In Which Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin Discuss Carson McCullers (and More)
From the Correspondence of "Jay" and "10"
Whatever decision you and Carson reach about the two prefaces [for Reflections in a Golden Eye] is O.K. with me. My feeling was, when I read over the first version, that I appeared in that version to be talking too much about myself. If you revert to that original version I hope that you will preserve the cuts that I have made in it, particularly the long portion about “imitators.” I believe that I scratched out (in the returned proofs) all but about two sentences of that material which was provoked mainly by a personal antagonism for Truman which I think should not be indulged in this place. I also wish you would compare the two versions very carefully, again, and perhaps something from the second, which I still believe had a great deal more dignity in keeping with the novel, could be appended or worked into the other.
I received yesterday a long letter from Carson, most depressing. “Health has failed steadily—can’t walk more than half a block—neuritis has set in—damaged nerves constantly spastic—dreadful headache—nausea, prostration—a gland went wrong in the neck—prolonged suffering—a sort of convulsion at dawn . . .” It sounds almost fantastic! Surely she has not been given any really intelligent diagnosis or therapy. I think she should be hospitalized for several months and exhaustively examined from every angle, physiological, emotional, Etc. Of course there needs to be a special branch of medicine for the understanding and treatment of such hypersensitive artists, but since they practically never have any money, they are simply condemned. I dread the play production that she is now facing as her emotional involvement is certain to be great. Clurman(1) is a fine director for it, but when I last saw the script it was far from being in a state to produce.
I am sailing out of Naples on the twentieth, the crossing takes ten days, and must go directly to Hollywood when I land. My work on the movie script is practically complete but they are not yet satisfied with the ending and I think I shall have a fight with them about that. They say they don’t want a fairy-tale ending but there is evidence of double-talk. At least I should learn something more about the technique of film-making which I can use creatively on some other assignment perhaps over here. I am on excellent terms with Rossellini and De Sica(2) and Visconti and would enjoy working with any one of them. Last week had supper with Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini.(3) Their “Fuck you” attitude toward the outraged women’s clubs and sob-columnists is very beautiful and should have salutary effect on discrediting these infantile moralists that make it so hard for anyone to do honest work and live honestly in the States. If Bergman has the moral courage she appears to have, it will be a triumph.
Several weeks ago I sent you two long poems, “The Soft City” and “Counsel,” which you haven’t mentioned receiving. If you hate them, for God’s sake Jay, don’t hesitate to say so! I depend so much on your critical opinion as there are times when my own seems to fail me. I lose objectivity about my work, as everyone does at times, but you know that I am not morbidly sensitive to adverse opinion, but on the contrary, I am grateful for it. I showed Kazan and his wife(4) a long synopsis of the play I had been working on. They both wrote me from London of their disappointment in it quite frankly and while I felt that the synopsis had not conveyed a true idea of the play as it existed in my conception, their criticism will be helpful when I go back to work on it, if I do. Whatever I do badly (even if it is everything!) I want to know, I want to be told! Honesty about failure is the only help for it.
I am enclosing two versions, first and second drafts of another poem. I don’t know which is better or worse. Also, the other ending to the Lawrence play [I Rise in Flame]. I wonder if it would not be better to change Brett’s name in the play to something like Brady, since the incident is fictitious and she might object. I don’t believe Frieda would.
It is dreadful to leave here, but I have thrown a coin in the Fountain of Trevi.
1. Clurman: Harold Clurman (1901–1980). American stage director and founding member of the Group Theatre, Clurman directed McCullers’s stage adaptation of her novel, The Member of the Wedding (ND 1951), and the original production of TW’s Orpheus Descending on Broadway in 1957.
2. De Sica: Vittorio De Sica (1901–1974), Italian director and actor.
3. Ingrid Bergman: (1915–1982). In 1949, while working on the film Stromboli for the Italian director Roberto Rossellini, Bergman and Rossellini fell in love and she became pregnant. Though she later divorced her husband and married Rossellini, American public opinion was slow to forgive the Swedish- born actress who had played Saint Joan as well as Ilsa in Casablanca. She and Rossellini remained in Italy for several years until the “scandal” subsided. TW’s attitude is evident.
4. Kazan and his wife: Molly Day Thacher Kazan (1905–1963) happened to be the reader at the Group Theatre who singled out TW’s group of one- acts, “American Blues,” for an honorable mention in 1939, which led him to New York and to his longtime agent, Audrey Wood.
December 9, 1949 [Key West]
Theseus(5) came today and it is resting beside my bed, the proper place for any good work of art. We have a snow white rooster next door to us who flaps his wings and crows every half hour or so. I always wake up and continue my reading.
Life here is as dull as paradise must be. Consequently I do more work. I have, at long last, finished a first complete draft of a new play called The Starry Blue Robe of Our Lady [which became The Rose Tattoo]. It may be weeks before I dare to read it. Am also working on another novella. Audrey wrote me that you were interested in publishing Moon of Pause [which became Roman Spring]. That was not my impression. I did a little more work on it. I would really like to publish it, first in a magazine such as Harper’s Bazaar. I think it is a good study of the malignant power-drive but how effective it is otherwise I still don’t know; Carson sent me an enthusiastic wire about it. Evidently Bigelow had showed it to her, as he is retyping it.
5. Theseus: An essay on the Theseus myth by André Gide was published by ND in 1949 (in a translation from the French by John Russell) in a limited edition of two hundred copies, hand printed by master printer Giovanni Mardersteig at the Officina Bodoni in Verona. JL loved fine printing and Mardersteig was a favorite printer for special projects.
6. Carson’s play: The Member of the Wedding (ND 1951) opened on Broadway January 5, 1950. During their time spent together on Nantucket in the summer of 1948, TW greatly helped McCullers to shape the play and, though he took no credit, McCullers was always keen to thank him for his help.
7. Bill Caskey: William Caskey was a photographer with whom Isherwood lived and collaborated.
December 16, 1949 [Cambridge, Massachusetts]
Thanks ever so much for your good letter of December 9th, which reached me up in Cambridge, where I am busy with my duties as a member of the Visiting Committee for the English Department. It is very funny to go around from class to class and observe the students and the funny old professors objectively. Re-visiting these scenes of a good many follies of youth certainly gives me a feeling of old age. But there is no question but life becomes less troublesome as you get older. The senses seem to get dulled so that you no longer get into the emotional agonies that certain situations produced when you were eighteen years old. On the other hand, a lot of the excitement is gone too.
I’m glad to hear that Key West is turning out to be a success and that you’re getting a lot of work done. Audrey told me you were doing some revision on the novella [Roman Spring], and I think that is fine. I do definitely want to publish it when you get it in such shape that it satisfies your own feeling about it. I just didn’t want to push you into publishing it until you yourself are ready. I was trying to lean over backward lest I should have to accuse myself of a commercial motivation. Obviously, the thing will sell pretty well, and that sets up a kind of pressure in a publisher which has to be guarded against by a strict examination of conscience. When you get it in a shape that satisfies you, let’s go ahead with it, with the idea that it will first appear in one of the magazines, and then later on be done as a book, perhaps with a few short stories added to it to fill out the book. Audrey also said something about your starting of another one, which might pair up with it. But we can work out the details of that later on.
That’s fine that you have blocked out the new play [The Rose Tattoo]. Is there any chance of getting a look at it? I am always sort of fascinated to know what you are going to do next.
[ . . . ]
With best wishes as always, James Laughlin
December 22, 1949 [New York]
Thanks ever so much for sending along the poems. My favorite is the “Old Men With Sticks” and I believe that is the right one to send first to Partisan Review. I shall pass these on to Audrey with the request that she make copies of them, in case you didn’t keep copies, and then put them out to the magazines. She has tactfully hinted in the past that it confuses her records if I send things out independently from this office. But I will advise her as to where to send the things, as I don’t think she knows too much about poetry channels.
Mulling over these poems, it occurs to me that you are achieving a consistent vein, which might well be labeled a sort of “new romanticism.” Possibly if I ever get ambitious to be a critic again I’ll write an essay about you under that title. To my way of thinking it is a very good force to have around. The academic poets of the neo-metaphysical school have gotten far too dry. They are afraid to let their gussets out, as it were. I hope you will keep on with your poetry because I really think you can accomplish a lot with it. Your approach to any given subject is so different from the average that there is never any danger of your falling into the commonplace, no matter how far you let yourself go with explicit feeling. And don’t forget that I would like to get out a little book of your poems when you think you have enough gathered together that you like.
The big news up here these days is that we are having a bit of luck again after a rather dry late summer and fall. The Bowles [The Sheltering Sky] is going along great guns. It has had the most flamboyant kind of reviews in all the provincial papers, as well as good ones here in New York, except for rather contrary ones in The New Yorker and The Saturday Review. We have gotten what I call a “green light” on it in the way of large orders from the jobbers which supply little neighborhood shops in the suburbs and lending library chains, and so I am throwing a lot of money into advertising to try to make a big thing out of it.
The Firbank(8) [Five Novels] and the Vittorini [In Sicily, introduction by Ernest Hemingway] are also doing well, and the latter has been taken by the Book Find Club for March.
Carson has invited me to the opening of her play [The Member of the Wedding] and I am looking forward to that very much. Reflections in a Golden Eye has been printed and ought to get through the bindery next month. I’ll send you down some copies for you to give around to friends.
Well, I guess that’s all for the moment, so will close with a Merry Christmas and all that.
[ . . . ]
8. Firbank: Ronald Firbank (1886–1926), English novelist. New Directions published six titles by Firbank.
From The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin. Used with permission of W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2018 The Trustees of the New Directions Ownership Trust. Copyright © 2018 by the University of the South.