I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really. — Tennessee Williams
I cannot tell you what book I was reading this time last year, or even the year before that, at least not without consulting my account on GoodReads.com first or searching my own blog or Amazon.com to see if I wrote a review of it. But I can recall the very first time I read anything from a classic Southern writer.
We all have a book that’s had some profound effect on us at some point in our lives, more than likely from our childhood when someone was reading it to us, especially those who don’t take up reading as a hobby later in life. For those who do pursue it as a diversion, there comes a time in our lives when we read something that touches our heart and spirit in a new abstruse way and we never forget.
I always liked to read back when I was growing up. I have fond grade school memories of spending the summer in a porch swing for hours while reading Stephen King novels. I dreamed of being a writer myself someday thanks to the focus my grade school put on creative writing. We were given black and white Mead journals each year and time each day to write in them. I loved doing it almost as much as reading, filling up two or three journals before the school year ended.
But it was my senior year in high school when I read The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams for an essay paper in drama class that set the tone for the type of writer I wanted to be the rest of my life. I was from the south, Tennessee in fact, so why not follow the literary greats who were raised in and inspired by my own backyard?
A female classmate was reading it too. She had the bright idea that she should play Laura and I should play Tom in a production of it. We attempted to talk our drama teacher into it, but she preferred to stage larger cast productions so that more people could participate. More people in the cast also assured more friends and family would come to see the play, which meant more tickets would be sold and more money for the department could be made. The Glass Menagerie only had a cast of four.
We came up with the idea of casting two locals from the community theater group to play the parts of Amanda, the mother; and Jim, the gentleman caller. Using local celebrities would surely take care of ticket sales! But no, that just wasn’t kosher for a high school stage production, so my dreams of playing Tom faded away.
What didn’t fade was my fascination with that play, and my even greater curiosity in the man who wrote it thanks to the afterword about him printed at the end of the script. The play is thought to be a memory of Tennessee’s own real life. In the play Tom becomes a victim of circumstance and is forced to be the breadwinner after his father abandons the family.
Amanda, the mother, longs for the comfort of her youth and is a bit domineering over her children, wanting them to experience a different life despite their current situation. She is living in the past. Laura, the shy and ailing sister, is as fragile as the glass animal figurines she collects. Amanda urges Tom to invite a “gentleman caller” friend over to introduce to Laura, but both Tom and Laura believe that would be devastating to both of them. Laura just wants to be left alone. Tom just wants to escape and experience a different life of his own.
While my mother was certainly nothing like Amanda, and I did not have any siblings still living at home (I was the youngest of three), my father had left us that year. After thirty years of marriage, he stepped out. So I felt just like Tom did. I was pissed at the cards life had dealt. My senior year should have been the best ever. I was dreaming of moving away to college and experiencing something profound and wonderful, but my personal worries about leaving my mother alone overshadowed everything that year. I suddenly felt like I had no control over my fate because of it.
But more about Mr. Williams later. He wasn’t done with me yet, and it would be years before I channeled my resentment toward my father into any of my writing. Instead of going away to college, I opted to live at home and attend the local community college after high school. It was there that my love of southern literature would take root, thanks in part to a young like-minded professor who introduced me to a quirky Alabama author by the name of Flannery O’Connor.