St. Pollution: Tennessee Williams's Implacable Hatred toward St. Louis and Washington University

Henry Schvey, Professor of Drama and Comparative Literature, Washington University in St. Louis

It is a shock when most people discover that America’s greatest playwright grew up here in St. Louis and attended Washington University. Because his life and reputation are intertwined with the deep South—through his adopted name “Tennessee”, the rural Mississippi where he was born, and the New Orleans where he found freedom and commemorated in his greatest play, A Streetcar Named Desire—the connection with the Midwest is scarcely noticed. Nevertheless, Williams’s residence from 1918-38 was in St. Louis, and he actually lived here continuously longer than anywhere else. Thus, it is both fitting—and deeply ironic—that he is buried here in St. Louis’ Calvary Cemetery just minutes from the WU campus in the city he abhorred.

This colloquium examines what growing up in St. Louis meant to Williams as a child and throughout his adolescence, why he left Washington University (without a degree), and most important, how the city itself shaped him as an artist and person. Yes, the city became “St. Pollution” for him—but deprived of its influence, Tennessee Williams would have become a very different, arguably lesser, artist.

Reception to follow.