Tennessee williams first visited New Orleans at the end of 1938, when he was twenty-seven years old. “Here surely is the place that I was made for if any place on this funny old world,” he wrote in his journal. After seven weeks of exploring the French Quarter and enjoying its Bohemian life, his restless spirit took hold and he headed west. Three years later, he returned to New Orleans, where—“writing a great deal and not badly I believe”—he produced a number of poems, two short stories, and several one-act plays. Most importantly, it was at that time that Williams looked back at his family as a source of dramatic material, especially his mother and his sister Rose, who in 1937 had been diagnosed with dementia praecox, an early term for schizophrenia. Williams would return to New Orleans throughout his life, and in 1947 he finished A Streetcar Named Desire there.
Williams’s notebooks span the years 1936 to 1981, two years before his death. The thirty notebooks that are known to survive are unremarkable looking, the sort of cheap composition books you could find at any drugstore. The following selection concerns what he called his Second New Orleans Period, which ended in November of 1941, when Williams hitchhiked along the Gulf Coast to St. Petersburg, Florida, writing poems and recording observations about his journey in a small flip-top memo pad. The final entry here finds him back in New York, in the winter of 1942, working, listening to war bulletins, and seeking to “purify the body and soothe the nerves.”
—Margaret Bradham Thornton
Saturday, 13 September 1941
Saturday—I have bought a used bike for ten dollars.
Paid a week’s rent—$3.50.
Seem to be settled for whatever is in store—One never knows, does one?
Tonight I have heartburn.
I am going to dress up and cruise about the Old French Quarter.
Maybe something will happen.
I will let you know later.
Wish me luck!
Sunday, 14 September 1941
Oliver Evans—a sad but poignant episode. Mack’s and the St. James bar.
“We ought to be exterminated” said Oliver. “for the good of society.” I argued that if we were society would lose some of its most sensitive, humanitarian members. A healthy society does not need artists, said Oliver. What is healthy about a society with no spiritual values?—Then you think spiritual values are identical with us? said Oliver. No, I admitted sadly, but we have made some unique contributions because of our unique position and I do not believe that we are detrimental to anyone but ourselves. “We are the rotten apple in the barrel,” said Oliver. “We ought to be exterminated at the age of 25.” “But Shakespeare had written no great plays at that age.”—“He had written Romeo and Juliet,” said Oliver.—“Yes, but he had not written Hamlet.” And so on—“If you think we are dangerous, why do you act as you do? Why do you not isolate yourself?” “Because I am rotten.”—How many of us feel that way, I wonder? Bear this intolerable burden of guilt? To feel some humiliation and a great deal of sorrow at times is inevitable. But feeling guilty is foolish. I am a deeper and warmer and kinder man for my devigation. More conscious of need in others, and what power I have to express the human heart must be in large part due to this circumstance. Some day society will take perhaps the suitable action—but I do not believe that it will or should be extermination.—Oh, well.—
I go now for a long ride on my bicycle, probably out to Lake Pontchartrain for a swim and something more clarifying than last night. So long.
Later—My bicycle trip was cancelled by rain and I was stranded for over an hour in the door of a warehouse in the colored section across from the “Star Club” where I watched the careless, infantile play of negros, a spider, an ant with partly crushed body struggling to crawl across a concrete space with no companions and no apparent objective. I thought about the “hostilities of chance” that can foil an innocent outing and crush a harmless body. Not very novel reflections. Finally I braved the rain and came home. Now the rain still continues and I lie on my bed, smoke, and enter these banalities. I have such an ordinary type of mind, only a little more sensitive than most others, only my longings and my critical faculty, my sense of my own unfitness, has any dignity. I feel stunted. I should have grown bigger than this. Certainly as an artist I should have grown much bigger and stronger and more durable. I am like, in my work, that half crushed ant dragging itself wretchedly and almost pointlessly forward. And, yes, I grow older and my physical self is on the wane, undoubtedly. That is, I am not the fresh young thing that I was at 20 when I could just be ornamental and nothing more. Nor have I acquired that practised glibness which compensates in our kind for the wane of youth. Oh, yes, I am much less timid, but still I usually sit and wait for others to initiate an acquaintance.
Well, this is a dreary story. But I continue to be interested in the course of events. I still hope to fulfill myself in creation and in love, at least partially and occasionally and for a while.
The rain seems to be petering out. Presumably I will go out again—eat, see a show, possibly even go to the St. James bar.
I am not the one to lie and brood all day.—The rain has stopped. So shall I.
Wednesday, 17 September or Thursday, 18 September 1941
I am so sleepy I can hardly hold my eyes open.
For 3rd night straight I had a new bed partner, this one shared with Oliver.
Sweet but not exciting. I am sexually exhausted anyhow, only the incessant little itch of desire keeps on—
I left Oliver and the other at Mack’s—early—and wandered about—“the quarter”—lonely as a cloud, but did not discover any daffodils. Bought the pocket book of verse and home to read it.
Verse soothed me as it always does.
Crane is so much bigger than them all, as Chekhov is above all the prose-writers.
Hart Crane and Anton Chekhov—breathe into me a little of thy life!
I leave here soon for Florida, though what arrangements I can make remain to be seen.
This life is all disintegration here in N.O.
All the old bad habits and more.
Sunday, 5 October 1941
I believe that the way to write a good play is to convince yourself that it is easy to do—then go ahead and do it with ease.
Don’t maul, don’t suffer, don’t groan—till the first draft is finished.
Then Calvary—but not till then.
Doubt—and be lost—until the first draft is finished.
A Play is a Phoenix—it dies a thousand deaths.
Usually at night—In the morning it springs up again from its ashes and crows like a happy rooster.