Korean War on a soldier and his family back home in West Virginia. Termite, the disabled son of the soldier, and Lark, his half sister and caretaker, are the central characters of the novel. The novel shifts between narrators, settings, and time.

Inspired by a series of investigative news articles published in 1999 about the No Gun Ri Massacre during the Korean War, Phillips incorporates the incident into the plot of Lark and Termite. During the massacre, an unknown number of Korean refugees were strafed from the air by machine guns at close range by U.S. soldiers. The bridge where the massacre occurred is the setting of critical scenes in the novel, and bridges and trains bear strong symbolism throughout the story. Phillips kept news clippings about the incident in her files related to the novel, and one clipping that includes an image of the bridge is displayed in the exhibition.

Further significance of trains and tunnels are found throughout the novel. Displayed in the exhibition is a typescript page from a section of the book narrated by Termite, which demonstrates the boy’s attraction to trains and bridges. Termite spends much of his time in a rail yard tunnel listening to the roar of the trains overhead.

Listen to Jayne Anne Phillips read two selections from Lark and Termite.