Tennessee Williams ‘blue book’ & poem are discovered

A piece of literary history has returned to the University, thanks to a fortuitous find in a New Orleans bookstore.

The story begins in February 2004, when Henry I. Schvey, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences, directed (with Shelley Orr) the world premiere of Me, Vashya, a one-act play written in 1937 by then-WUSTL student Tennessee Williams, as part of an international symposium on Williams’ early career.

This examinaton
This examinaton “blue book” was used by the legendary Tennes-see Williams during a Greek final at WUSTL in 1937. The blue book was discovered by Henry I. Schvey, Ph.D., professor and director of the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences, in a New Orleans French Quarter bookstore. In addition to translations for his final exam, in the book Williams wrote a 17-line poem titled “Blue Song,” believed to never have been published.

Me, Vashya, which remains unpublished, famously placed fourth in a campus playwriting contest — a bitter disappointment to the young Williams, who stormed into his professor’s office before storming out of St. Louis altogether, expunging the play from his list of works and the University from his 1975 Memoirs.

Yet the reception of Me, Vashya was not the only factor in Williams’ decision to leave school. As biographer Lyle Leverich reports in Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995), the playwright was deeply concerned about an upcoming final examination in Greek. In a May 30, 1937, journal entry, Williams complains of “Blue devils all this morning” and concludes, “Tomorrow Greek final which I will undoubtedly flunk.”

Schvey — visiting New Orleans to present a paper at the 2004 Ten-nessee Williams Scholars’ Conference only weeks after Me, Vashya’s debut — was of course familiar with this background. He was thus perhaps uniquely qualified to recognize the significance of a small blue test booklet he found while perusing a collection of rare Williams-related materials at Faulkner House Books, a prominent French Quarter bookshop.

“I knew instantly what it was,” Schvey said of the booklet. “It was his Greek exam.”

Schvey explains that the booklet, which closely resembles those still used by students today, is plainly labeled as being sold by the “Washington University Stores” and bears the name “Th. Williams” — significant in that Williams did not adopt the nickname “Tennessee” until several years after leaving St. Louis. (Williams’ real first name was Thomas.)

Inside, Schvey found a series of Greek-to-English and English-to-Greek translations, with individual grades ranging from A- to C , C-, D and D.

More startlingly, he also found a 17-line, pencil-written poem.

Still visible is an initial title, “Sad Song,” which Williams lightly erased and replaced with the more contextually appropriate “Blue Song” — a witty double-reference to the author’s mood and medium.

“The poem was presumably written at the time of the examination,” Schvey noted, adding that, as far as he has been able to determine, “Blue Song” has never been published and, indeed, was entirely unknown to Williams’ scholars.

“It is clearly the work of a young man who doesn’t know his next move in life,” Schvey said.

“Williams always felt uprooted in St. Louis, a feeling he describes here in very lyrical terms, in lines like, ‘If you should meet me upon a/street do not question me for/I can tell you only my name/and the name of the town I was/ born in …’

“I found it very moving.”

Schvey quickly alerted Anne Posega, head of Special Collections at the University, to his discovery. Posega in turn arranged for Special Collections, which also houses the Me, Vashya manuscript, to purchase the booklet.

(In an interesting coincidence, Special Collections also recently received a substantial gift of Williams-related publications — including signed first editions, foreign-language editions, critical monographs, biographies, interviews and other materials — from Fred W. Todd, a Williams scholar based in San Antonio.)

Schvey, meanwhile, is thrilled that the blue booklet has returned to campus.

“The booklet is a significant artifact of Williams’ life in St. Louis, while the poem reflects a period of great anxiety and tribulation,” Schvey said.

“Bringing it back to St. Louis and to Washington University — in a way, things have come full circle.”