With the kind of rhetorical flourish one might expect, Mary McCarthy remarked that Tennessee Williams' writing "reeks of literary ambition" as much as, during the prolonged visit of sister-in-law Blanche in Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley Kowalski's "apartment reek[ed] of cheap perfume." In her 1948 essay "A Streetcar Called Success," McCarthy complained that it's "impossible to witness one of Mr. Williams' plays without being aware of the pervading smell of careerism."

McCarthy was a fairly adroit careerist in her own right; and her ornery judgment on Williams rings shrill in light of the actual range of the playwright's work. The durability of Williams' plays and their popularity indicate that he was more artist and seer than self-promoting flack. Yet the portrait of the playwright on display in The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Volume I, 1920-1945, edited by Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler (New Directions, 581 pages, $37.00), matches McCarthy's view more frequently than not.

Recently published by New Directions, the collection charts Williams' odyssey from the age of eight, when he was an emotionally needy schoolboy, to 34 when, with The Glass Menagerie, he made good on the vow to "speak truth as I see it...without concealment or evasion and with a fearless, unashamed, frontal assault upon life." In the course of more than 500 pages, the reader observes much that's fascinating about Williams but little that's admirable. He's a freeloader, a prevaricator, a gossip, a suck-up--in fact, a regular Eddie Haskell.

The early letters, addressed to family members and written when the author was still known as Thomas Lanier Williams ("Tom" for short), concern birthday gifts, school reports, and family activities. A few from 1928 describe a European tour that the adolescent Tom took with his maternal grandfather, Rev. Walter E. Dakin. The correspondence continues through Williams' tenure as a student at three universities, his travels around the United States and Mexico, and extended stays in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and New York. Along the way, he becomes a client of legendary agent Audrey Wood and a student in John Gassner's playwriting seminar. He discovers gay colonies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Key West, Florida. He meets and corresponds with such varied figures as Frieda Lawrence (widow of his literary hero, D.H. Lawrence); the leaders of the Group Theatre (including Elia Kazan, who would direct a number of Williams' plays) and the Theatre Guild (which would present his first New York production); regional theater pioneer Margo Jones; stage and lighting designer Jo Mielziner; James "Jay" Laughlin (whose company, New Directions, would be Williams' principal publisher); and writers Christopher Isherwood, Katherine Anne Porter, and William Saroyan. Most important, he transforms himself from plain old Tom to the more exotic Tennessee, whom Gore Vidal dubbed (and still calls) the Glorious Bird.

If The Selected Letters has a motif or unifying theme, it's Williams' whining about money. From the moment he leaves home as a student, Tom is out of pocket, constantly cadging funds from his mother, father, and maternal grandparents and then, later, from his agent and producers. While the letters mention writing from time to time, he concerns himself more with literary contests, foundation grants, and the unending need to retrieve possessions from pawnbrokers. Frequently (very frequently), the letters detail elaborate ploys to deceive those from whom he's trying to get cash or prizes.

The editors of Selected Letters have their hands full in documenting Williams' fibs and inconsistencies. For example, in begging money to replace a pair of eyeglasses, Williams fabricates a story about breaking his spectacles while traveling from New Orleans to Los Angeles; the story's designed to conceal the fact that he lost the glasses in a drunken prowl through the French Quarter. Around the same time, he signs the name "Tennessee" to a packet of scripts he's submitting to a Group Theatre contest for writers under 25. The new name is camouflage: He's afraid of being recognized as the "Thomas L. Williams" whose plays have been produced in St. Louis and who, more significantly, is too old to meet the contest entry requirements. Later, he sets up a complicated mail forwarding arrangement so that the officials of the Rockefeller Foundation will believe he's living in penury in Memphis, rather than staying with his affluent parents in St. Louis.

Discursive writing was never Williams' forte, as also evidenced by the Memoirs published in 1975. And Williams' prose, which works so well in monologues and dramatic dialogue, can be breathless and irritatingly ornate in his essays and stories. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that The Selected Letters contains writing that's undistinguished and, in fact, banal. What's mystifying about the editors' selection is that so much of what is included here makes the writer sound not only petty but downright dull. Of course, it's unfair to expect the prose of routine correspondence, even the letters of a great artist, to rise very often above the level of mere serviceability. Take Keats, for instance, whose letters are a storehouse of serious, insightful comments on literature, including the memorable discussion of artists' "negative capability." Exciting as they are in places, Keats' letters are often stalled in the quotidian--itineraries, gossip, and the like. Williams' Selected Letters lack the high points of Keats' and amount, overall, to a stream of posturing chatter.

Devlin is a professor in the English department at the University of Missouri, one of the three undergraduate schools Williams attended; and Tischler is Professor Emerita of English at Pennsylvania State University. Their annotations, though seemingly earnest, are brief, glancing, and repetitive. Rather than affording readers the convenience of footnotes, the editors provide amorphous little disquisitions on each piece of correspondence, situated in the book's main text after the applicable letter or telegram. What's more annoying than the form of the scholarship is the fact that the editors get a great many details wrong. As a telling example, they identify two institutions--Rhodes (the elite Tennessee college formerly known as Southwestern-at-Memphis) and New York City's New School University (which used to be the New School for Social Research)--by incorrect names and without explanation of their social significance in Williams' life and times. Further, the editors' glosses on important cultural figures are often haphazard. When Williams writes to Walter Damrosch in acknowledgment of a substantial monetary grant, the editors comment that Damrosch was president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters but fail to mention his field (music), his profession (conducting), or anything about his connection to the culture of the day (e.g., his exposure of Williams' generation--and North America in general--to the music of Wagner).

The Selected Letters concludes with Williams receiving the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for The Glass Menagerie and describing to his agent a work in progress, which he plans to call The Moth, The Poker Night, The Primary Colors, or Blanche's Chair in the Moon. That play would premiere two and a half years later under the title A Streetcar Named Desire, ensuring Williams' place in the history of world drama. At this late date, no level headed critic is likely to join Mary McCarthy in disparaging Streetcar as raw careerism; yet no one can close the covers of The Selected Letters without the impression that the young playwright would have used any means at his disposal to get the career of his dreams. What's enlightening about this overlong collection is the glimpse it affords of a young writer with theatrical imagination on a par with Ibsen, Strindberg, and Brecht, sometimes alone in his confidence that he's a genius, blowing his own horn like one of those Southern matrons canvassing desperately for elective office in the D.A.R. in a Tennessee Williams play.

Williams, who died an untimely death in 1983, willed his literary properties to the University of the South at Sewanee, a small, august institution atop a mountain smack-dab in the middle of the region profiled in the playwright's most famous dramas. Sewanee (as the University is widely known) was the alma mater of Williams' beloved grandfather, Walter Dakin. With Gothic Revival buildings modeled on Magdalen College, Oxford, and vast, leafy environs, Sewanee is one of the South's most appealing campuses--and, though less famous than Duke, Vanderbilt, or Tulane, arguably the southern college most dedicated to traditional intellectual pursuits. With Williams' bequest, the University has established an annual workshop for aspiring writers, modeled on Bread Loaf at Middlebury College. The Sewanee Writers' Conference has quickly become the principal southern voice among collegiate writers' conferences.

Apparently, Williams was a pack rat, preserving truckloads of drafts, diaries, and correspondence; so there's much in the way of letters and journals yet to be published. Five years ago, upon the death of the playwright's older sister, Sewanee became sole beneficiary of Williams' literary properties. Each new publication from the playwrights' trunk enhances the University's nest egg, giving the institution a powerful motivation to consent to the issuance of what's not yet been seen. The Selected Letters, Volume I poses the question of how useful what's still unpublished is likely to be in understanding Williams. One thing's certain: The 500-plus pages assembled by Devlin and Tischler shed remarkably little light on the lyrical gifts of the Glorious Bird who rode that "streetcar called success."