Reading the 40 years’ worth of letters between Tennessee Williams and his publisher and confidante James Laughlin that has been collected in The Luck of Friendship, one cannot help but wonder how much of the present-day literary legacy is no longer being preserved in our age of ephemeral emails and tweets. It is a pity, because correspondence such as the one collected here can open a rare window to the day-to-day lives of the writers we admire, reminding us that they are human and subject to the same quotidian concerns and larger fears that we all face. This benefit may be particularly true with someone like Williams—who retains a larger-than-life reputation for being a troubled artist, and whose personal angst certainly plays out before us on the stage in his great dramas, but who, as these letters show, had a charming wit, a keen mind and an endearing lust for life.
Williams and Laughlin, the founder of New Directions publishing, met when they were young men, just starting their literary careers in New York. While Williams is remembered as one of our greatest playwrights and Laughlin as a visionary publisher, in those early years the two young men saw themselves first and foremost as poets. They were very different—gay and straight, Southerner and Yankee, struggling artist and wealthy heir—but formed a bond over their shared love for experimental, forward-thinking writing. Laughlin agreed to publish Williams’ work. With the exception of The Glass Menagerie—which Bennett Cerf of Random House laid claim to based on a $100 advance he had paid in 1940 as an option on Williams’ future work—all of Williams’ output would come from New Directions.
The majority of the letters gathered here are from Williams’ pen, but co-editor Peggy L. Fox, Laughlin’s longtime right hand at New Directions, fills in the gaps with interviews she conducted with her boss before his death. The story the volume tells is one of artistic perseverance, loyalty and trust, painting a portrait of a friendship that was less intimate than wholly engaged. Clearly, Laughlin’s support was one of the keys to Williams’ success and survival through both good times and bad.
It is not surprising that Williams’ letters in particular, though written informally and most likely with little thought of posterity, occasionally sing with the sweet song that elevates his best plays to greatness. “So much of the time writing is like digging for water in a desert,” he writes in 1944, not long before The Glass Menagerie launched his career. “It is wonderfully gratifying when there is a spring and someone offers you a cup to catch it.” As The Luck of Friendship reveals, James Laughlin was the bearer of such a cup.