American Literature Tennessee Williams
John Bak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0136


Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III (b. 1911–d. 1983) was a poet, fiction writer, and playwright. Born in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams was raised in his grandfather’s Episcopalian rectory in Clarksdale, where he lived with his mother Edwina, sister Rose, and beloved maternal grandparents. Because his father, Cornelius, a traveling salesman, was often on the road, his grandfather served as Williams’s surrogate father, later living on and off with Williams and his partner Frank Merlo. Life as a boy in the South, with its staunch religious conservatism, had an enormous impact on Williams’s literary aesthetics and socio-religious perspective, and although today he is considered a Southern writer, much of his life was spent outside of the Deep South. In 1918 Cornelius landed a managerial job at a large shoe company and uprooted his family to live in the industrial Midwestern city of St. Louis, where Williams would spend another twenty (mostly regrettable) years. His restless spirit and desire to escape his father’s home and his mother’s Puritanism pushed the young man to write. His budding professional career led him to New Orleans in 1938, a city that would become his spiritual home, although he would drift between cities and continents for most of his life. It was there that he embraced his homosexuality. Awarded literary fellowships and a brief contract at MGM in 1943 for his early writings, Williams began working on a film script that would eventually become The Glass Menagerie (1945). The play made Williams a celebrity overnight and gave him the financial freedom he had sought all of his life: he had some regrets, however, since this newfound success threatened his Bohemian lifestyle. Williams worked feverishly over the next few years, and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) secured his reputation as one of America’s greatest living playwrights. Williams’s tormented heroines and poetic realism won him wide critical and popular acclaim, which followed him through the next decade with a string of Broadway hits, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), and The Night of the Iguana (1961). His struggle to stay on top led to a lifelong depression that a daily regimen of drugs, alcohol, and a brief period of psychoanalysis only partly assuaged. Afraid that he would grow mad like his sister, who was lobotomized in 1943, and feeling guilty for having escaped a similar fate, Williams wrote daily to keep his “blue devils” at bay, although his dramaturgy changed drastically after Merlo’s death in 1963. Discouraged by the mounting negative reviews but never dissuaded from producing a new play on the ashes of a previous failure, Williams kept writing, penning roughly half of his vast oeuvre after the critics had largely written him off. Today, Williams is enjoying a renaissance, and many of these later plays are not only seeing a second life in theaters around the world but have secured his reputation as America’s greatest playwright.

General Overviews

Because biographical and critical traditions have evolved within the academy, books and articles on Tennessee Williams vary in quality and usefulness. Williams scholarship, too, has drastically changed over the years due to the corrections of various biographical errors (and myths) and the reevaluation of his career after 1961, the year most critics have attributed to Williams’s artistic decline. Listed here are those sources—from the first serious study (Tischler 1961) to the later ones (Bigsby 1984 and Murphy 2014)—that have withstood the test of time and are just as valuable in the early 21st century as they were when originally published. Tischler 1961 and Nelson 1961, along with Falk 1961 (cited under Criticism: Early: 1961–1979), represent the first critical assessments of Williams’s oeuvre, largely augmented by Bigsby 1984, the author of which consulted many of Williams’s then-unpublished early and late works housed in various archives. Van Antwerp 1982–1984 is a more accessible introduction to Williams’s life and career, with its inclusion of hundreds of photographs, playbills, and posters enriching the various texts reproduced from newspapers and magazines. Murphy 2014 provides the most recent coverage of the many critical issues encountered in Williams’s major dramatic works.

  • Bigsby, C. W. E. “Tennessee Williams.” In A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Vol. 2. By C. W. E. Bigsby, 15–134. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    Provides a critical introduction to Williams, focusing on ambiguity, determinism, and the motif of art in Williams’s major works. Astute analysis of the standard Williams canon and commentary on numerous later works that rarely received serious critical attention. Introduced the now-accepted view that Williams’s failure was as much the result of his artistic redirection as it was the fault of his era’s inability and willingness to understand that new theatrical vision.

  • Murphy, Brenda. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. London: Methuen, 2014.

    Provides solid analysis of Williams’s major dramatic works, including in-depth studies of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and others. A tenth chapter focuses on the later plays, and an eleventh chapter on “Critical Perspectives” reproduces four original articles by some of Williams’s leading critics.

  • Nelson, Benjamin. Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work. New York: Ivan Obolensky, 1961.

    Discusses the works of Williams, their themes and techniques, within the context of the playwright’s life, in particular his formative years and how they influenced his search for an individual talent.

  • Tischler, Nancy M. Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan. New York: Citadel, 1961.

    Supplies (along with Benjamin Nelson’s and Signi Falk’s monographs) a competent introduction into the life and work of Williams up to the late 1950s, although it is largely dated by early-21st-century scholarly standards. Several of its arguments, based on a psychoanalytical reading of the playwright and of Williams’s Southern influences (i.e., the flesh versus the spirit), are nonetheless still valid.

  • Van Antwerp, Margaret A., and Sally Johns, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Documentary Series: An Illustrated Chronicle. Vol. 4, Tennessee Williams. Detroit: Gale, 1982–1984.

    Resembles Leavitt’s 1978 pictorial book but is more complete in terms of covering Williams’s writing career from the late 1920s to the 1980s. Privileging the retelling of Williams’s career through the reprinting of theater and book reviews, interviews, speeches, critical articles, and essays (a few that Williams himself had written and included in Where I Live), the book is an excellent entry-level study of Williams’s professional life.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.