Writers have been leaning on pseudonyms for centuries; from embodying their craft, like Dr. Seuss, to hiding their gender, like George Sand, countless authors have employed names other than their own in their written works. Southern writers are no strangers to sobriquets; Samuel Clemens’ “Mark Twain,” for example, is perhaps one of the most famous pen names ever employed. Twain is joined in the ranks of Southern pseudonyms by one of our most beloved playwrights, Tennessee Williams. The man behind such classics as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire chose his nom de plume fairly early in his career, but the question as to why, exactly, he threw away his given name has puzzled fans for decades.
Born Thomas Lanier Williams III, “Thomas” turned to “Tennessee” when Williams settled in New Orleans at twenty-eight following his graduation from the University of Iowa. Depending on whom you’re asking, you’re bound to get a different answer as to the motivator of the change. Many believe that Williams’s move to New Orleans symbolized the dawn of a new life; after enduring growing pains as an artist and attending three different universities, Williams finally had his degree and the comfort and accolades that come with being an accomplished playwright. Shaking off the uncomfortable cloak of his formative years, Williams dove headfirst into a new life created entirely by his own hands, leaving his past—and his forename—behind.
Others argue that Williams’s sobriquet was less a departure from his previous life as a disguising of it. Though Williams was known to spend his hours cooped up in his dorm, pecking away at his typewriter, his early works—by his own admission—were works of passion, not art. Perhaps Williams sought to bury his older, inferior work with his given name, to hide it from the eyes of his now numerous fans. Or maybe, like so many authors before him, his name change was an attempt to conceal his age and confuse his critics, muddling his past even further.
Even if Williams himself were to rise from the grave and answer our most pressing questions regarding why he changed his name, we’d still be left with the most curious question of all: why, of all names, did he choose “Tennessee” as his new forename?
This answer too comes from various angles. Some experts claim that Tennessee earned the nickname during one of his numerous college years. In Iowa, they suggest, where the twang of Southerners is often absent, Williams’s signature drawl fathered the distinction. According to legend, a roommate, guffawing at Williams’s tone, dubbed him “Tennessee,” a name to which Williams took fondly and employed later in life. But other sources argue that Williams chose the name “Tennessee” in homage to his ancestors. His father was born in Tennessee and his relatives continued to inhabit the laggard lands of eastern Tennessee.
My favorite impetus for the name, however, lies in the words of Williams himself. When reflecting back on his early years as an artist, like many of us, Williams saw those times as threaded with doubt and discomfort. But his first experience on the stage Williams likened to an awakening, a vision from which he could never retreat, but always draw inspiration: “The laughter . . . enchanted me. Then and there the theatre and I found each other for better and for worse. I know it’s the only thing that saved my life.” That heart-pounding revelation that set the course for Williams’s entire life came to him as he worked on the set of Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! with a summer theater group in Memphis, Tennessee. That definitive moment determined Williams’s future and, perhaps, his very name.
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