John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
Near Touchdown Jesus, a statue nicknamed for his outstretched arms, the smell of pot ambles through the French Quarter. A makeshift band — clarinet, tuba, and drums — plays for tips on the corner. A man in a long-sleeve shirt, sits cross-legged in the middle of the street where his friend has already propped a chair. Bells from St. Louis cathedral announce the time: 12 gongs.
“That’s where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire,” says a tour guide dressed in all-purple. He’s driving a mule-drawn carriage with signature fleur-de-lis on the back. He points to the Avart-Peretti House at 632 St. Peters Street. After reading John Lahr’s biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award in nonfiction, I came looking for the playwright. I’ve found one of Williams’s French Quarter homes, red brick, nearly identical to others in the neighborhood. Across the street, a sign for a “boutique smoke shop” reads Pipe Dreams. This sign could probably apply to how Williams felt when he first started writing plays.
While a lot of biographies begin with dry lineages, Lahr puts us at Williams’s opening night of his first big play The Glass Menagerie. Right from the start, there’s tension. For Williams, this is his make-or-break moment, because his very first production Battle of Angels had been a crowd-booing fiasco. Williams is considered an autobiographical playwright, so many of his plays’ scenes are dramatized versions of his life. Throughout Mad Pilgrimage, Lahr presents a Williams play, then ties it back to the playwright’s personal life. The Glass Menagerie, Lahr shows, depicts his more-than-dysfunctional family.
When Williams was 7, his family moved from his home state Mississippi to St. Louis. During his childhood, his father, a salesman, often drank and became violent. His father, Lahr says, called the young Williams “Miss Nancy,” because he considered the boy effeminate. To keep a distance from his father, Williams clung to his overbearing mother Miss Edwina. Though Miss Edwina protected her son and nurtured his interest in writing, she barely hugged her children and raised them with fire-and-brimstone-esque ideals. As a result, Williams’s plays often deal with repression, both physically and emotionally. Lahr tells us the playwright didn’t masturbate until the age of 26, a shocking bit of information, but also valuable insight to helping understand the depth of his plays’ characters’ struggles. Williams often turned his work’s gaze toward the male body — think Stanley Kowalski played by Marlon Brando in Streetcar. In his iconic characters Blanche DuBois (Streetcar) and Brick (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), we see the personification of struggling with desire
“On the one hand there is truth,” writes Virginia Woolf in “The New Biography,” “on the other there is personality.”
When done with “personality” in mind, a biography can mimic a piece of jazz music. Lahr states in the preface that he constructed the book closer to a profile than a traditional biography. In this way, he listens to the music. Texture, seemingly improvisational moments, comes from the layering of different sounds. Elements overlap and knock up against each other. He situates Williams’s many pithy and entertaining letters, the post-office kind, in conversation with diary entries, theater reviews, and interviews. To punctuate Williams’s nearly 15-year relationship with Frank Merlo, Lahr often incorporates the playwright’s poetry:
It was not easy to crawl
against those unending torrents
of light, all bending one way.
And only your voice calling, Stay!
— “Humble Star”
As the middle child, Williams often compared himself to his siblings. He adored older sister Rose, but while he had writing to escape his mother’s tyrannical spirituality, Rose wasn’t as lucky. Their mother committed Rose to an institution, in which she received shock treatments and an eventual prefrontal lobotomy. Lahr deftly explores Williams’s relationship with Rose. She was one of the few people he cared for all his life. He had a tumultuous relationship with younger brother Dakin, who Williams saw as their father’s golden boy. The two brothers butted heads their whole lives, and in the biography we see just how much they seemingly despise each other. By portraying Williams’s personal life in connection with his art, Lahr not only makes a claim for the playwright’s artistic ability, he also gives a touching portrait of a complicated — and somewhat selfish! — American icon.
Along with Williams’s family, we hear from many of the people integral to Williams’s life such as Gore Vidal, director and collaborator Elia Kazan, his agent Audrey Wood, and friend Maria St. Just. These voices mix on the page. At times, the book feels close to attending a fancy cocktail party with an A-list invite list. The collage style is effective because Lahr pulls from multiple points of view and recollection. At just over 600 pages long, he crafts crescendo moments and other, softer points to control the rhythm. When analyzing a Williams’s work, Lahr often includes a telling piece of dialogue. These sound bites seem ripped verbatim from Williams’s life.
GLADYS: Your son misses you, Pere.
PERE: That’s likely.
GLADYS: In your mind you have branded him a sissy, and that’s what’s come between you.
PERE: Does he still have on them little velvet knee britches?
— from a sketch of what was then called “The Big Time Operators”
As a theater reviewer in NOLA, I’ve seen two of Williams’s plays over the past year. A company staged The Night of the Iguana, his last big commercial success, in a re-purposed funeral home on Elysian Fields. Later in the year, I sat in a sold-out audience for Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, which coincided with the yearly Tennessee Williams Festival. The playwright moved to the city at the age of 27. New Orleans became, as John Lahr writes, the beginning of Williams’s “literary adventure and his sexual coming-of-age.” Out from under his mother’s thumb, he explored his queerness in the South. At one point, Lahr notes, he was taking home a new guy seemingly every night.
While Lahr’s play analysis sections might drag for some readers — especially those unfamiliar with the stage — this isn’t just a book for the theater-loving set. The biographer guides us through Williams’s work, and he gives us enough of the plot to help us understand the plays’ significance. The narrative is interested in the story of American theater, but Lahr also uses Williams’s work to place the playwright in the larger context of U.S. history. His popularity in the late 1940s “registered the spiritual shift after America’s return to normalcy” at the end of World War II. The response to his work often mirrored the social climate of the time. During his six decades of writing, Williams authored over 30 full-length plays and 70 one-acts. He won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer prizes. Hollywood came calling his name, and his audience expanded to the movie-going public. American screen-royalty Elizabeth Taylor starred in the adaptation of his work Suddenly, Last Summer and as Maggie in the film version of Cat. Williams gained access to the most fabulous social circles. He drank with celebrities and the literati alike.
As with any good party, though, the spotlight eventually starts to dim.
Public tastes changed. More experimental and abstract forms of theater became popular. Though still considered one of America’s greatest playwrights, his style no longer felt like a hot commodity. Even his thematic exploration of repressed sexuality, started to seem tame fare for the progressive sexual movement. He eventually, as Lahr says, found himself a “revolutionary in a post-revolutionary” era. Lahr tracks the playwright’s fall with the same keen eyes as his success. The latter section of this biography is compelling as it explores how an esteemed writer deals with failure. Despite poor reviews of his late work, Williams didn’t stop producing. Writing helped him understand his experiences. Without his typewriter he’d die. Williams had dealt with depression through most of his life, and his new has-been status lead to excessive drinking and drug use. We see his extended stay in treatment facility. Lahr’s prose delicately handles Williams’s collapse. With the playwright approaching personal oblivion, the biographer continues to join the life with his work. He won’t let us forget Williams’s genius, and Lahr writes he ultimately “devoured himself for the sake of his work.” This biography becomes more than a portrait of a famous writer who “changed the shape and the ambition of the American commercial theater.” We see the duality of the human psyche, at once tough and all together fragile. It’s an experience similar to one of Williams’s plays.
While the playwright died in 1983, he’s still alive here in New Orleans. In Jackson Square, where Williams would have walked, artists sell black and white painting of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. Down the St. Peters Street stands a community theatre which recently produced one of his shows. One of his French Quarter apartments, 710 Orleans Street, is now sandwiched between a property management company and a used bookstore. I had walked passed the front door many times without knowing one of the city’s literary heroes had lived there. It took reading Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh for me to stop and look at his front door. The biography helped me get to better know not only an important writer, but also the city in which I live. Lahr makes Williams feel alive to me. As alive to me as the playwright is here in these New Orleans streets.