08/15/2014 08:08 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2014

Tennessee Williams's Diary Reveals Story Behind His Pen Name

Tennessee Williams is arguably America's greatest playwright. In the course of his career, he created numerous iconic characters -- Amanda, Laura, Tom, Blanche, Stanley, Stella, Brick, Big Daddy, Maggie -- whom, if they walked into a room, many of us would recognize. Over a seventeen year span, Williams won four Drama Critics' Circle Awards, three Donaldson Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and one Tony Award, and the film adaption of his plays gathered eight Academy Awards. Today his plays are constantly being performed, still winning awards, and if that is not enough, filmmakers, such as Woody Allen, are inspired to adjust them to the 21st century as he did with Blue Jasmine, his update of A Streetcar Named Desire. While Williams committed to writing early, exclusively, and with great discipline, his success came neither quickly nor easily. There were long stretches when many of us would have turned back.

Williams's interest in writing appeared early. At age nine, he wrote sketches for his sister Rose about the "WIDO R. L. Williams who married for the tenth time"; in high school his work was published in student magazines; and he was even paid $35 for a short story accepted in Weird Tales, "The Vengeance of Nitocris," about an Egyptian queen's revenge of her brother's murder. It began, "Hushed were the streets of many peopled Thebes." Over the next ten years (1928-38), however, Williams would only have two stories published, and it was not for lack of submissions.

In 1929 Williams entered the University of Missouri with the intention of majoring in journalism. After three years of mediocre grades and a failing grade for the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, Williams's father refused to pay his tuition for his final year and instead made his son take a job as a menial clerk at the International Shoe Company where he worked. It would be more than three years before Williams could return to college. During this interim Williams typed out orders, dusted off shoes, and delivered cases of samples. Despite a full day at work, he, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, persevered with his writing. "When I came home from work I would tank up on black coffee so I could remain awake most of the night, writing short stories which I could not sell." In my research as editor of Williams's Notebooks (YUP), I found 22 unpublished stories which, I believe, date to this three year period. They were signed by Tom Williams and had been paper-clipped, folded, mailed, rejected, and returned. Now only the ghost of a paper clip and an occasional brief rejection note survive and mark that stretch of disappointment.

Williams began keeping a journal in 1936 at age 25. One senses that it served as much as a form of comfort as a place of confession. He later wrote that keeping a journal gave him "reassurances that shock, defeats, disappointments are all snowed under by the pages and pages of new experience." In the early years of his journal, his fierce commitment to writing is evidenced by the assessments he makes: Crane -- "the biggest of them all"; Chekhov -- "above all the prose writers"; Faulkner -- "by distortion, by outrageous exaggeration he seems to get an effect closer to reality." Williams read and studied the Pulitzer Prize winners, and he was always on the lookout for writing contests.

In 1939, he came across one sponsored by the Group Theatre for writers under 25. The only problem was Thomas Lanier Williams was 28 years old. For an ambitious writer with an imagination, such an obstacle was easily overcome. He adjusted his date of birth by three years, changed his name to Tennessee, and gave his grandparents' residence in Memphis as the return address. For all of his efforts at subterfuge, Williams didn't place in the contest, but he did receive a special prize for three of the four one acts he submitted. From that point on he was forever Tennessee. After receiving this special award Williams wrote in his journal:

"My next play will be simple, direct and terrible -- a picture of my own heart -- there will be no artifice in it -- I will speak truth as I see it -- distort as I see distortion -- be wild as I am wild -- tender as I am tender -- mad as I am mad -- passionate as I am passionate -- It will be myself without concealment or evasion and with a fearless unashamed frontal assault upon life that will leave no room for trepidation."

And he began to search for the courage such confessional writing would demand.

Even after he had received this special recognition and had caught the attention of the prominent literary agent Audrey Wood, his path was still not cleared. During the autumn of 1939, Williams began working on Battle of Angels, a play about "a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop." A year later the play was produced in Boston by the Theatre Guild and was marred by technical difficulties and, more importantly, met with a disapproving Boston audience and closed after two weeks. Williams went back to his hotel and for consolation opened his Collected Poems of Hart Crane, a book he would carry around with him for most of his life, recording his various addresses in the flyleaf pages. At the end of 1940, at age 29, with over a decade of writing behind him, Williams had little to show -- special recognition from a contest he had not won and one failed play. He would have to wait four more years for success.

When the Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, "When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished," he couldn't have been thinking of Willliams. It could be argued that Williams gave new life to his family and to his sister Rose, in particular. Rose was 16 months older and in 1937, at age 18, was diagnosed with dementia praecox, an early term for schizophrenia. Rose became her brother's muse and is the model for a main character in five of his major plays and in at least a dozen lesser works. Three months after Rose underwent a prefrontal lobotomy in January 1943, Williams began the play, The Gentleman Caller, and he drew on material that reached back as far as 1937. He wrote a number of endings for the play that would emerge as The Glass Menagerie, including a happy one that concluded with "almost a regiment of young soldiers" approaching.

The rest, as they say, is history, but one wonders what would have happened had not Thomas Lanier Williams lied about his age. He would have never entered the Group Theatre Contest, and he might never have met Audrey Wood. It is my belief, however, that Williams would have proved an exception to what another writer, Paul Bowles, observed: "Things don't happen, it depends on who comes along." Williams's talent was so huge and his discipline so strong that he would have found another way -- and no telling what he would have called himself.

Margaret Bradham Thornton is the author of Charleston [Ecco, $25.99].