August 13, 1950
A Writer's Quest For a Parnassus
By TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
ome -- Among the
many misapprehensions held about writers is the idea that they follow a
peaceful profession, an idea that derives from the fact that most
writers have a sedentary appearance and that most writing is done in a
more or less stationary position, usually seated in a chair at a table.
But writing is actually a violent activity. It is actually more violent
than any other profession that I can think of, including that of the
professional wrestler. And writers, when they are not writing, must find
some outer violence that is equivalent, or nearly, to the inner one they
are used to. They find it difficult to remain long in one place, for
writing books and taking voyages are corresponding gestures.
If the writer is truly a writer and not someone who has adopted the
vocation as a convenient social pose to excuse his predilection for
various kinds of waywardness, his first concern, when he goes traveling,
will be to discover that magic place of all places where the work goes
better than it has gone before, the way that a gasoline motor picks up
when you switch it from regular to high octane. For one of the
mysterious things about writing is the extreme susceptibility it shows
to the influence of places. Almost every writer has a certain place that
he associates, perhaps through mere superstition, with his periods of
greatest fertility. But sooner or later this particular place will be
exhausted for him and he must find another.
Often this quest will take him out of America. Often it will take him
back to America if he has left there. The interval of seeking may be a
long one. It may be six months or a year, or the years may be several,
but eventually he will find the new place that looks and feels and
smells mysteriously like home, and then he will turn around two or three
times in his tracks, the way a dog does, sniffing the air in all
directions before he sets himself down for the period of outer oblivion
and inner violence that his work demands of him.
British and American writers are more inclined to travel than others.
I think the British travel to get out of the rain, but the American
artist travels for a more particular reason, and for one that I hesitate
to mention lest I be summoned before some investigating committee in
Congress. Putting that hesitation at least partially aside, let me
venture the suggestion that America is no longer a terribly romantic
part of the world, and that writers, all except, possibly, Upton
Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, are essentially romantic spirits - or they
would not be writing.
Now there are only two cities left in America with a romantic appeal,
however vestigial, and they are, of course, New Orleans and San
Francisco. Our industrial dynamism has dispelled whatever magic the
other great cities may once have possessed. Occasionally an artist may
attempt to create a poetic synthesis out of this very dynamism of ours.
Hart Crane attempted it, and, in my opinion, he succeeded in it. But one
may take warning from the fact that, in spite of his achievement, he
jumped off a boat returning to New York from a romantic retreat into
Among writers' places there has always been Paris. If you remember
the early histories of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Westcott, Stein and so on,
you may well have the impression that Paris offers great stimulation to
the expatriate American writers. Well, it no longer does. Paris itself
has not changed, it is still the most spacious and elegant capital of
the world, and there is now a definite upswing of creative activity
among the native French: Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, for
instance. But the effect on young Americans who go there, ostensibly, to
write their first books, is one that appears to be vitiating.
You find these new expatriate writers mostly about the Left Bank
district known as St. Germain-des-Pres, sitting on the sidewalk in front
of the Caf? de Flore or the Deux Maggots or the Reine Blanche, according
to their degree of Bohemianism. And they sit there, literally, from dusk
until dawn. At daybreak they disappear with each other into shabby
little hotels. They go to bed drunk and they wake up hung over and
usually in the company of someone they barely remember meeting who looks
much worse in the light of noon than in the blur of an alcoholic dawn.
It is mid-afternoon before the company has departed and the typewriter
hauled from under the bed. The typewriter, of course, needs repairing.
The machine is heavy and the repair shop is far, and presently the whole
idea is abandoned and they have repaired, themselves, to the sidewalk
The troublesome question, and the one I find it impossible to answer
to my own satisfaction, is whether or not these rootless young people
would be better off had they remained in America. Obviously they found
something lacking at home, and surely they find something in Paris
besides the shopworn sophistication of their caf? circuit. But, whatever
it is that they find, it is not a healthy, sustaining center about which
their young personalities can form. I did not realize this so keenly
when I first knew them in the summer of 1948, but when I came back a
year later, and then another year later, and found the same boys and
girls sitting on the same sidewalks, circulating among the same
changeless cafes, the attritions that they had undergone became starkly
With little effort at cohesion, let's turn sharply south. In Rome
there is only one street where people make a social practice of sitting
on the sidewalk. That is Via Veneto. It seems, at times, to be given
over almost entirely to Americans and street-walkers and boys picking up
discarded cigarette-butts. But it's a beautiful street. It winds like an
old river among the great hotels and the American Embassy and the
fashionable places for Americans to sit in the sun. To some Americans
the sun of Rome is stupefying. To others it is merely tranquilizing. To
both it is an escape from the feverish, high-pitched atmosphere of a
typical urban society.
To me Rome is far more beautiful than Paris. It is not a night city.
In Rome there are only two resorts where an American can sit up drinking
all night, and I mention that fact because it is entirely relevant. It
is what so many Americans seem to want to do in Europe. The two places
where they can do it, in Rome, are the Jicky Club and the Caffe Notturno.
Most of then go to the Jicky Club, which is on Via Veneto, because it is
more like our own American night-spots. The Caffe Notturno is quite
another thing. It is where procurers and their ladies get together,
about 2 or 3 in the morning to exchange their gossip of the Rialto.
Before I came to Rome I was concerned about the change I feared that
the Holy Year might have produced in my favorite city of the world. But
in Rome you will find no S.R.O. sign. We came down by way of the Italian
Alps and on the road we passed only one set of holy pilgrims. It was a
cavalcade of motorcyclists from Holland, and it was headed by a young
priest in his clerical garments. No doubt it was the strangest crossing
of the Alps since Hannibal and his elephants. I had never before seen a
priest on a motorcycle and I must admit that he rode it with dignity and
assurance and the look he gave us, as we whizzed past him, was one of
Rome is actually less crowded than it was last summer. The Vatican
has built a lot of new buildings especially for the housing of pilgrims,
and that's where they seem to stay. You don't see them in the best
restaurants or the interesting worldly places. Since I like to eat well
and do not visit churches, I have not seen many of the pilgrims except
on the road to Rome.
Rome and Italy cannot be all things to all people, but to me it is
the place where I find the sun not only in the sky, where Italy also
keeps it, but in the heart of the people. Before I cane here for the
first time, in the winter of 1948 - with the fatigue of years suddenly
fallen upon me - I had begun to think that a smile was something that
people performed by a muscular contraction at the corners of their
mouths. In a short while I found out that a smile can be something that
happens between the heart and the eyes, and that the muscular spasm
about the mouth may be only the shadow of it.
Rome spells peace, which is what I want above all. But it spells it
without isolation, which I don't want. I want to have peace in the
middle of many people, and here I find it. And I can work here. That's
If it is not your city - perhaps you'd like Venice. I could not go to
Venice, now, without hearing the haunted cadences of Hemingway's new
novel. It is the saddest novel in the world about the saddest city, and
when I say I think it is the best and most honest work that Hemingway
has done, you may think me crazy. It will probably be a popular book.
The critics may treat it pretty roughly. But its hauntingly tired
cadences are the direct speech of a man's heart who is speaking that
directly for the first time, and that makes it, for me, the finest thing
Hemingway has done. But the city is sad, to me, as the memory of the
deepest loss I could suffer. It seems to be built, the very gray stones
of it and the green-gray water, out of a loss that is almost too bitter
to still have poetry in it.
Perhaps you might find the Italian islands to be your place to write.
You could go to Capri but it is too much of a picture postcard for my
taste and it is the only place I know where the human male manages to
out-dress the female. Ischia has equally fine bathing at more accessible
beaches and the vacationers do not put on such highfalutin airs and
outrageous plumage! W.H. Auden lives there, and if you're an American or
British writer, you may have to apply to him for your visa.
I have not yet been to Sicily this year. Truman Capote has unfurled
his Bronzini scarf above the fashionable resort of Taormina. He is
supposedly in D.H. Lawrence's old house. Also there, I am told, is Andr?
Gide and the young American writer Donald Windham, whose new novel, "The
Dog Star," contains the most sensitive new writing since Carson
McCullers emerged ten years ago.
Regardless of where you may go in Europe this summer of 1950, you
will find that places have a sadness under the surface. Everywhere the
people seem to be waiting for the next cataclysm to strike them. They
are not panicky, perhaps not even frightened, but they are waiting for
it to happen with a feeling of fatality which you cannot help sensing
unless you stay drunk the whole time or keep your nose in museums.
Nevertheless, the people want to survive, they want to keep on living
through it, whatever it may be. Their history has made them wiser than
Americans. It has also made them more tolerant, more patient and
considerably more human as well as a great deal sadder.
If these comments make me seem the opposite of a chauvinist, it is
because of my honest feeling, after three years of foreign travel, that
human brotherhood that stops at borders is not only delusive and foolish
but enormously evil. The Marshall Plan must be translated, now, and
amended, into spirit, if the dreaded thing that the Western World is
waiting for can still be averted.
Tennessee Williams is one of American's outstanding playwrights.
His "A Streetcar Named Desire" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.