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.
Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)
Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time’s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce
had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.
This same impulse seems to be at work in Time’s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”
Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time’s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time’s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”
In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time’s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:
Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.
And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)
By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time’s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.
The other thing to say about Time’s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)
Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time’s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross’s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time’s). Read them to marvel at Time’s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.
Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.
Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.
Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.
Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.