Carson McCullers 1917–1967
American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and poet.
The following entry presents an overview of McCullers's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 4, 10, 12, and 48.
Carson McCullers is considered one of the most prominent American writers of the 1940s and 1950s and was a major contributor to the Southern literary renaissance. Often compared to Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor, McCullers wrote tales about misfits, outcasts, and grotesque figures searching for love and acceptance in a complex and violent world. Robert S. Phillips asserted that McCullers's works "are perhaps the most typical and most rewarding exemplars of Southern Gothicism in this century." Beset by debilitating illness and personal tragedy in her own life, McCullers's greatest literary accomplishments include The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943), and The Member of the Wedding (1946), all completed in her twenties. Widely acclaimed for unusual sensitivity and dynamic characterizations, McCullers's compositions offer rare insight into the awkwardness and frustration associated with adolescence, unrealized love, and the failure of interpersonal communication. Her best fiction transcends the idiosyncracies and paradoxes of the provincial American South to address the complex metaphysical dilemma of the human condition.
Born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, McCullers showed an early aptitude for music and literature and was encouraged by her parents to study the piano. In 1935 she traveled to New York City to study at the Juilliard School of Music, but she never enrolled due to ill health and waning interest. In 1937 she married Reeves McCullers, an aspiring novelist, and moved to North Carolina. There she began work on her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which was published to wide critical acclaim. A celebrated literary success, McCullers divorced Reeves after a series of complicated romantic interludes and immersed herself in the New York artistic community. Reflections in a Golden Eye, her second novel, was published in 1941. McCullers returned to Columbus where she suffered her first stroke at the age of twenty-four. With the support of a Guggenheim fiction fellowship in 1942 and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1943, McCullers produced her novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, published in Harper's Bazaar, and a third novel, The Member of the Wedding. She remarried Reeves in 1945 and accompanied him to Europe where in 1947 she suffered a series of strokes that permanently impaired her vision and paralyzed her left side. In 1953 she left Reeves again after their relationship became increasingly hostile. Shortly thereafter, he committed suicide. The death of her mother two years later devastated McCullers, but she used both Reeves and her mother as the basis for characters in her play The Square Root of Wonderful (1958). McCullers produced her last novel, Clock Without Hands, in 1961, and a book of children's verse, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig, in 1964. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1967 at the age of fifty. A posthumous publication of McCullers's uncollected writings, edited by her sister, Margarita Smith, appeared under the title The Mortgaged Heart: The Previously Uncollected Writings of Carson McCullers (1971).
McCullers's highly acclaimed first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), focuses on deaf-mute John Singer, who befriends four alienated characters who believe that only he can understand their plight. The novel also centers on the experiences of the adolescent Mick Kelly, an androgynous thirteen-year old girl who sacrifices her dream of becoming a concert pianist to take a job at Woolworth's department store. The distinct Gothic qualities, bizarre characters and violent episodes of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are employed again in McCullers's second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, which was criticized for its unorthodox subject matter and unsympathetic portrayal of characters. The depiction of Captain Penderton, a sadomasochistic, latent homosexual who commits a murder at the end of the novel, typifies the characterizations running throughout much of McCullers's work. Unfulfilled spiritual and physical needs are a central part of The Ballad of the Sad Café, in which McCullers portrays a relationship between the tall, Amazon-like Amelia Evans, her vengeful husband Marvin Macy, and her hunchback cousin Lymon. The strange fairy-tale elements of the story lend the work an epic quality. As Mary A. Gervin noted, McCullers admitted that the story was written to "work out the conflicting emotions she underwent in 'the twisted trinity' between her German friend Annemarie, her husband Reeves, and herself." Through the perverse triangle relationship that evolves in the novel, McCullers illustrates how archetypal love tends toward evil and the negation of communal love. The bond that is developed between the dwarf Lymon and the giantess Amelia is shattered when Lymon's affections are transferred to Macy. The two men destroy Amelia's coffee house and abandon her, leaving her physically and spiritually broken. In The Member of the Wedding, McCullers returned to a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist, Frankie Addams, struggles with problems of awakening sexuality, racial prejudice, and death. Frankie desperately wishes to accompany her brother and his fiancée on their honeymoon, believing that such an act will alleviate her loneliness and enable her to discover what she terms "the we of me." The Square Root of Wonderful was considered one of McCullers's least successful works, but provides insight into her life and techniques. Many critics viewed the play as McCullers's attempt to reconcile feelings of loss, guilt, and hostility resulting from the death of her husband and mother.
Critical assessment of McCullers's relatively small literary canon remains uneven and somewhat inconsistent. Among her four novels, one novella, several plays, and more numerous short stories, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Café, and The Member of the Wedding stand as the high spots of her oeuvre. In these works protagonists struggle with challenges such as loneliness, adolescence, sexual discrimination, and failure to meet societal expectations. McCullers also incorporated themes of racial injustice, spiritual deprivation, and emotional exile into her stories. Because of these realistic themes critics have been divided in classifying McCullers as a realistic or romantic writer. Oliver Evans stated: "It is ironical that her gift for realism, especially in dialogue and characterization, has operated in her case less as a blessing than as a curse." Critical debate over McCullers's classification as a realist or allegorical writer continues to be a central issue for many reviewers. Many critics also feel that later works such as Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Square Root of Wonderful, and Clock Without Hands do not reach the standard of excellence established early in her career; the last was completed while she was gravely ill. Though her strongest works have received comparison with Flaubert and Faulkner, McCullers's preoccupation with the aberrant and sensational has prompted critics to speculate on the limitations of her ability and intellectual depth. Oliver Evans wrote: "I do not think I overstate the case when I say that Carson McCullers is probably the best allegorical writer on this side of the Atlantic since Hawthorne and Melville." In the hierarchy of great American writers, McCullers shares enduring distinction among the preeminent figures of the Southern literary tradition, including her contemporaries Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and Katherine Anne Porter.