Carson McCullers (1917 - 1967) was one of the most important American writers of the 20th Century. Her novels, plays and short stories of the southern USA described a consistent world of loneliness and despair; her writing was always sympathetic to pain and suffering, to outsiders and those society considers second-class citizens or freaks.
Her personal life also was a hard struggle, against illness that plagued her all her life. She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917. When 15, she suffered from rheumatic fever, which has a lasting ill effect on her health. After finishing high school, she moved to New York City and took creative writing courses at Columbia University.
Her first published story was "Wunderkind" in Story in 1936. The following year, aged 20, she married the 24-year-old James Reeves McCullers, Jr, and moved with him to Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1941 she was stricken with impaired vision, headaches and partial paralysis, and later that year was hit by pleurisy, strep throat, and double pneumonia. In 1942 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, but ill-health prevented her travelling.
She continued to write and suffer serious illnesses: nervous attacks and strokes, leading to paralysis and suicide attempts. In 1950 her play The Member of the Wedding opened on Broadway, and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for the best play of the season. Her husband killed himself in 1951 in a Paris hotel, after trying to persuade her into a double suicide pact.
In subsequent years she worked with Tennessee Williams on further dramatic adaptations of her work. By 1962, she was largely confined to a wheelchair. In 1967 she had her final stroke and after 47 days of unconsciousness, she died on September 29, 1967. She was buried 4 days later in Oak Hill Cemetary, by the Hudson River.
Her first novel
, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
, was published in 1940
when she was 23 years old. The novel was highly praised by critic
s and she was acclaimed as a prodigy. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
is based around a deaf mute
, Singer, and the people around him. Although he cannot hear them, all the other characters believe that Singer alone understands them. The novel is also noteworthy, as is all of her work, for its representation of black
characters and life, which was praised at the time by Richard Wright
, author of Native Son
. But mainly, it is extraordinary for McCullers's understanding of loneliness and despair, and her ability to do that which seems paradoxical: to communicate loneliness
to the reader
Her main influences must include Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio; McCullers describes a similar realm of small-town isolation and despair. Another major guiding vision was William Faulkner's stark characterization of the American South as a place of physical freaks and emotional deformity, notably The Sound and the Fury. And Fyodor Dostoyevsky's existential vision of personal responsibility and isolation, Eugene O'Neill's tragic dramas, Ernest Hemingway's bleak short stories and Edgar Allan Poe's tales of the grotesque also have a hand on her style and subject matter.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was followed by her second novel Reflections in a Golden Eye, a tale of love leading to destruction around an army post in the southern USA. This novel is full of emotional deformity and physical illness, the tale of a loveless marriage, voyeurism, lust and violence. The Member of a Wedding is a tale of one summer in the life of a teenage boy, Frankie Addams. McCullers looks back to her own childhood in Georgia with hatred and contempt, for another tale of grotesquerie, misplaced love and suffering; the novel is generally held by critics as among her best work.
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1951)is one of her most famous works, later made into a film by Simon Callow, starring Vanessa Redgrave (Amelia), Keith Carradine (Macy) and Cork Hubbert (Lymon). This strange, mythic novella is centred around another abnormal figure, the hunchback Cousin Lymon. It tells of Miss Amelia, who opens up a bar in a desolate and lonely town under the influence of her love for Lymon. However, the return of her first husband Marvin Macy leads to tragedy, and the town rots back to its former sad state.
Clock Without Hands was her last novel. It presents a balanced view of race relations in the southern USA, looking at both sides, white and black. She pronounces, "Death is always the same, but each man dies in his own way", and her main character J.T. Malone is dying of leukemia, drawing on McCullers's own history of illnesses.
The plot largely revolves around the dispute between Judge Clane and his grandson Jester. Jester detests the racism of his father, who is consumed with crazy plans for redeeming the old Confederate currency that ceased to be legal tender after the South's defeat in the Civil War. Jester befriends Sherman Pew, a black teenager. Pew is a fascinating character, an authentic teenage rebel, a dreamer who imagines himself becoming a hero of the civil rights struggle.
Clock Without Hands received a largely hostile critical reception, due partly to problems with its structure: the twin plots do not integrate properly. Nonetheless, it offers a wonderful range of characters, with Sherman Pew outstanding, and gains poignancy from the knowledge of McCuller's own illness and coming death.
She also wrote numerous short stories and poems, including a book of children's poems Sweet as a Pickle, Clean as a Pig. Many of these are collected in The Mortgaged Heart, edited by her sister Marguerita Smith and published four years after McCullers's death.
Carson McCullers played an important role in shaping the literary landscape of the American South. She shares a similar terrain of emotional extremes with Flannery O'Connor
; however O'Connor's vision is based in religious judgment
rather than humanist sympathy
. Perhaps because of O'Connor's greater extremism and strangeness, she is more highly esteemed in academic circles than McCullers.
McCullers has been an influence on a wide range of more recent writers. The Florida-based writer Harry Crews has her interest in, and sympathy for, the grotesque, but pushes it to more humorous extremes. Other writers of the South, from Cormac McCarthy to Barry Gifford share aspects of her vision.
Like Flannery O'Connor, McCullers is best known for her interest in the grotesque, that is in that which seen as deformed or degenerate and possibly even frightening or horrific, and this may appear offputting to those who find the idea of the freak as prophet to be patronising or offensive. But her greatest strength is not in describing the alien, but in presenting the familiar. Her work offers a wonderfully sad yet heartfelt view of human frailty and pain, of hopes and fears with which the reader can identify and learn from.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940.
Reflections in a Golden Eye. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941.
The Member of the Wedding. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
The Member of the Wedding. (Play.) New York: New Directions, 1951.
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951.
The Square Root of Wonderful. (Play.) New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.
Clock Without Hands. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.
Sweet as a Pickle, Clean as a Pig. (Poems.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964.
The Mortgaged Heart. Edited by Margarita Smith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.
Articles and Stories
"Art and Mr. Mahoney" Mademoiselle, 28 (February 1949), 120, 184-86.
"Author's Note" New York Times Book Review, 66:24 (June 11, 1961), 4.
"The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" Harper's Bazaar, 77 (August 1943), 72-75, 140-61.
"Books I Remember" Harper's Bazaar, 75 (April 1941), 82, 122, 125.
"Brooklyn Is My Neighborhood" Vogue, 97 (March 1941), 62-63, 138.
"A Child's View of Christmas" Redbook, (December 1961), 31-34, 99-100.
"Correspondence" The New Yorker, 42 (February 7, 1942), 36-39.
"The Dark Brilliance of Edward Albee" Harper's Bazaar, January 1963, 98-99.
"The Devil's Idlers" a review of Commend the Devil by Howard Coxe. Saturday Review, 23 (March 15, 1941), 15.
"The Discovery of Christmas" Mademoiselle, 38 (December 1953), 54-55, 118-20.
"A Domestic Dilemma" New York Post Magazine Section, September 16, 1951, pp. 10ff.
"The Flowering Dream: Notes of Writing" Esquire, 52 (December 1959), 162-64.
"The Haunted Boy" Botteghe Oscure, 16 (1955), 264-78: Mademoiselle, 42 (November 1955), 134-35, 152,-59.
"Home for Christmas" Mademoiselle, 30 (December 1949), 53, 129-32.
"A Hospital Christmas Eve" McCalls, 95 (December 1967), 96-97.
"How I Began to Write" Mademoiselle, 27 (September 1948), 256-57.
"Isak Dinesen: In Praise of Radience" Saturday Review, 46 (March 16, 1963), 29, 83.
"The Jockey" The New Yorker, 17 (August 23, 1941), 15-16.
"Loneliness, an American Malady" This Week Magazine, New York Herald Tribune, December 19, 1949, 18-19.
"Look Homeward, Americans" Vogue, 96 (December 1, 1940), 74-75.
"Love's Not Time's Fool" (signed by "A War Wife"). Mademoiselle, 16 (April 1943), 95, 166-68.
"Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland" The New Yorker, 17 (December 20, 1941), 15-18.
"The March" Redbook, 128 (March 1967), 69, 114-23.
"The Member of the Wedding" (Part I), Harper's Bazaar, 80 (January 1946), 94-96, 101, 128-38, 144-48.
"Mick" Literary Cavalcade, 10 (February 1957), 16-22, 32.
"Night Watch Over Freedom" Vogue, 97 (January 1, 1941), 29.
"A Note from the Author" The Saturday Evening Post, September 28, 1963. 69.
"Our Heads Are Bowed" Mademoiselle, 22 (November 1945), 131, 229.
"A Personal Preface" to The Square Root of Wonderful. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958. 7-10.
"The Pestle" Botteghe Oscure, 11 (1953), 226-46; Mademoiselle, 37 (July 1953), 44-45, 114-18.
"Playwright Tells of Pangs" Philadelphia Inquirer, October 13, 1957, 1, 5.
"Reflections in a Golden Eye" Harper's Bazaar. 74 (October-November 1940), 60-61, 131-43; 56, 120-39.
"The Russian Realists and Southern Literature" Decision, 2 (July 1941), 15-19.
"The Sojourner" Mademoiselle, 31 (May 1950), 90, 160-66.
"Sucker" The Saturday Evening Post, September 28, 1963, 69-71.
"To Bear the Truth Alone" Harper's Bazaar, 94 (July 161), 42-43, 93-99.
"A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud" Harper's Bazaar, 76 (November 1942), 50, 96-99.
"The Vision Shared" Theatre Arts, 34 (April 1950), 28-30.
"We Carried Our Banners - We Were Pacificst Too" Vogue, 97 (July 15, 1941), 42-43.
"Who Has Seen The Wind?" Mademoiselle, 43 (September 1956), 156-57, 174-88.
"Wunderkind" Story, 9 (December 1936), 61-73.
Main Source: The Carson McCullers Project at http://www.carson-mccullers.com/