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

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.