Carson McCullers Biography

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 real 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 Julliard at the age of seventeen. During her time there, she was ill and never went to class.
  • The Member of the Wedding is McCullers’ 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, whom she had divorced and remarried, tried to get her to commit suicide with him. She fled and he killed himself in their Paris hotel room.
  • McCullers’ health was always poor, and she died of a stroke at the age of fifty.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111206377-Mccullers2.jpg Carson McCullers. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 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.)

Carson McCullers Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917, young Lula Carson Smith studied for years as a concert pianist, practicing five hours a day. Like the...

(The entire section is 911 words.)

Carson McCullers Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The southern writer William Faulkner said the only thing worth writing about is “the human heart in conflict with itself.” By that standard, few have surpassed Carson McCullers, for she probed the tormented recesses of inner emotions. Tracking problems of loneliness and love to their lair within the heart, she found joy mingled with suffering so intense that her characters may seem grotesque. Nevertheless, her readers gain insights into life as it actually is lived. Neither sentimental nor moralistic, McCullers’s novels make a more solid impact on the imagination than does merely sensational or experimental fiction.

(The entire section is 97 words.)

Carson McCullers Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith, was reared in a small southern town, a milieu that she used in much of her fiction. Exhibiting early talent in both writing and music, she intended to become a concert pianist but lost her tuition money for the Juilliard School of Music when she went to New York in 1935. This loss led her to get part-time jobs while studying writing at Columbia University. She earned early acclaim for her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, written when she was only twenty-two. Her friends included many prominent writers, including Tennessee Williams, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, and Richard Wright. Her health was always delicate; she suffered early paralyzing strokes, breast cancer, and...

(The entire section is 147 words.)

Carson McCullers Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia. Marguarite Smith, McCullers’s mother, was very early convinced that her daughter was an artistic genius and sacrificed herself and, to some extent, McCullers’s father, brother, and sister, to the welfare of her gifted child. McCullers grew up, therefore, with a peculiar kind of shyness and emotional dependence on her mother, combined with supreme self-confidence about her abilities. McCullers announced early in life that she was going to be a concert pianist, and she indeed displayed a precocious talent in that direction. Smith placed her daughter under the tutelage of Mary Tucker, a concert musician, who agreed that McCullers was talented....

(The entire section is 1474 words.)

Carson McCullers Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, a small town that resembles the setting of most of her works. As a child, McCullers studied the piano and was considered a prodigy, much like the main character in her critically acclaimed short story “Wunderkind” (1936), which is about fifteen-year-old Frances’ aspirations to become a great pianist and her awakened sexuality. Like many of McCullers’ short stories, “Wunderkind” is written in the Bildungsroman tradition, portraying adolescent initiation and search for identity. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding also portray adolescent females searching for identity and struggling with complex internal questions....

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Carson McCullers Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Carson McCullers’s life was one beset by intolerable illnesses and complex personal relationships. The last twenty years of her life were spent in the shadow of constant physical pain, but like her fellow southerner Flannery O’Connor, she continued working in spite of her handicaps, seldom complaining. She was married twice to the same man, an emotional cripple who drained her financially and psychically and who ultimately killed himself. That she left behind her a magnificent body of work and any number of devoted friends when she died at the tragically young age of fifty is a testament to the courage with which overwhelming obstacles can be overcome.

McCullers knew at first hand the small-town South that figures...

(The entire section is 1310 words.)

Carson McCullers Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Lula Carson Smith McCullers is widely regarded as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century, though critics argue over whether her writing should be classified as southern gothic or metaphysical. McCullers, who was born in Columbus, Georgia, on February 19, 1917, did not aspire to become a writer at all. Her parents, Lamar and Marguerite (Waters) Smith, had started her on piano lessons at a very early age, and music was the career forecast for her; a music teacher, Mary Tucker, played a large part in her early life. At the age of seventeen, McCullers was sent to the Juilliard School of Music in New York to become a concert pianist. By the time McCullers had arrived in New York, however, she had already lost her enthusiasm...

(The entire section is 972 words.)

Carson McCullers Biography

(Drama for Students)

Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, on February 19, 1917. Like the adolescent girl Frankie in her novel, The...

(The entire section is 586 words.)

Carson McCullers Biography

(Drama for Students)
Carson McCullers Published by Gale Cengage

Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia. Mc- Cullers’s mother had early intuitions that her...

(The entire section is 395 words.)

Carson McCullers Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Born Lula Carson Smith, McCullers was raised in a town near a big Army post in rural southwest Georgia by a successful jeweler and a remarkable mother who encouraged her genius. An aloof, precocious child, she longed to be rich and famous and live in the snowy North. By the age of eight years, she was producing little plays with neighbor children. At ten she took piano lessons and aspired to play concerts onstage. It is said that she read every worthwhile book in the local library. At fifteen, she came down with rheumatic fever, misdiagnosed at the time, which led to debilitating illnesses later.

After high school, her parents sold heirloom jewelry so she could sail to New York and study at the prestigious Juilliard...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Carson McCullers Biography

(Novels for Students)

McCullers was born Lulu Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia. Her family had deep roots in the South: her...

(The entire section is 610 words.)