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McCullers, (Lula) Carson 1917–1967
Mrs. McCullers was a Southern American novelist, short story writer, and playwright. Death, sacrifice, withdrawal, and the failure of love were the principal themes of her gothic fiction. Her work is considered among the most important of her generation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
Mrs. McCullers is "romantic" …, but she does not strain for beauty. She is natural in detail and diction ("gang," "hard," "sweat"), yet at the same time she conveys the transcendental, the philosophical (music of the wide sky). She concentrates on—and makes us feel—pain.
Irving Malin, in his New American Gothic (© 1962 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962, p. 157.
In the fiction of Carson McCullers I believe that we can observe the effort to arrive at the objective externality of myth by placing the most extreme demands on that very subjectivity which is its opposite. The effort is not always successful and sometimes it is only partial, but, except for most of the short stories, her least impressive work, it is almost always there.
Mark Schorer, "McCullers and Capote: Basic Patterns," in his The World We Imagine (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1948, 1949, 1953, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1962, 1963, 1969 by Mark Schorer), Farrar, Straus, 1969, p. 275.
Member of the Wedding is not an admonitory novel. It is descriptive, showing what occurs to people who happen to be born into life. There is nothing we can "do" to modify that life in its basic characteristics and hence we must content ourselves with separateness and the peculiar freedom that accompanies that separateness. This does not mean that our condition denies us the warmth of human love and understanding. The heart, as Miss McCullers suggests in the title of her first novel, is a "lonely hunter." But as Frankie says, there is a connectedness between people which she cannot explain, which indeed is beyond the human being to explain, and that connectedness is illustrated in the scene following the discussion about the inescapable loneliness of humans. Frankie, nervously confronting a deep and important truth, sits for comfort on Berenice's lap; little John Henry leans against her ample hip. In the dusk of the kitchen they all begin to cry, and all for a different reason. For all their differences, however, they are in one sense united. The scene dramatizes the sad fact of human existence—the impossibility of ever filling up consciousness without turning it into something else, the necessity of remaining separate, and, most important, the beauty of sharing these human deprivations. Their weeping is like their singing: "… their three voices were joined, and the parts of the song were woven together." People's lives are like this song and this weeping, each separate strand contributing to a whole and deriving from that whole a satisfaction missing without the others. If the condition of the human being is to "lack," he can share that condition with others through love. Metaphysically, it is the actual entity committing himself to his society as an element of his individual satisfaction. As a child, this is not good enough for Frankie. She demands absolute communion. As an adult, suggests McCullers, she will learn that this is the way we fulfill ourselves.
Jerry Bryant, in his The Open Decision (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1970 by The Free Press, a Division of The Macmillan Company), The Free Press, 1970, pp. 248-49.
While there are no significant successes among the stories, essays, and poems in The Mortgaged Heart, they help to round off Carson McCullers's literary career. She showed her talent early and developed rapidly….
The essays complement the early stories and Mrs. McCullers's later work by underscoring her movement away from personal reminiscences to larger social commitments; themes of loneliness, spiritual isolation, and universal love; obsession with the mystery of Time; youthful attraction to the theater and music, and to James Joyce, Walt Whitman, and Faulkner.
Thomas A. Gullason, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 13, 1971, p. 64.
In a sense [The Mortgaged Heart] is a writer's dream—to have everything one ever wrote, including a rough outline for a novel, published. What more could an artist hope for? On the other hand, for a perfectionist like Carson McCullers, who rewrote over and over again until the gem was sufficiently polished, it might have been a horror….
Her dramatic sense of detail was there from the beginning in character sketches and evolved to maturity in her later stories and essays. The essays are remarkably lucid prose. Worth the price of the book are the seven brief essays on "Writers and Writing."…
Some of her early stories prefigure later fuller characterizations. Noticeable is the constant use of an adolescent in her stories….
Carson felt all good prose writing has an element of poetry as well. Her own prose is better poetry than the nine poems included here. It would have honored the author's memory to have left them buried in a bottom drawer somewhere.
Jeanne Kinney, in Best Sellers, November 15, 1971, p. 371.
The importance [of The Mortgaged Heart] comes from the rare opportunity it affords us to study the growing-pains of genius. All the seeds of her later work are in these early exercises. She herself saw the unity of her vision and characters: In "The Flowering Dream," reprinted here, she comments: "Spiritual isolation is the basis of most of my themes. My first book was concerned with this, almost entirely, and all of my books since, in one way or another. Love, and especially love of a person who is incapable of returning it or receiving it, is at the heart of my selection of grotesque figures to write about—people whose physical incapacity is a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love or receive love—their spiritual isolation."
This theme and these characterizations are fully evident in Mrs. McCullers' work, from the earliest story ("Sucker", written when she was seventeen) to the latest ("A Hospital Christmas Eve," published after her death). Carson McCullers was one of those fabulous originals who from the first are gifted with a voice and a vision, whose immature works are as purely original as the later achievements….
Everything here has its own peculiar beauty, perhaps more casual than that of the achieved work, but also sometimes more adventurous, less self-conscious, and occasionally more moving. There are whole stories lying undeveloped in some of these pieces the impact of which most writers can never approach. We are thinking of the story of Lester, in the essay on loneliness; of the protagonist of the fragment, "The Orphanage"; and of others….
Tracing the trajectory of her talent from these early stories to late, first book to last, we see the map of an artistry which fully expressed itself at a young age. Her last stories and her last novel were not her best. It was her middle period which bore greatness. Had she lived to be ninety, it is doubtful she would have added much that would widen the scope of her work, or improve upon it. Yet The Mortgaged Heart reveals everything she wrote to bear some unique gift, the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
Robert Phillips, in Studies in Short Fiction, Winter, 1973, pp. 109-11.
Carson McCullers was a greater myth-maker than she was a novelist. Her theme was the utter dislocation of love "in our time" and "in our town." Her extreme sense of human separateness took form in deaf-mutes who were also Greek foreigners in the Southern town in which they inexplicably found themselves, Negro doctors maddened by their intellectual isolation, fathers always widowers, and above all a young tomboy who, whether she is too young for sexual love or too odd for it, attributes her own unusedness to everyone else, then projects this "loneliness" against the political terror of the Hitler period and the excessiveness, vacancy, and stillness of summer in the town.
In McCullers what fills the space usually occupied by man-and-woman love is a sensitiveness that charges other people with magical perceptions. She radiated in all her work a demand for love so total that another was to become the perfect giver, and so became magical. The world is so bleak that it is always just about to be transformed. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) astonishingly comes alive still not only as a virtuoso performance dramatically engaging so many hard solitudes, but also as a novel of the depressed Thirties haunted by the powerlessness of people and the ferocious powers of governments.
McCullers's myth-making power was to fit this obsessive loneliness, this sense of total weakness before real earthly damnation, into the Southern climate, the town in summer, the doldrums of children with nowhere to go. She made many different lacks equal illuminations of the system of life in a Southern town. The bareness, vacancy, inertia seem to come out of the weather; the emotions of solitude flourish crazily in the parched streets; even McCullers's concentration on absolute clarity of style suggests the same still, depressed, vacant atmosphere, produces distinctness as a tragic effect. "In the town there were two deaf-mutes, and they were always together." Unlike the lonelies defeated by convention in Winesburg, Ohio, McCullers's girl-children recognize that the town is like themselves. The consistency of her theme absorbed the town into itself, made the immediate landscape hot with silent emotion.
McCullers had the intuition that human beings could be psychic states so absolute and self-contained that they repelled each other sexually. The characters in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter live in another world so insistent as to suggest damnation. They are out of nature. Though she converted this sense of some deep personal unnaturalness into brilliant "atmosphere" (all the more so because her style suggests fright striving for perfect control), the demon of self-damnation, of being utterly locked up, sexually limited, was a subject that fascinated her but which she objectified, as comedy, only once—in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.
The Member of the Wedding, her most popular work, turns the Huckleberry Finn of her first novel back into the children's literature of Tom Sawyer; it devalues her most familiarly tragic feelings about sex into cuteness: now she imitates Carson McCullers with an eye on the audience. But in the Ballad, emotionally the most detached of her fictions, the distrust of sex which runs all through her work expresses itself as a folktale in which the characters are mostly legends, unnatural and against nature. Everything is seen as a fable; there is nothing of that pervasive cry for sympathy which fills up The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter like a gas, numbing us.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little-Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 51-4.
[The] so-called literature of alienation frequently is so lacerated with hatred and self-pity that it fails to offer any really mature understanding of the phenomena of alienation. Not so with the fiction of Carson McCullers; for McCullers, who made personal alienation the explicit single concern of all her fiction, treats the solitude of the heart with both objectivity and compassion and, ultimately, with an understanding born of the blending of head and heart.
Mrs. McCullers once said of her work "my central theme is the theme of spiritual isolation. Certainly I have always felt alone." In her The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, the setting itself serves as metaphor for such spiritual isolation. She begins this novella by establishing the dreariness, lonesomeness, and sadness of a setting which seems "estranged from all other places in the world."…
We have the impression that the town itself is a grotesque, warped by its isolation, and that the building, with its cracked appearance, its dilapidated one-sided construction, and its boarded-up facade, might serve as symbol for whatever life remains in it and in the town. For life here is hopelessly inward, separated, and estranged. Selfhood means only confinement in the solitude of one's own heart….
Most studies of The Ballad emphasize only McCullers' theme of spiritual alienation and irreparable loneliness; they seem to disregard the fact that aloneness was, for a time at least, actually overcome. But Carson McCullers is very explicit about the achievement of "an air of intimacy … and a vague festivity" in the café….
Although … the "people in this town were unused to gathering together for the sake of pleasure," they do manage for a time to do so and consequently to escape the humdrum everydayness of their lives and the sense of their own worthlessness. But the effort cannot be maintained; the café is closed and the people retreat once again into their own separateness and aloneness. The convivial nights in the café end ostensibly because Marvin Macy and Cousin Lymon have ransacked the place, carving obscene words on the tables and bringing shame and sadness to Miss Amelia. But I should like to suggest that the café's violent end was already inherent in the consciousness of Amelia and her patrons.
Panthea Reid Broughton, "Rejection of the Feminine in Carson McCullers' 'The Ballad of the Sad Cafe'," in Twentieth Century Literature, January, 1974, pp. 34-7.
Granville Hicks has written that Mrs. McCullers went downhill after her first novel. With the exception of the brilliant story, "The Ballad of the Sad Café," I would agree. Why the decline? Because her subsequent works depend almost entirely upon the imaginative use of language, and neglect the solid foundation of place. Too many of her characters are like those created by her friend, Tennessee Williams—poetic but shallow. She continued to write about the South even though she did not live there—physically or spiritually. She said Brooklyn was her "real neighborhood," but, as if obligated by birth, she continued to write about unreal people in that fictional town somewhere south of Atlanta and west of Milledgeville. Carson McCullers could not recover the South in her fiction, because she left it before she really understood it. The only novel which approaches a serious exploration of the moral dimension of her characters, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, she wrote while living in North Carolina. This novel does rest upon a solid foundation of place. Furthermore, it elaborates a correlation between the emotional estrangement of the adolescent Mick and the anomie of those around her—the only instance of a successful correlation of this sort in her works….
If her early years in the South contributed anything to her craft, it must have been, as she said, in terms of language: "I love the voices of Negroes—like brown rivers." Flannery O'Connor, another Georgian who was McCullers' contemporary, could talk about how the "Christ haunted" South made possible the literature of the grotesque, but Carson McCullers attributed the vision of grotesque fiction to the "cheapness of human life in the South."
It is clear that Carson McCullers did not assimilate much of the intellectual and cultural heritage of the South. Her chief difficulties as a writer stemmed from her disregard of her own past. Ironically, this disregard lies at the heart of the fundamental problem she spent her life writing about—the perennially-thwarted search for identity. The early novels and stories were written by a pessimistic young woman who, like her adolescent protagonists, longed to transcend the environment of her frustrated childhood. The last novel came from a less sober, more optimistic McCullers who claimed there was something worth saving in her South. But in Clock Without Hands she was unable to identify exactly what she had in mind. If her early familiarity with the South bred contempt, then her exile's unfamiliarity with it bred something worse than contempt—vacuity.
In a larger sense, this discussion about Carson McCullers and the South concerns the matter of cultural symbols which continue to motivate many modern, upwardly-mobile Southern intellectuals. Carson McCullers, let us remember, experienced the South quite differently from writers like Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, William Faulkner, Walker Percy, and a host of others whose parents and/or grandparents were aristocrats of the Southern mind. She did not inherit a sense of tradition, and the record she left indicates she did not attempt to embrace any tradition. She built her life on the hope that, somehow, Paris or New York would reach down and rescue her from the frustration and stagnation she felt and feared in the South. Unlike many whose lives have been galvanized by this kind of hope, she had the rare misfortune of seeing the hope fulfilled when she was very young—too young, indeed, to know that the fulfillment would be self-defeating.
Delma Eugene Presley, "Carson McCullers and the South," in The Georgia Review, Spring, 1974, pp. 19-32.
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