Carson McCullers

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Carson McCullers Biography

Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith, could not hold a job. “I was always fired,” she once told an interviewer. “My record is perfect on that. I never quit a job in my life.” But that did not hurt her writing career at all. McCullers burst onto the literary scene in 1940 with her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. She went on to write The Ballad of the Sad Café and The Member of the Wedding, among other well-received works. Her writing is marked by tragedy and Southern gothic themes along the lines of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor.

Facts and Trivia

  • McCullers began her creative life as a piano protégé, and enrolled at Juilliard at the age of seventeen. During her time there, she was ill and never went to class.
  • The Member of the Wedding is McCullers’s most famous work. It was adapted for the stage in 1950 and into a 1952 film starring Julie Harris.
  • McCullers often explored homosexual themes in her novels. In fact, her own marriage ended when she took a female lover and her husband took a male lover.
  • In 1953, her husband, who she divorced and remarried, tried to get her to commit suicide with him. She fled, and he killed himself in their Paris hotel room.
  • McCullers’s health was always poor, and she died of a stroke at the age of fifty.

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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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(This entire section contains 2109 words.)

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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 York. She resumed a correspondence with her former husband after his reenlistment, and they remarried after his discharge in 1945 for war wounds.

The early 1940’s were McCullers’ most productive period. Her third major work, a novella, The Ballad of the Sad Café, the story of a grotesque love affair between a giantess and a hunchback, appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1943. A thousand-dollar grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, along with various other grants and fellowships, encouraged her. The Member of the Wedding (1946), the most directly autobiographical of all her works, which explores a teenage girl’s feelings of isolation and longing, was immediately both popular and critically successful. Playwright Tennessee Williams was so impressed by its remembrance of childhood memories that he persuaded McCullers to rework it into a play. Spending some weeks at Williams’ cottage on Nantucket, she finished the play by the end of the summer of 1946. A second Guggenheim Fellowship was given to her that same year.

For the next three years, McCullers fought failing health and tried to find a producer for The Member of the Wedding. In 1947, she experienced two serious strokes that impaired her vision and partially paralyzed her. Her recuperation was slow. At the same time, her husband underwent treatment for acute alcoholism. The decade, however, ended triumphantly: In 1950, The Member of the Wedding, starring Julie Harris and Ethel Waters, opened in New York to the praise of audience and critics. It won three awards, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and after it had received 501 performances, it was made into a film by Stanley Kramer. The successful Broadway production, together with the enthusiastically received collected edition of her work by Houghton Mifflin in 1951, established her literary reputation in America and Europe.

If her literary reputation was secure, her health and domestic security were not. In 1951, she and her husband bought a house near Paris, where they lived on and off for two years. He drank heavily and had fits of depression. She returned alone to Nyack by 1953, planning a divorce. He committed suicide in France. Between 1952 and 1953, McCullers published two short stories in Mademoiselle and some of her poems in Botteghe Oscure. In 1954, she made lecture appearances with Tennessee Williams and worked at Yaddo. Her mother, who had been a great help to her, died suddenly in 1955.

The play McCullers produced in 1957 and the novel she published in 1961 were triumphs of will but artistic failures. The play The Square Root of Wonderful, an autobiographical attempt to re-create and understand her mother and her husband, closed after forty-five Broadway performances. It lacks the dramatic purpose and compelling characterizations necessary to make it work on stage. Discouraged by its failure, she returned to the unfinished manuscript of Clock Without Hands, which she completed for publication in 1961. An uneven work treating a central character’s preparations for death and unsuccessfully attempting a comic allegory of the ways in which the 1950’s had changed the South, it was her last novel.

Despite her illness, McCullers achieved remarkable success between the ages twenty-three and thirty. Although she continued writing as an invalid until her death at fifty of a massive cerebral hemorrhage, her creative activity between 1958 and 1962 was necessarily lessened. She underwent surgery for breast cancer and for an atrophied hand muscle, and psychiatric care for depression. In 1964, she underwent hip surgery, and a long critical illness in 1965 led to her death in 1967. Despite her later artistic disappointments, McCullers’ early work continued to be widely read and appreciated. Adapters were eager to translate her work into other media. Edward Albee dramatized The Ballad of the Sad Café in 1963, and the play ran for 123 performances on Broadway. John Huston cast Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor in a film version of Reflections in a Golden Eye in 1967, and a film version of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, with Alan Arkin, appeared in 1968.

McCullers’ sister, Margarita C. Smith, published The Mortgaged Heart (1971), a posthumous collection of McCullers’ short stories, essays, and poems. In several essays, McCullers discusses the methods and concerns of her own writing. She states her belief that good prose must be both realistic and poetic, and admits her reliance on the South of her childhood for locales. Furthermore, she reports that her technique of creating characters involves getting entirely within those characters so that their motives become her own: “I become the characters I write about,” she wrote. If her vision is one of alienation, it is a vision that is imbued with sympathy; her isolated eccentrics and disturbed children are portrayed as human beings who are not, in the final analysis, extremely different from the rest of humanity.

Summary

Although frail health plagued Carson McCullers throughout her life and limited her productivity, she achieved critical and popular success in four genres in her twenties. Her first three novels, all of which were best-sellers, appeared within a six-year period, and her award-winning play The Member of the Wedding appeared four years later.

McCullers is an accomplished portrayer of character who presents in her novels a richly detailed world of lonely and often unlovable misfits with a need for love that they find difficult to satisfy. They embody such major themes of the author as human isolation and loneliness caused by inability to love, communicate deep feeling, or find one’s identity. Although her works are outwardly realistic, they often move into a symbolic or allegorical dimension without allowing their characters to lose their humanity. Commonly rendering fiction as parable, McCullers accents truths about human nature. She displays virtuosity in her language, mixing the poetic and the prosaic to her advantage. Musical and metaphysical perspectives blend, for example, with ordinary sounds of life in a Southern town. Music pervades her work, sometimes lending it structure, as in The Member of the Wedding, in which the themes are suggested, stated, and restated, sonata fashion, throughout the three distinct parts of the story.

That McCullers has become a significant figure in the study of women’s literature is no surprise. Her compelling portraits of women and adolescents such as Frankie Adams in The Member of the Wedding are memorable, and they reflect an uncommon compassion for hidden suffering. In her brief lifetime, this richly talented and diversely gifted writer left a distinctive legacy to American fiction.

Bibliography

Bloom, Harold, ed. Carson McCullers. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. An excellent collection of criticism encompassing all of McCullers’ fiction. Essay authors include Marguerite Young, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Oliver Evans, Richard M. Cook, Lawrence Graver, and Margaret B. McDowell. Includes a bibliography, a chronology, and an index. Gives readers a helpful perspective on critical writing about McCullers.

Cook, Richard M. Carson McCullers. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975. This biography also contains insightful writing about McCullers’ five novels. Included are a chronology, a bibliography, and an index. Cook considers McCullers’ compassionate insight into hidden suffering her greatest achievement.

Evans, Oliver. The Ballad of Carson McCullers: A Biography. New York: Coward-McCann, 1966. A biography that includes incisive comments on McCullers’ work, emphasizing its allegorical aspect. Includes eight photographs, index, and McCullers’ outline of “The Mute,” later published in book form as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Valuable for detailing connections between McCullers’ life and fiction.

Graver, Lawrence. Carson McCullers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. A forty-eight-page biography with an interesting discussion of each major work. Offers a helpfully condensed yet substantial view of the author’s life and work. Graver places McCullers in a quartet of accomplished Southern women writers consisting of McCullers, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and Flannery O’Connor.

McDowell, Margaret. Carson McCullers. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A comprehensive study that contains summaries and well-detailed analyses of her major works, including short stories, poems, and her second play, The Square Root of Wonderful. Included are a chronology, the author’s photograph, and a bibliography of primary sources and annotated secondary sources.

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