As soon as he crossed the border into Italy, Tennessee Williams found his health was “magically restored”. “There was the sun and there were the smiling Italians,” wrote the author of A Streetcar Named Desire in his memoirs. Now a previously unpublished short story by Williams describes his protagonist experiencing similar feelings – although the Italians do not feel quite so warmly towards him.
Published for the first time this week in the Strand Magazine, Williams’ 1952 story The Summer Woman was found in his archives at Harvard University’s Houghton Library . It follows an American academic who visits Rome each summer to continue his relationship with a woman he first met when she was working the streets. But as the years pass after the end of the second world war, he finds hostility towards Americans growing.
“It had seemed to him each summer that the hard, gentle faces of workmen along the tracks were each time just a little bit harder than the time before and a little less gentle,” he thinks as he travels to Rome by train. “But this time was the first time that, now and then, from an occasional group, a voice was lifted at the passing coaches in a tone that could not be mistaken as friendly.”
Williams’ protagonist hears calls of “coco”, which “stood for the so-called coccobacillus that his countrymen were charged with having used as a weapon of war in Korea”, and sees the words “Go Home, Yanks!” graffitied on walls. “It would be better, yes, perhaps it would be more sensible not even to leave the station but turn on his frightened heels and take the next train north, go back to Paris, away from this white sky quivering with heat and these lost people who had hoped for something and been disappointed again as always before,” he thinks.
Andrew Gulli, managing editor of the Strand, said he had “no idea why Williams didn’t publish such a fine piece … This is one of the many literary mysteries that has had me scratching my head.”
While Williams as a playwright “conjures up a bygone American south, replete with grizzled patriarchs, well-worn suspenders, faded belles, decaying mansions, cynicism for southern grandeur and lots of empty glasses of bourbon,” said Gulli, The Summer Woman “represent[s] his versatility and courage to step out of his comfort zone.
“With a few broad strokes, Williams evokes the beauty of the country and the genuine friendliness of its people, while masterfully drawing clear parallels between the American protagonist’s seasonal relationship with an Italian prostitute and US entanglements overseas – both rife with conflict, resentment and disillusionment,” added Gulli.
Williams also explored Italy and its people in the play The Rose Tattoo, about the newly widowed Serafina, a Sicilian immigrant, and in the novel The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, about an ageing American beauty who moves to Rome. His partner Frank Merlo was of Sicilian descent. Robert Bray, founding director of the Tennessee Williams Annual Review, told the Associated Press that Williams was “enamoured of the sexuality exuded by young Italian men and the easier relationship between men than back at home in the more constrained US”.
• This article was amended on 16 September 2021. An earlier version erroneously said the manuscript for The Summer Woman was found in Yale’s Beinecke library.