“To see the essence of who’s there writing as a young man is to feel the essence of who’s there later.”
By Cerith Mathias
A new collection of previously unpublished stories by Tennessee Williams has been released by New Directions. The Caterpillar Dogs and Other Early Stories, published April 2, were penned by Thomas Lanier Williams in his youth, before he became the playwright Tennessee.
Discovered in the Williams archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas by theater director and scholar Tom Mitchell, the seven short stories in the collection date from the early to the mid-1930s, when Williams was working in the St. Louis headquarters of the International Shoe Company, a disillusioned college dropout forced to return home and take a job there as a clerk by his father.
These early pieces were written during a period of upheaval and turmoil, for both Williams and his wider environment.
America was in the grip of the Great Depression, with societal, political and economic churn not only visible on St. Louis’ smoggy streets—Williams dubbed the city “St. Pollution,” but the length and breadth of the nation also.
His home life offered little solace. Stifled by a suffocating family life with a heavy drinking and abusive father, an overbearing mother and a troubled sister, while toiling each day away at a job he loathed —a “two-by four… nailed-up coffin” scenario familiar as the predicament of Tom Wingfield in Williams’ first Broadway hit, “The Glass Menagerie” —writing was his only escape.
In print for the first time, the stories contain threads from which Williams would go on to weave the grand tapestry of his later work. The themes of entrapment, the ache for escape and a plea for understanding for those characters on the fringes of society, the gray areas inhabited by his “fugitive kind” are all present here.
The collection’s publication was met with praise at the recent Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival, a week-long celebration of the playwright, his work and his ongoing impact on American letters and theater held annually in the city Williams preferred to call home. St. Louis, and his unhappy experiences there as Mitchell’s discovery shows, may have nourished young Tom’s talent, but it was in New Orleans that he embraced life as Tennessee, declaring the city, “the place that I was made for, if any place on this funny old world.”
In another first, a staged reading of two stories from this newly discovered treasure trove of Williams’ work was held at the festival, with an introduction given by the man who unearthed them.
Cerith Mathias caught up with Tom Mitchell following his event at the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival to discuss the importance of the stories and what they reveal about 20th-century America’s greatest playwright.
Cerith Mathias: Here at the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival you’ve been referred to as a ‘literary archaeologist.’ How did you discover the stories?
Tom Mitchell: I was looking at the Tennessee Williams collection of materials to do research for productions of “Candles to the Sun” and “Fugitive Kind,” early plays that he wrote. And looking through that archive, I encountered some of these stories and I was surprised how effective they were. I’m a theater director, mostly, so literature and stories, that’s not necessarily where I come from. The relationship [between the stories and the later plays] was very close, though. With character, the sense of the event and setting and so forth. I sometimes think he was trying things out in a story form and then it becomes a play.
CM: I really enjoyed the readings. It’s something quite special to see new Williams material brought to life. How did you go about verifying that the stories were new discoveries that hadn’t been seen or published before?
TM: It’s a case of looking through the listings of bibliographies of what has been published. One thing that makes it tricky is that he changed his titles—he would try out a lot of titles. Also, there are a lot of stories that he revises and reworks and that may be similar, but they’re not quite the same story. And that is the case with some of the stories and material I found. Once you’re sure, all of this goes through the Tennessee Williams estate to get permissions to produce.
CM: It must be quite a feeling when you know that you’ve discovered something new. What do these stories tell us about the writer that went on to become Tennessee Williams?
TM: Oh yes, it really is. Well, because he is such an autobiographical writer drawing from his own experience, they fill in some details about his life, what he was experiencing, sometimes fairly directly. That’s helpful, I think, to understand his work.
Other times, there are characters or ideas that you recognize that are used in his later work, and reading the stories fills out different ways of looking at those things. Then there’s also the language, there are anecdotes that he uses and reuses again and again or phrasings that he comes back to and it’s interesting to see how that’s developing. These are all early stories, but they are part of who he is as a writer later on. To see the essence of who’s there writing as a young man is to feel the essence of who’s
There are a couple of stories in this collection—”The Caterpillar Dogs” is about a woman who’s 89, and I think he’s got a very effective way of imagining the life experience of an 89-year-old woman; or, there’s a story about a retiring minister, who’s something like his grandfather. Again, he empathizes with the experience of what it means to be at the age of retirement and making change in life. Williams was 20-something years old. It’s a big imagination.
CM: How important are the stories to our understanding of Williams and of the America he wrote of?
TM: The way that I think about that is he was a writer in the heart of the 20th century, his life spanned the middle part of the 20th century. And so his experience and his writing is a way for us to understand that part of American history and literature. It’s not the fullness of that time, but it is a perspective on that. Seeing this early part of it helps fill out our understanding of that period of his life. That’s helpful, I think.
CM: Do you think his work speaks to today? Is what he had to say still relevant?
TM: Oh yes. He’s writing in and about that period of the ’30s that was socially, politically very active and that relates very much to today. Williams was connected to that active social and political life, the anti-Fascist movement, for example, [that was] going on then is very, very current I’d say.
CM: Williams is well known for revising and rewriting his work. Do you think he would have wanted the stories to be published?
TM: I’m sure he did, because at the time he sent a number of these stories away to different periodicals of the day. So, yes, I know that he wanted those published. There are other manuscripts where there’s clearly a finished version. And then there are some others that we know because he’s corresponded with Audrey Wood—Tennessee Williams’ long-time agent—or others and he’s submitted these as something to be considered.
CM: Finally, is there more of Williams’ work to be discovered?
TM: There is a huge wealth of material in the archive, and I know there are more stories. I have
a larger collection of stories that should be coming out in another year and a half, with a little
more critical discussion of the material being published attached.
The Caterpillar Dogs and Other Early Stories by Tennessee Williams is available now from
Cerith Mathias is a journalist, TV producer and festival director based in Wales, UK. She writes on arts and culture, with a particular interest in Southern literature. She’s a founding director of Cardiff Book Festival in the UK and has produced TV and radio programs for the BBC. Read her blog here and more of her work in Deep South here.