Two Writers, Two Tales
My first approach for this piece was to write about authors born in the South, such as Truman Capote, who was born in New Orleans and raised in Alabama. But he wrote In Cold Blood and it has none of the themes of southern writing. My second idea was to focus on works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This is definitely about the South. But Mark Twain was born in Missouri.
I also found there’s not even an agreement about what areas of the United States are really southern. For example, many people living in Maryland (north of Washington, DC) do not consider themselves southerners. Okay, but I’m convinced DC is 100% southern. I solved this brainy slugfest by choosing two writers who have written about New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS IS ONE OF THE STARS OF THIS PLAY
If ever a play created an indelible image of a southern city it was A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Set in the sultry French Quarter with four poker players and the tragic Blanche, this play will be with us forever.
I have seen the movie with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh on eight occasions at least, but I’ve read the play even more times. I’m fascinated with it because I believe it’s perfect. The character of Blanche is so well drawn that if you describe someone and say, “Well, you know, she’s like Tennessee’s Blanche,” they know in a second what you’re saying.
I love writing about this play, but first, let’s take a quick look back at New Orleans. In the past, it has gone through the horrors of slavery, widespread city fires, yellow fever outbreaks, destructive hurricanes, massive flooding – and yet, New Orleans survives and thrives.
What’s the secret?
It’s one word: PEOPLE. Strong-minded folks with ambition move here. Tennessee came to New Orleans at age 28 because he felt it would inspire him. And, after a lot of effort and drive his play, The Glass Menagerie, opened on Broadway on March 31, 1945. Two years later Streetcar earned him a Drama Critics’ Award and his first Pulitzer Prize. This made him a famous dramatist (not overnight, that’s for sure). He then went on to create more great works, such as: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that was made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives in 1958.
Tennessee enjoyed an exceptional literary career that began with his birth in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911 and ended with his death in New York at the age of 72. Both of these cities bookended a talent that really came into its own in New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS INSPIRED THIS LITERARY MARVEL
The author of A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole was born and raised in New Orleans. He took an IQ test at an early age and scored so high that he skipped the first grade. In 1954 he earned a full scholarship to Tulane and graduated with honors in 1958. He then attended Columbia and received his Master’s in English a year later. Two years after this he became the youngest professor – ever – at Hunter College. John was on a fast track.
However, when his father’s health began to fail he moved back home and taught at Dominican College to help his parents financially. He worked on A Confederacy of Dunces nonstop and sent it to Simon & Schuster in 1964. They liked the book but said that it required a number of changes and revisions. For two years, no matter how hard he tried no one would publish his novel. He took his own life in 1969.
I have read this book and it’s not an easy read. The novel is picaresque, meaning: it’s a number of episodic adventures sprawling across the seedier or oddball side of New Orleans. Now, for the wrap-up: The Louisiana State University Press published the book with no revisions in 1980. In 1981 it earned the author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has now sold more than 1.5 million copies in 18 languages. AND IT’S ALL ABOUT NEW ORLEANS. YIPPEE!