Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917Â â" September 29, 1967) was an American writer of novels, short stories, plays, essays, and poetry. Her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, explores the spiritual isolation of misfits and outcasts in a small town of the U.S. South. Her other novels have similar themes and most are set in the deep South.
McCullersâ oeuvre is often described as Southern Gothic and indicative of her southern roots. However, McCullers penned all of her work after leaving the South, and critics also describe her writing and eccentric characters as universal in scope. Her stories have been adapted to stage and film. A stagework of her novel The Member of the Wedding (1946), which captures a young girl's feelings at her brother's wedding, made a successful Broadway run in 1950â"51.
Early life and education
She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia in 1917. Her motherâs grandfather was a plantation owner and Confederate war hero. Her father was a watchmaker and jeweler of French Huguenot descent. From the age of ten she took piano lessons; when she was fifteen her father gave her a typewriter to encourage her story writing.
Smith graduated from Columbus High School. In September 1934, at age 17, she left home on a steamship bound for New York City, planning to study piano at the Juilliard School of Music. After falling ill with rheumatic fever she returned to Columbus to recuperate, and she changed her mind about studying music. Returning to New York she worked in menial jobs while pursuing a writing career; she attended night classes at Columbia University and studied creative writing under the Texas writer Dorothy Scarborough and with Sylvia Chatfield Bates at Washington Square College of New York University. In 1936 she published her first work. "Wunderkind", an autobiographical piece that Bates admired, depicted a music prodigy's adolescent insecurity and losses. It first appeared in Story magazine and is collected in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.
From 1935 to 1937, as her studies and health dictated, she divided her time between Columbus and New York. In September 1937 she married an ex-soldier and aspiring writer, Reeves McCullers. They began their married life in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Reeves had found work.
Maxim Lieber was her literary agent in 1938 and intermittently thereafter. In 1940, at the age of 23, and writing in the Southern Gothic or perhaps Southern realist traditions McCullers completed her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.(The title was suggested by McCullers' editor and was taken from a Fiona MacLeod poem called "The Lonely Hunter"). At the time the novel was thought to suggest an anti-Fascist message.
McCullers published eight books; the best known are The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Member of the Wedding (1946). The novella The Ballad of the Sad CafÃ© (1951) depicts loneliness and the pain of unrequited love; at the time of its writing, McCullers was a resident at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga, New York.
Many know her works largely by their film adaptations. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was adapted as a film with the same title in 1968 with Alan Arkin in the lead role. Reflections in a Golden Eye was directed by John Huston (1967) and starred Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Huston, in his autobiography An Open Book (1980), said: "I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York. Carson lived nearby, and one day when Buzz and I were out for a walk she hailed us from her doorway. She was then in her early 20s, and had already suffered the first of a series of strokes. 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".
Divorce and emotional struggles
Carson and Reeves McCullers divorced in 1941. After separating from Reeves she moved to New York to live with George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar. She became a member of February House, an art commune in Brooklyn. Among her friends were W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee and the writer couple Paul Bowles and Jane Bowles. After World War II McCullers lived mostly in Paris. Her close friends during these years included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
In 1945 Carson and Reeves McCullers remarried. Three years later while severely depressed she attempted suicide. In 1953 Reeves tried to convince her to commit suicide with him, but she fled and Reeves killed himself in their Paris hotel with an overdose of sleeping pills. Her bittersweet play, The Square Root of Wonderful (1957), drew upon these traumatic experiences.
In The Member of the Wedding (1946) McCullers describes the feelings of a young girl at her brother's wedding. The Broadway stage adaptation of the novel had a successful run in 1950â"51 and was produced by the Young Vic in London in September 2007.
McCullers suffered throughout her life from several illnesses and from alcoholism. She had rheumatic fever at the age of 15 and suffered from strokes that began in her youth. By the age of 31 her left side was entirely paralyzed. She lived the last twenty years of her life in Nyack, New York, where she died on September 29, 1967, at the age of 50 after a brain hemorrhage; she was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.
McCullers dictated her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare (1999), during the final months of her life. Her home from 1945 to 1967 in South Nyack, New York, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
Mrs. McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility. I prefer Mrs. McCullers to Mr. Faulkner because she writes more clearly; I prefer her to D. H. Lawrence because she has no message.
- â" Graham Greene
[Her work is] one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.
- â" Gore Vidal
Carson's major theme: the huge importance and nearly insoluble problems of human love.
- â" Tennessee Williams
I believe it is the worst book I have ever read.
- â" Flannery O'Connor on Clock Without Hands
Although McCullers's style is often described as "Southern Gothic", she produced her famous works after leaving the South. Her eccentric characters suffer from loneliness that is interpreted with deep empathy. In a discussion with the Irish critic and writer Terence de Vere White she said: "Writing, for me, is a search for God". Other critics have variously detected tragicomic or political elements in her writing.
- The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
- Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)
- The Member of the Wedding (1946)
- Clock Without Hands (1961)
- The Ballad of the Sad CafÃ© (1951), a collection comprising:
- a novella of the same title, later made into a Merchant Ivory film
- six short stories:
- "Wunderkind" (Story, 1936)
- "The Jockey" (The New Yorker, 1941)
- "Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland" (The New Yorker, 1941)
- "The Sojourner" (Mademoiselle, 1950)
- "A Domestic Dilemma" (New York Post magazine section, September 16, 1951)
- "A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud" (Harper's Bazaar, 1942)
- The Member of the Wedding (1949), a play version of the 1946 novel
- The Square Root of Wonderful (1958), a play
- Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig (1964), a collection of poems
- The Mortgaged Heart (1972), a posthumous collection of writings, edited by her sister Rita
- Illumination and Night Glare (1999), her unfinished autobiography, published more than 30 years after her death
- Complete Novels, Carlos L. Dews, ed. (New York: The Library of America, 2001) ISBN 978-1-931082-03-7.
- Works by Carson McCullers at Open Library
- Works about Carson McCullers in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- The Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians
- The Carson McCullers Project
- Two different critical views of McCullers:
- The Tragicomic Vision in the Novels of Carson McCullers
- Marxism in Carson McCullers' Strangled South
- Carson McCullers: A Life (Limited Preview)
- Online text of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Limited Preview)
- Entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia
- Online text of The Member of the Wedding (Limited Preview)
- Online text of Reflections in a Golden Eye (Limited Preview)
- McCullers' Papers at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin
- Carson McCullers at Find a Grave