Study Guide

Tennessee Williams Childhood

Childhood

Thomas Lanier Williams was born on March 26th, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. The Williams family consisted of: 

  • Cornelius Coffin Williams: Patriarch. A brooding, aggressive shoe salesman. Travelled frequently. Couldn't have been thrilled by his middle name. 
  • Edwina Dakin Williams: Matriarch. The daughter of a genteel Southern family. Probably not thrilled by either her first or middle names. 
  • Rose: Sister. Probably fine with her name. 

When he was five years old, the boringly-named Thomas contracted diphtheria. Though he skirted death, it left his legs paralyzed for nearly two years. Even worse? Her son's brush with death convinced Edwina to never let the boy out of her sight. 

Edwina: the OG helicopter mom. 

In 1918, the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and a year later their third and final child, a son named Dakin, was born. 

We guess all the good names were already...dakin.

While his brother was busy trying to figure out a marginally cool nickname for Dakin, Thomas was honing his knack for story-telling. He spent much of his time clacking away on the typewriter his mother gave him, rather than playing outside with the other boys. This enraged his father, who teased his son mercilessly for his effeminate qualities and called him "Miss Nancy." 

And we thought Dakin was a bad name...

Undeterred, Williams published his first work in 1927, winning third place in an essay contest sponsored by Smart Set magazine. The essay, titled "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?" was written from the point of view of a woman, which further infuriated his ultra-macho dad. 

In 1929, Williams enrolled at the University of Missouri. He was a poor student but an enthusiastic member of the school's social scene. He joined a fraternity where he was nicknamed "Tennessee" for his thick Southern drawl. 

Way to go, Tennessee. One of two normal names in the family, and you throw it away. 

In 1931, before he had earned a degree, Williams's father demanded that he withdraw from school. Why Cornelius forced his son to drop out is unclear—some accounts say it was because Tennessee was flunking, others because he disapproved of Williams's girlfriend at the time. Whatever the case, he found his son a job with his employer, the International Shoe Company. Later in life Williams liked to joke about how he had risen from "shoe biz to show biz."

Yeesh. Stick to writing plays, pal. 

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