One of America's most unique writers, Carson McCullers (1917-1967) wrote about isolation, loneliness and failures in human communication in popular novels and plays set in the Southern United States, mostly in the 1940s.
Carson McCullers is considered to be a member of the "Southern gothic" tradition in American literature, and is often compared to writers like Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. Her characters include tortured adolescents, homosexuals, and outcasts from conventional society. Several of her novels were popular, but critics have disagreed about her achievements. Because of her fluid, nuanced prose, she is most appreciated by other writers. Gore Vidal said her "genius for prose remains one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture." Playwright Tennessee Williams spoke of the "intensity and nobility of spirit" in her writing.
Lula Carson Smith was born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia. She was a precocious child encouraged by an indulgent mother to pursue her talents. She began piano lessons at age five and became an awkward and isolated prodigy. During her school days she was often harassed by children who called her a freak.
At 17, she entered the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York City, but poor health prevented her from going to classes. Instead, she took a series of odd jobs by day and studied writing at Columbia University at night. She was a failure at earning a living by any means other than writing. "I was always fired, " she once told an interviewer. "My record is perfect on that. I never quit a job in my life."
Her first published story was a thinly disguised autobiographical piece called Wunderkind. It tells the story of a girl who realizes at age 15 that she is not the musical prodigy her parents told her she was. She quits music and loses her friends and her parents' affection. In New York in 1937, she married Reeves McCullers. But neither was suited to heterosexual monogamy, and theirs was a difficult union. They divorced in 1940 but remarried in 1945.
Critic Robert F. Kiernan once noted that McCullers was "an eccentric, self-centered woman, preoccupied with money, with literary success, and with the satisfaction of her own emotional needs…. But the failings of M.'s life were the material of her art, and all of her characters share her egocentricity and suffer the pangs of its attendant loneliness."
The "air of stark, existential angst" which Kiernan noted in her work was present from the very start. In her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, published in 1940, when she was only 23, McCullers told a desperately sad story about a deaf-mute, John Singer, who cares for a mentally impaired deaf-mute, Spiros Antonatoulos. Four towns-people adopt Singer as their confidante. They believe Singer is sympathetic, but in fact he listens merely to be polite and does not understand them. Antonatoulos is sent to an insane asylum, and Singer commits suicide.
The novel explores the inability of human beings to soothe others' loneliness. None of the characters are capable of giving the love and understanding the others need. One of the characters is a black doctor who is frustrated at his inability to make progress in race relations in the Southern town. Another is an adolescent girl who dreams of becoming an orchestra conductor but is doomed by her family's poverty to a lifetime of working in a dime store; the character is modeled after McCullers.
Critics loved the way McCullers recreated the closed-in atmosphere of a Southern small town. They also admired how sympathetically the characters were portrayed despite their obvious failings. In her later work of collected essays and stories, The Mortgaged Heart, McCullers explained her themes: "Love, and especially love of a person who is incapable of returning or receiving it, is at the heart of my selection of grotesque figures to write about-people whose physical incapacity is a symbol of their spiritual isolation."
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was a best-seller and instantly established McCullers on the American literary scene. Critics hailed her as a major emerging talent. Her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, shattered expectations, mostly because of its unconventional subject matter. The homosexual nature of the relationship between the two deaf-mutes in her first novel was only implied. In Golden Eye the characters' non-standard sexual behavior was obvious. Set on an army base in the South in the 1930s, the novel is about the relationships among Captain Penderton, a bisexual, sadomasochistic, impotent man; Major Langdon, who is having an affair with Penderton's wife; the two wives; a homosexual houseboy, Anacleto; and Private Williams, who has relations with a horse. The novel is full of perverse scenes and ends with a murder. Most critics found the characters grotesque and unsympathetic.
McCullers's second novel was written as her marriage fell apart. She had taken a female lover, and her husband had taken a male lover. After finishing the book, McCullers moved to New York to live with book editor George Davis. In 1942, McCullers was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. She was awarded another in 1946. She also got a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1943.
That same year, she completed her long novella, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Cast in terms of a folk tale with a nameless narrator, it is the story of a female giant, Amelia Evans, who is in love with Lymon, a hunchback. Evans runs a cafe in a small Southern town. Her husband, Marvin Macy, returns from prison and starts a relationship with Lymon. The story ends in a brawl between the married couple and the destruction of the cafe. Many critics considered the story McCullers's finest work, approaching the level of myth. Tennessee Williams said it was "among the masterpieces of the language."
In 1946, the novel The Member of the Wedding was published. McCullers had been working on the story off and on since 1940. Again set in a small Southern town, it concerns an awkward, lonely adolescent girl, Frankie Adams. She tries to become a member of her brother's wedding party to overcome her isolation, but her father prevents her from riding in the newlyweds' car. More realistic than her previous two works, The Member of the Wedding is a sympathetic portrayal of adolescent misery. It won a great reception from critics and the public. McCullers adapted it for the stage, and it had a successful run of 501 performances in New York in 1950, winning several important awards. In 1952, it was made into a film of the same name, starring Julie Harris.
Challenges and Decline
McCullers's health was never good, but by the time she was 30 it began to seriously hamper her career. In 1947, she suffered a series of strokes which left her blinded in the right eye and partially paralyzed. She could type with only one hand, and produced only a page a day. In 1948, in despair over her physical condition, McCullers attempted suicide but failed; she never tried again. But her husband was also suicidal because of his lack of success in a career and their unstable marriage. In 1953 he suggested a double suicide while they were living in Europe. She fled to the United States, and a few weeks later he killed himself in a hotel in Paris. McCullers returned to live with her mother, who died in 1955.
Her personal difficulties greatly diminished her literary output. In 1953 she wrote a television play, The Invisible Wall, for CBS. Her second and last stage play, The Square Root of Wonderful, was a failure in 1958. Her final novel was published in 1961. Titled Clock without Hands, it returns to the themes of homosexuality and racial bigotry McCullers first raised in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. A critical and commercial failure, Clock without Hands is the story of the bigoted Southern patriarch Judge Clane, who is raising his orphaned grandson Jester. The judge, who still believes in the principles of the old Confederacy, wants to send Jester to a military school, but Jester is more interested in music and flying and in his grandfather's mixed-race male secretary, Sherman Pew.
The same year Clock without Hands was published, McCullers had breast cancer surgery. In 1964, her second and last television screenplay, The Sojourner, aired on NBC. That year, her book of poems for children, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig, was published. Another children's book, Sucker, was published posthumously in 1986.
In 1967, McCullers suffered another stroke and soon died at the age of 50. That same year, Reflections in a Golden Eye was released as a Hollywood feature film. Directed by John Huston and starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, the movie was a flop despite its big names. The following year, a film version of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, starring Alan Arkin, won a little more attention.
The Mortgaged Heart: The Previously Uncollected Writings of Carson McCullers, came out in 1971. Another volume of short stories, Collected Stories, was published in 1987. In 1989, The Member of the Wedding enjoyed a revival at the Roundabout Theater in New York. McCullers's tale of suburban alcoholism in the 1950s, A Domestic Dilemma, became part of a 1991 HBO television anthology, Women and Men 2, starring Andie McDowell and Ray Liotta. That same year, Ballad of the Sad Cafe was made into a film, with Vanessa Redgrave as the giant woman and Keith Carradine as her husband. The film was a failure.
A Mixed Legacy
Critics disagree strongly on McCullers's standing in American literature. Stanley Kauffmann, reviewing the film version of Ballad of the Sad Cafe in the New Republic, blasted the story as a "fashion whose vogue is well over." Kauffmann said McCullers was overrated: "Nowadays it's hard to believe that some of the writers of the so-called Southern Gothic school…. were taken so seriously." Except for O'Connor and Welty, Kauffmann said, McCullers and the others were merely "Spanish moss hanging on the tree of American literature-once perhaps atmospheric but gone gray and dry." Kauffmann blasted Sad Cafe as "almost an epitome of in-grown artiness that depends for its reception on, in a way, browbeating readers: humbling them into acceptance of all this rampant sensibility at the risk of being thought philistine otherwise. Couch that sensibility in grotesquery, as is done here, add a dollop of Loneliness and the Need for Love, and you're home free."
But others have hailed McCullers as one of the giants of American literature. In 1994, playwright David Willinger adapted The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for the stage in a play he also directed at the Theater for the New City in New York. With little dialogue to work with, Willinger constructed a kind of extended physical style for his actors, rejecting the idea of using pantomime or dance to convey script points. A deaf actor, Bruce Hilbok, played John Singer. A non-deaf actor, Ralph Navarro, played Spiros Antonatoulos. "I don't know if McCullers is underrated, but I think of her as on a par with Hemingway, " said Willinger.
McCullers's career was short, but it was filled with daring and unusual work. Critics may disagree on her place in American literature, but clearly her writings were unique in their treatment of isolation, loneliness and people who were outcasts from conventional society. "No one has written more feelingly than her about the plight of the eccentric, " Kiernan contended, "and no one has written more understandingly than she about adolescent loneliness and desperation."
Further Reading on Carson McCullers
Carr, Virginia Spencer, The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers, Doubleday, 1975.
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 18, Gale, 1986.
James, Judith Giblin, Wunderkind: The Reputation of Carson McCullers, 1940-1990, Camden House, 1995.
Malinowski, Sharon, editor, Gay and Lesbian Literature, St. James Press, 1994.
Back Stage, May 20, 1994.
Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1987.
New Republic, May 20, 1991.
New York Times, July 14, 1987.
People, August 19, 1991.