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Carson McCullers was a novelist who produced a small but important body of work noted for its variety of subtle themes, ranging from examinations of gender, identity, and race to psychological sketches. She is considered one of the most enduring authors of the American Southern literary tradition, alongside her contemporaries Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and Flannery o Connor.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Musical Promise
McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith on February 19,1917, in Columbus, Georgia, a mill town of thirty thousand. With its stifling hot summers and snowless winters, as well as its starkly contrasted classes and races, Columbus inspired the literary landscape for McCullers s most memorable fiction. Although she left her hometown for the North in 1934, and never lived permanently in the South after 1940, she is still widely regarded as a Southern writer, even while her best work is recognized for its universal appeal.
McCullers had exhibited musical talent at an early age. The firstborn child in her family, she was lavished with love and praise but also burdened by expectations of genius. As a girl, she trained to be a concert pianist, and in 1935, McCullers traveled to New York City to study at the Juilliard School of Music. As a result of financial difficulties, however, McCullers never attended Juilliard; instead, she was forced to work part-time, and she began attending writing classes at Columbia University and New York University.
A Quick Succession of Successful Novels
In 1937 she married Reeves McCullers, an aspiring novelist, and in 1940 she published her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which quickly gave her a favorable literary reputation. Written in the closing years of the Great Depression, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter reflected the politically conscious fiction of the 1930s in its realistic portrayal of capitalistic excess and racial injustice, even as it anticipated the 1940s trend toward fiction about psychological estrangement with its treatment of spiritual isolation.
McCuller’s marriage was often unstable. Shortly after their marriage, they moved to North Carolina, where they were briefly happy. They had agreed to support one another s artistic aspirations, but Reeves McCullers never wrote anything publishable. indeed, he never found steady, satisfying work outside the military. As his wife s career accelerated, he grew more reliant on her income and less sure of his own worth. She and Reeves were divorced in 1940 following their involvement in homosexual affairs. McCullers s second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), is generally viewed as her reaction to the disintegration of her marriage. Set on an army base, the book depicts archetypal characters whose unfulfilled spiritual and physical needs lead to self-destructive, amoral behavior.
McCullers suffered a series of debilitating cerebral strokes beginning in 1941, but she continued to write, and in 1943, published the novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. often considered McCullers s most outstanding achievement, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was described by Irving Howe as ”one of the finest novels ever written by an American” and by Tennessee Williams as ”assuredly among the masterpieces of our language.” In this work, McCullers’s characters serve to reveal how individuals seek out their opposites, people who embody traits they desire but cannot attain.
McCuller’s fourth novel, The Member of the Wedding, came out in 1946. Encouraged by Tennessee Williams, McCullers adapted the novel for the stage in 1950. Retaining its original emphasis on theme, character, and mood, she created a stylistically innovative play noted for being among the few successful dramatic adaptations of a novelist’s own work. The Member of the Wedding enjoyed a lengthy Broadway run of five hundred and one performances, winning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play in 1950.
A Troubled Personal Life
McCullers had remarried Reeves in 1945, but their relationship became increasingly hostile. In 1948, depressed over her increasing invalidism, she slashed one of her wrists. After this suicide attempt, she underwent psychiatric evaluation. She recovered her will to write, leaving Reeves for good in 1953 after he proposed a suicide pact. Later that year he killed himself with an overdose of alcohol and drugs. In 1955, she suffered another devastating loss: the death of her mother, with whom she had periodically shared a home in Nyack, New York.
McCullers used both Reeves and her mother’s death as the basis for the central characters of The Square Root of Wonderful (1958), a play which many critics viewed as her attempt to reconcile feelings of loss, guilt, and hostility. In McCullers’s last novel, Clock without Hands (1961), a bigot overcomes his racist beliefs after learning that he is dying from leukemia. Critics, though unimpressed with the book, generally agreed that it offered McCullers’s most optimistic treatment of existence, showing a significant shift in her overall tone.
During the last phase of her life, McCullers was largely confined to a bed or a wheelchair. She underwent surgery to repair damaged limbs, survived a heart attack, had a cancerous breast removed, and broke a hip and an elbow in a fall. Following another stroke in 1967, McCullers died in Nyack, New York, at the age of fifty.
Works in Literary Context
McCullers was originally categorized as a Southern Gothic writer due to her portrayal of social misfits and other unconventional characters. However, most contemporary scholars agree with Louis Rubin’s contention that her protagonists function as ”exemplars of the wretchedness of the human condition” rather than being representative of regional types. She is now considered an important voice in the American literary tradition, not merely a writer of regional interest.
Southern Ambiance, Universal Subject
With Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers is an explorer of the Southern grotesque, for the ambiance of her fiction is always Southern, whatever its geographic locale, and her characters are the solitary, the freakish, and the lonely. Her work is distinguished from her fellow regionalists’ work in the grotesque genre, however, by a deep compassion for the dispossessed. Indeed, she has transcended not only regionalism but Americanism as well, and has become a spokesman for all the lonely and alienated people of the world. Her best work is tenderly lyrical rather than philosophical, but it merits a distinguished place in that eccentric, bleakly poetic body of Southern fiction that takes as its subject the dark corners of the mind.
McCullers’s characters are often seen as universal symbols of psychological isolation and the failure of communication. Her androgynous characters particularly reveal the inadequacy of physical love to fulfill basic human emotional needs McCullers herself explained:
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 incapacity to love or receive love— their spiritual isolation.
McCuller’s vision of human isolation has inspired continued critical attention to her work. In Critical Occasions, Julian Symons has noted: ”It is her triumph that from her preoccupation with freaks and with human loneliness she makes fictions which touch and illuminate at many points . . . the world of literal reality.”
Works in Critical Context
McCullers began her writing career with a successful debut novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, then followed up with three more critically-acclaimed books, all written during her twenties. However, she was unable to match this output in her later writings. As Louis Rubin has pointed out, McCullers’s first four novels were her major works, and ”a very impressive body of fiction indeed,” though he added, echoing most other commentators, that ”[n]othing that she wrote in the remaining two decades of her life adds much to her achievement.”
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers’s first novel, established her reputation and was highly praised for its maturity of vision and bleak but lyrical prose style. The book ostensibly revolves around deaf-mute John Singer, a reluctant confidante of four alienated characters who believe that he can comprehend their dreams and frustrations. Critics generally agree, however, that the novel’s protagonist is Mick Kelley, an adolescent tomboy whose dreams of becoming a composer are thwarted by sexual discrimination and financial problems. While many reviewers initially maintained that Mick’s decision to abandon her ambitions in order to help support her family represents a realistic and appropriate choice, most contemporary scholars contend that her acceptance of a mundane adult life symbolizes the death of her dreams and individuality. Lawrence Graver described The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter as ”a parable of the human condition, of human isolation, of the craving to communicate and of the impossibility of communication; and also, perhaps, of the inescapable delusions attendant on the inescapable human need to love.”
Reflections in a Golden Eye
McCullers’s second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, received largely negative reviews, partly due to its unsympathetic characterizations and unorthodox subject matter. Others attributed the reviews to an unfair comparison with her first novel. In his introduction to the 1950 edition of Reflections in a Golden Eye, Tennessee Williams declared it a victim of the overly zealous critical scrutiny that usually follows high praise for an author’s first work. Despite a disappointing initial reception, Reflections in a Golden Eye struck him as an advance over The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter because McCullers had reined in her ”subjective tenderness” and ”youthful lyricism,” achieving ”absolute mastery of design.” Whether one agrees with reviewers who believed that she regressed, or with Williams’s assertion that she improved, in neither case can she be accused of having written the same book twice. Reflections in a Golden Eye bears only superficial resemblance to its predecessor. Even after efforts to rehabilitate its standing within her body of work, it remains her most controversial work.
- Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
- –. Understanding Carson McCullers. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
- Cook, Richard M. Carson McCullers. New York: Ungar, 1975.
- Edmonds, Dale. Carson McCullers. Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn, 1969.
- Evans, Oliver. The Ballad of Carson McCullers. New York: Coward-McCann, 1966.
- Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel, revised edition. New York: Stein & Day, 1966.
- Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.
- Graver, Lawrence. Carson McCullers. St. Paul, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.
- Huf, Linda. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: The Writer as Heroine in American Literature. New York: Ungar, 1983.
- McDowell, Margaret. Carson McCullers. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
- Rubin, Louis. A Gallery of Southerners. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
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