By all accounts she was a difficult human being, a talented writer, a self-described “holy terror,” and in appearance both adolescent and a gargoyle. I prefer not to focus on the negative aspects of her character, because I think there is much to admire in her as a writer. Carson McCullers achieved literary success with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1940 at the young age of twenty-three. More novels would follow: Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), The Member of the Wedding (1946) and Clock Without Hands (1961). McCullers died in 1967 at the age of fifty. She would also a write a play, a book of poems, and leave behind an unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare that was published in 1999. Suzanne Vega would do a play in 2011 about Carson McCullers, “Carson McCullers Talks About Love.” Thanks to Kate at Goodreads for letting me know about this play and for the link to Suzanne Vega’s interview.
Readers have compared McCullers to fellow Georgian Flannery O’Connor, and then to other southerners, Harper Lee and Truman Capote, for that quality called “Southern Gothic.” True, Connor and McCullers dealt with “grotesques” this side of Diane Arbus’s camera, and it is true that both writers had eccentric imaginations, but it does McCullers an injustice to say that she is a dark and depressing writer. I will explain in a moment. Another writer that McCullers is compared to is Sherwood Anderson because they painted literary portraits of small-town America, its claustrophobia and inertia, which stood in stark contrast to Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic paintings.
Much has been written about the themes of existential alienation and loneliness in her work; too little on the author’s compassion. Flannery O’Connor, for all her talent, judges her creations. She would not have created a Gregor Samsa, for example, without flipping the beetle onto its back and watching the legs flail the air. O’Connor’s portraits always suggest moral judgment. O’Connor finds white trash in the doctor’s office and by the side of the road. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers may depict the down-and-out denizens of our world, but she does not mock them, nor have us laugh at them. I am not all that sure that they disturb us. O’Connor is disquieting. McCullers’s characters are brought in for close-ups, to speak for themselves, so we see their humanity and struggles. If there is any perversity, it is more ironic.
John Singer, for example, is a deaf-mute, but this is the one person whom all the other characters in Lonely Hunter find wise, comforting, if not magical, although he can’t hear, speak, or sing. Singer seems to understand so much and yet he can’t convey his own pain. The beauty of McCullers’s creations is that they have every reason to hate, be violent, and they choose not to. Singer is a caretaker, a giver and not a taker. This is love; this is compassion in action. When his best friend, also a deaf-mute, is committed to an insane asylum, he offers to look after the town drunk, Jake Blount; and it is the drunk who lashes out at racism by making others laugh at the racist. When Blount says, “I’m a stranger in a strange land,” McCullers not only invokes Oedipus and T.S. Eliot, but shows the reader that the Good Samaritan and the unknown Christ walk Main Street on the road to Emmaus.
Much has been written about McCuller’s tumultuous personal life, little about how the obstacles she overcame might have given her compassion. Yes, her troubled marriage and her husband’s PTSD and suicide provided material for Ballad of the Sad Café. Yes, she was needy and clingy and she did live off the generosity of friends. Yes, she thought herself a better writer than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. Yes, she probably could drink Don Draper and Roger Sterling under the table. Yes, she was a hunter of hearts, notorious for her numerous affairs with both men and women. If she is to be criticized unfairly as a female enfant terrible, Peter Pan incarnate, then readers ought to look at the company she kept: the narcissistic and self-destructive Truman Capote and her personal friend and mentor Tennessee Williams. McCullers, however, is a writer of the human heart, of empathy born from experience. McCuller drew inspiration from adversity. Her health issues alone make me wonder how she found time to write at all.
She had hoped to pursue a career in music, but rheumatic fever, misdiagnosed and mistreated, when she was 17, derailed any plans of attending the Julliard School of Music – and readers should know that rheumatic fever damages the heart’s valves and rhythm. Around the time Lonely Hunter was published, McCullers had already suffered a series of strokes. McCullers endured endless illnesses: pernicious anemia, influenza, strep throat, pleurisy, double pneumonia and more strokes. She was in a wheelchair by 1931. In her last years she was bedridden and unable to lift a pen and had to dictate her writing. In this 1956 interview, she never moves her left arm or uses her left hand because she was already paralyzed on the left side of her body. She would have numerous surgeries on that arm. In his autobiography An Open Book (1967), John Huston wrote: “I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine. It wasn’t palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger.”
Carson McCullers the novelist took chances with her themes. I admire her for it and it is why she remains one of my favorite writers. Each chapter of Lonely Hunter begins from a character’s point of view; it’s not the only risk McCullers took, though. Her Mick Kelly anticipates Harper Lee’s Scout. I find a physical resemblance between McCullers and Mary Badham, who portrayed Scout in the movie To Kill A Mockingbird. Unlike Scout, however, Mick has sex, initiates it with the Jewish boy Harry Minowitz – all of which had to have been scandalous in 1940. The depiction of sex is worth quoting, for it shows McCullers’s poetic ability and dissociative behavior around sex.
It was like her head was broke off from her body and thrown away. And her eyes looked up straight into the blinding sun while she counted something in her mind. And then this was the way. This was how it was.
McCullers is a writer of reversals. Harry is the emotional one after their lovemaking. Mick concludes their affair with a handshake. She wonders whether others will sense “the change” in her; they don’t. In another reversal of stereotypes, café owner Biff Brannon, repeatedly described as masculine earlier in the novel, becomes increasingly feminine after his wife’s death. He wears his late wife’s Agua Florida perfume, sews, and shows maternal affection to Baby, another character in the novel. He reminds me of Henry James’s John Marcher, who realizes just how much he loved May Bartram, only after she is gone. Biff has sexual feelings for Mick (she is 14), but here is the thing: McCullers does not judge him effeminate or perverted, nor do any of the other characters. Biff does not lust for Lolita, or act out his feelings; he knows propriety. He may be depressed, but he knows that he is alive.
All the characters in Hunter are trying to live lives of quiet dignity. McCullers, for all her shortcomings in real life, understood, if not craved, empathy. Writers famous before the age of thirty risk writing what they know, or about their preoccupations; the effect is often a limited understanding of life, all glitz and superficial. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero come to mind; but there are always exceptions, like Sense and Sensibility and Frankenstein. Austen and Shelley, respectively, were both 19 when they wrote these novels.
Socialism appears in Lonely Hunter and Harry hates Fascism. He later states that he fears the fascist within him, which always reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s poetry. The first instance of race is subtle; it is the glee in which “the Greek” enjoys seeing the black chess pieces defeated. The black king’s death thrills him. Dr. Copeland, the idealistic older black doctor, has driven away his family with his activism. That McCullers has him suggest that the world would understand injustice if people marched on Washington eerily anticipates Dr. King’s famous march; but this is not the only example of McCullers’s “predicting” the future; Mick Kelly fantasizes about a portable music device so people can walk about with music piped into their ears.
McCullers shows that some people recover and some do not from life’s events. Terrible things happen in her works. It has been said that McCullers wrote herself into the story as Mick Kelly. Here is a young woman, a dreamer, who vividly hears the music in the world, wishes for all people to hear what she hears. She likes “to prom” and “to spiel” (the usage of nouns as verbs intrigued me). She gives up a dream to help her family. She is not bitter about it.
McCullers played the piano and it shows in her writing. In playing the instrument, the left hand keeps time while the right plays the melody. Part I of Lonely Hunter may seem more bass, slow-going to some readers, more foundation, but trust McCullers’s tempo. She knew how to browse the keyboard without looking down at it or up at the sheet; she knew the geography of the heart, and if there is any “message” to the novel it is that the heart dies without love.
PS: Do see the 1968 film version of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (1968), with Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke. Arkin as Singer is simply stunning.