Article abstract: A Southern novelist and short-story writer, Carson McCullers presented in her fiction a world of alienated adolescents, misfits, and outcasts, treating themes of human isolation with great sensitivity.
Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith, the daughter of Lamar Smith, a watchmaker, and Marguerite Waters Smith. For generations, Smith’s family had been Southerners, so her family history, as well as her own childhood and adolescence, deepened her relationship with the South. It was in ramblings through Columbus’ streets and the disparate quarters of African Americans, millworkers, and the wealthy that she gained the many impressions that enrich her fictional world. Carson was recognized as an odd, lively girl with artistic talents, and her passion for music and writing was encouraged. She studied the piano assiduously and as an adolescent wrote some violence-filled plays (patterned after those of Eugene O’Neill), a novel, and some poetry. An early short story, “Sucker,” about a sixteen-year-old boy whose first friendship causes him to reject the affection of a younger brother, demonstrates her precocity. She changed her name, read voraciously, and earned a reputation for having a phenomenal memory. Although in all her work Carson McCullers focuses on alienated individuals, she herself grew up in a harmonious family that accepted her eccentricities and extended her their affection.
At eighteen, Carson traveled to New York, purportedly to attend the Juilliard School of Music, but she lost the tuition and was forced to work at several jobs. She did, however, register for creative writing courses at Columbia University and New York University. One of her teachers, Whit Burnett, liked one of her stories, “Wunderkind” (1936), about a self-critical child musical prodigy who abandons her music, and he had it published in Story Magazine. Because of frail health resulting from childhood illnesses, Carson took trips home to Georgia for recuperative purposes. On one such trip, she met a Georgia soldier named Reeves McCullers, and in 1938 she was married to him. For two years, they lived happily in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she wrote a novel outline called “The Mute,” earning a Houghton Mifflin Fiction Fellowship and a book contract. The editor changed the title to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and the book appeared in 1940 to generally enthusiastic reviews. For a twenty-two-year-old writer to probe so perceptively into adult characters was a startling achievement.
Characteristically, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is set in Georgia. Filled with impressions of Carson McCullers’ childhood, it creates a richly detailed view of a Southern mill town. At the center of the novel is a deaf-mute surrounded by four lonely characters who are unable to connect with the world. One is a thirteen-year-old girl who is burdened with frustrated musical ambitions. Through her, McCullers deals with the individual’s compulsion to revolt against enforced isolation, and she presents love as the only anodyne.
When her first novel was published, the author and her husband settled in New York, where she was lauded as the literary discovery of the year. She was invited to be a Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont. That fall, Reflections in a Golden Eye, a hastily written story of infidelity, murder, and perversion at a Southern army base, appeared in installments in Harper’s Bazaar before it was published as a book in 1941. Although it may have contributed to McCullers’ image as a writer of Southern gothic fiction, it disappointed serious readers who were expecting as careful and sympathetic a delineation of character and situation as that contained in her first novel. The critical response was unenthusiastic.
McCullers’ disappointment at the second novel’s reception was matched by domestic misfortune and divorce. For the next five years, McCullers lived sporadically in Columbus and at Yaddo, an artists’ colony in Saratoga, New York, but mostly amid a legendary gathering of artists and writers at February House, in Brooklyn Heights. The old brownstone rented jointly by McCullers and George Davis, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, harbored celebrated artists and writers, including Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Richard Wright, Oliver Smith, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee. Many famous guests dropped by. February House provided spirited company and singular material for novels and stories. The irregular life did exhaust McCullers, however, and she returned to Columbus to recuperate. While there, she suffered the first in a series of strokes that were to plague her the rest of her life. On regaining her health, she composed the short story “A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud,” which was published in Harper’s Bazaar (1942) and selected for the anthology O. Henry Prize Stories of 1942. She also received a Guggenheim Fellowship that year.
After her father’s death in 1944, she moved with her mother and sister to Nyack, New...
(The entire section is 2109 words.)