By James Calemine
Born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911, Thomas (Tennessee) Williams wrote plays, short stories, novels and poetry. Some of his characters rank as the most memorable in American literature. Few could write about heartbreak and madness like Williams. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter honored Williams with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Williams died in 1983. William Burroughs once wrote the only thing that exists about a writer is what he’s written, and not his so-called life. Williams serves as a stalking monument to this testament.
Williams wrote in the introduction to 27 Wagons Full of Cotton: “In my opinion art is a kind of anarchy, and the theater is a province of art. What was missing here, was something anarchistic in the air. I must modify that statement about art and anarchy. Art is only anarchy in juxtaposition with organized society. It runs counter to the sort of orderliness on which organized society apparently must be based. It is a benevolent anarchy: it must be that and if it is true art, it is. It is benevolent in the sense of constructing something which is missing, and what it constructs may be merely criticism of things as they exist…”
Some of his finest work includes The Glass Menagerie, The Night of the Iguana, A Streetcar Named Desire (won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo, Orpheus Descending and his book titled Collected Stories. 27 Wagons Full of Cotton contains 13 concise one-act plays. His economical way with words conjures pure emotion. The ‘Delta Comedy’–“27 Wagons Full of Cotton”–takes place on a front porch near Blue Mountain, Mississippi. It revolves around Jake Meighan, a cotton gin owner, who commits arson on a neighboring property called the Plantation Syndicate. The Syndicate Plantation owner returns to the Meighan residence–not for designs on Jake Meighan, but his wife Flora.
“The Lady of Larkspur Lotion” transpires in the French Quarter of New Orleans. This unsettling story involves an alcoholic landlady, her tenant, a writer, a cockroach infestation and humorous high-grade deterioration. Dialogue from “The Last of My Solid Gold Watches” in a Mississippi hotel room reveals the character Charlie Cotton remains the last of the black Delta drummers. Harper, a traveling salesman in this tale, evokes an interesting racial perspective while trying to make a sale.
The writer’s work touches on all areas of southern culture of his time with a spot-on accuracy in almost every story. His descriptive writing paints vivid images that resonate through the five senses. Williams seemed to abide by Ernest Hemingway’s motto of ‘It’s not what you put in the story, but what you leave out.’ Williams held a command over insinuation…
“Auto-Da-Fe” stands as a tragic one act play revolving around a mother and son. Another New Orleans-based yarn, “Lord Byron’s Love Letter”, captures the essence of someone living in the past…of better days gone by. “The Strangest Kind of Romance” is a lyric play performed in four scenes that occurs in a mid-West town, much like the place where Williams attended college.
There is nothing glamorous in these stories…real life is not glamorous for anyone–rich or poor–when it comes to love, loss and insanity. The beauty of his writing abides in his ability to convey the most universal emotions–no matter what walk of life people exist in. “The Long Goodbye” portrays a writer trying to work amid a family upheaval and the obstacles loved ones throw in front of the artist.
“Hello from Bertha” is a sad story that takes place in a St. Louis bordello where Bertha descends into madness. Williams possessed the ability to make the reader sympathize with even the most unrewarding folks. “This Property is Condemned” contains poetic dialogue between a young boy and girl. The girl lives in an abandoned home alone, eats out of garbage cans and tells the boy of her dead sister. “Talk to Me Like the Rain And Let Me Listen” spins a scene where a man and woman put a lot of years in together, and even though their minds wander into another fairly-tale, hypothetical life, they love each other enough to remain a couple.
“Something Unspoken” catches the wealthy spinster Cornelia Scott caught up in the politics of the Confederate Daughters where nothing is contingent upon reality. Every Williams character appeals to the reader’s heart. We feel like we’ve known these characters in our own lives. 27 Wagons Full of Cotton represents the words of Tennessee Williams when he stated: “A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.”