“I Found His Name Carved into the Wooden Desk Where I Sat” — Harold Brodkey on Tennessee Williams

Books, Literature, Writers

Harold Brodkey talks Tennessee Williams—and other St. Louis writers—in his interview with The Paris Review

INTERVIEWER

You grew up in St. Louis, which has a reputation for spawning writers—Eliot, Inge, Williams, Burroughs . . .

BRODKEY

People in St. Louis talked, oddly enough, like simpler Eliots, inhibited William Burroughses, and shy Tennessee Williamses. Williams and I had the same high school English teacher.

INTERVIEWER

Did she say Williams was a pretty good student?

BRODKEY

She said he was a horrible person. I found his name carved into the wooden desk where I sat. Tennessee Williams was the obverse of Eliot, and at the same time was like him. When I was at Harvard I’d get drunk and I’d recite Eliot and I’d sound like a character in Williams. I don’t think I honestly ever saw a Williams play, or reacted to one as a member of the audience because I identify so with the background out of which the work comes. All of the writers from St. Louis have a vaguely similar dependence on metaphor . . . Burroughs, Fred Seidel . . .

I do think, seriously but without much study, that the influence of Eliot, and the influence of Eliot’s becoming famous, did affect people like Williams and William Inge. I knew Inge in New York at the Actors’ Studio. Tennessee Williams and I used to swim at the West Side Y together but we never spoke to each other.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever clap as he walked by, cheer for him?

BRODKEY

No. At bottom there’s a dishonesty in artists.

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