Scholars to Edit Compilation Of Williams' Personal Letters

Devotees of Tennessee Williams take note: the playwright's published oeuvre is about to increase by several thousand pages. Using the reserves of the Harvard Theater Collection, two scholars plan to edit a compilation of Williams' personal letters which will appear in the year 2000.

Williams was a compulsive letter writer, often rising in the middle of the night to type messages to his mother or grandfather or to literary colleagues like Gore Vidal and Carson McCullers. The Harvard Theater Collection is the custodian of approximately 1,000 of these missives, according to Curatorial Assistant Michael T. Dumas.

Nancy Tischler, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, and Albert Devlin, a professor of English at the University of Missouri at Columbia, will establish and edit a chronological collection of Williams' letters. The book will be published by New Directions, the company which also published most of Williams' plays.

Tischler estimated yesterday that it will take three or four years to gather letters for the book from libraries and various private collections.

The letters from Harvard's archives, which house one of the most extensive collections of Williams' correspondence, will be a major contribution to the book, Tischler said. The libraries at Columbia and at The University of Texas also have significant collections.

"[Harvard has] a wonderful collection. It's one of the reasons we're so excited about the project," Tischler said. "The Harvard letters are, many of them, early letters, and they involve...people very dear to [Williams]. Unlike others, they're quite personal. You get a lot of details about family arguments, problems with money."

Harvard's substantial collection is the result of numerous donations, according to Dumas.

"When Williams died, he left his personal papers to the Harvard Theater Collection," Dumas said, "We've acquired other blocks of manuscripts and letters through auctions and gifts from a couple of different donors."

Tischler said she thinks access to the letters will help scholars who are interested in topics ranging from Williams' life and work as a playwright to attitudes towards homosexuals in the 1950s and 1960s.

"The letters really characterize him for people interested in him as an artist," Tischler said. "They will help those interested also in his career as an American playwright--he worried about everything from writing of individual plays to their production."

"It will also be interesting for those concerned about what it's like to be a gay man in American society," Tischler added. "I think it's going to be a contribution to gay studies and literature studies as well as dramatic studies."

Few scholars have had access to Williams' correspondence before now. Williams' friend Lady Maria St. Just, the former executor of his estate who died last year, blocked access to many of his papers during her life-time.