Written in 1936, when Carson McCullers was 19 years old, ‘‘Wunderkind’’ was McCullers’s first published work. It presents the story of Frances, a teenage girl who has been considered a musical prodigy but who, after years of training and sacrifice, seems suddenly incapable of fulfilling the bright expectations she has always held. In the brief space of a single piano lesson, we see her struggling to recover the confidence and artistry she once knew and trying to navigate a flood of conflicting emotions and desires that threaten to overwhelm her. Often praised as a sensitive, insightful portrayal of the pressures and isolation of adolescence, it is marked by a dramatic tension that increases relentlessly throughout the story—despite the fact that very little ‘‘action’’ occurs. That action takes place in the studio of her music teacher, but the story’s actual setting is the intimate depths of Frances’s troubled mind.
While teenagers and their problems are a common focus in fiction, relatively few ‘‘coming-of-age’’ stories were written while their authors were still teenagers themselves. Critical analysis of ‘‘Wunderkind’’ usually stresses its many autobiographical elements: McCullers had trained as a classical pianist for most of her own childhood and suddenly gave up her ambitions for a musical career after an emotional break in her relationship with a beloved piano teacher. Yet there are also intriguing differences between Frances’s experience and that of her author, and while its details are specific to a world of passionate artistry and intense pressures that few of us ever know, McCullers’s vivid writing seems to evoke universal human feelings and dilemmas. As a result, readers of all ages, and vastly different experience, have been able to recognize themselves in this troubled young musician.