Genius in the making

Bob Moyer finds much to interest him in a collection of early Tennessee Williams stories.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE CATERPILLAR DOGS AND OTHER EARLY STORIES. By Tennessee Williams. New Directions. $14.95, paperback.

There are pleasures aplenty in the youthful writing of what will become genius. This slim volume of Tennessee Williams’ writings exhibits early development of his dramatic skills.

It suggests the source of many of his dramas as well. Some are straightforward. The play Stairs to the Roof took its title from the short story of the same name. On the other hand, subject material and relationship in Till One or The Other Gits Back foreshadow the successful one act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton.

 Character studies abound here, hinting at the detailed work that led to so many memorable parts in his dramas. An unattractive, combative octogenarian woman, descended from Spanish warriors, meets her match in The Dandelion Dogs. The minister who left the small town he served so many years to retire in St. Louis finds solace and fulfillment in the movies when Every Friday Night Is Kiddie Night.  Dialogue takes precedence in a number of pieces. The failure of the lovers to communicate in Ironweed borders upon tragic, and is, to say the least, dramatic.

In Season of Grapes, Williams already is working with repetition, presaging skill for foreshadowing and resonance in his later dramas. He also gives us the young man who will become Tennessee. The main character looked old for his age, and “…had acquired a small mustache along with my unusually serious and reflective manner.”  When an aggressive young woman makes advances on him, he reacts with panic and confusion about the inherent sexuality. In Stairs to the Roof, a young man works in the office of a shoe factory, just like Williams. And, like Williams, he is dominated by his father. He spends his time, also like Williams, writing poems on cardboard and keeping them in a desk drawer. No one in the office is like him, and no one likes him. When he his “found out,” and is about to be fired, he makes a fatal decision — unlike Williams, who went to the University of Iowa for playwriting, and then moved to New Orleans.

Not weighty, but still substantial in a strange way, these stories both engage and inform. Rife with themes of love’s diversions and characters’ idiosyncrasies that are Williams hallmarks, they are well worth the brief read, particularly for Williams fans.

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