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How St. Louis Shaped Tennessee Williams’ Life And Work

Henry Schvey's new book makes the case that Tennessee Williams' years in St. Louis were pivotal to his development as an artist.
University of Missouri Press
Henry Schvey's new book from the University of Missouri Press explores Tennessee Williams' formative St. Louis years.

Tennessee Williams made no secret of his disdain for St. Louis. After his family moved to the city at age 7, he dubbed it “St. Pollution.” The acclaimed playwright would surely be pleased that most fans of his work associate him more closely with New Orleans, Key West or even Mississippi.

But should they? In his eye-opening new book, “Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams,” Henry I. Schvey argues that the Gateway City was absolutely indispensable in shaping Williams’ work and launching him as an artist. Not only did Williams live in St. Louis longer than any other place, for 20 years, Schvey writes, but the city continued to exert a powerful hold on his imagination long after he left.

Henry Schvey is a professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University.
University of Missouri Press
Henry Schvey is a professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University.

“Williams was addicted to escaping St. Louis from first to last,” Schvey writes. “It was the great triumph of his life that, unlike his sister, he did manage to literally leave it behind. … However, it was his life’s tragedy that for all his desperate attempts, Tom Williams never really left home. The imagination and willpower that allowed him to devote his life to writing also kept forcing him to return home again in his imagination.”

A professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University, Schvey fleshes out in his book this oft-neglected period in Williams’ development. He explores not only his stints at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Washington University (yes, Williams studied at Wash U — a fact he himself studiously omitted from his memoirs) but his work writing for the Webster Groves Theatre Guild.

The group, better known as the Mummers, was instrumental in forming Williams as a playwright, Schvey explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air.

“He started writing these plays for large casts,” he said. “It was the perfect apprenticeship, even though I disagree with the idea that these are apprentice plays, pure and simple. He wrote plays that people don’t know about — play after play with casts of 25 and up.”

Williams’ plays for the Mummers were much more political than the work that would later make his name.

“He deals with poverty. He deals with homelessness. He deals with addiction. He deals with men in prison,” Schvey recalled. “And these plays were all lost until 60 years later. So it’s no wonder that people don’t necessarily associate Williams with this kind of political writing. But that’s what he was doing, because of the agenda of the Mummers.”

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As for Williams’ hatred of St. Louis, Schvey traces it to the family problems exacerbated by leaving Mississippi, where Williams’ father worked as a traveling salesman, and coming together under one roof in what was then, yes, a very polluted city.

Cornelius Williams’ job with St. Louis’ International Shoe Company was a promotion, Schvey said.

“But it was not a promotion for their family life,” he said. “They left the kind of bucolic scene in Mississippi, for a scene in which the family was all crowded together.”

In many ways, Schvey suggested, Williams’ antipathy for St. Louis was inspired by the difficulty of living in a cramped Central West End rooming house with his father, a violent alcoholic who in some ways prefigured the character of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“That meant a very tense and very disturbing reality,” Schvey said.

He added, “It’s easy to see how, even though ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ is not a St. Louis play — it’s the quintessential New Orleans play, just as ‘Glass Menagerie’ is the St. Louis play — but where Williams got some of the anger and the sense of toxic masculinity in his life, he got it from his father.”

Schvey’s book suggests that Williams’ frustrations in St. Louis served as the irritant that helped form the pearl of his great plays. And even beyond that analogy, the author argues that Williams could have never become the writer he was without St. Louis’ influence.

One reason, he writes, was the city’s public school system.

“They were really innovative, and they emphasized citizenship and a kind of awareness of the wider world,” Schvey explained. “These are things he simply would not have had access to in Clarksdale, Mississippi, with all due respect to that world. St. Louis gave him many things, and they’re not necessarily things he would have acknowledged. But going to Ben Blewett Junior High School, going to University City High School — he was never a good student, but he accomplished things, particularly in the area of writing, that were unusual. He got work published while he was in high school. All of these things expanded his horizons.

“The time in St. Louis, including University of Missouri-Columbia,” Schvey continued, “were steps forward for him, things that he never would have accomplished had he remained in the deep South.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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