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(Lula) Carson McCullers 1917–1967
American novelist, short story writer, poet, and playwright. Despite a small literary output, McCullers is considered a leading writer of the American South. She was born and grew up in Georgia, and her novels are deeply rooted in her southern background. Her pervasive themes of spiritual isolation and the loneliness of the individual give unity to her work but have also proved to be a limiting factor. She was often placed in the category of southern Gothic writers who concerned themselves with decay and the grotesque and used horror for its own sake. McCullers, however, used the physical incapacity of her grotesque figures as a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love or receive love. McCullers originally intended to become a concert pianist but was forced to abandon her plan due to lack of money. Consequently she turned to writing, and often drew on her knowledge of music for the structure of her works. She published her first book, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, at the age of 23. Her autobiographical portrayals of adolescence as a period of questing, loneliness, fantasy, and rebellion have been called both touching and accurate. In The Member of the Wedding, Frankie Addams desperately searches for her identity, which she calls "the we of me." The dramatization of this novel won McCullers the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Mick Kelly, the teenager in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, looks for love and meaning as she faces adulthood. McCullers' portrayals of southern blacks have also been praised for their depth and understanding. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
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Around the pivotal character of John Singer, a deaf-mute, and around the theme of man's vital craving for a sympathetic, understanding confidant, Miss McCullers drapes the rather loosely woven texture of [The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter], a book flavored with compassion and a gentle melancholy but never with despair….
While Miss McCullers harps perhaps a little too persistently on the one plaintive string of her theme, she leaves several of her people hauntingly engraved in the reader's memory; and she displays a most praiseworthy frankness and lack of affection. The acuteness of character-perception revealed is quite remarkable in an author who … is a girl of twenty-two.
Louis B. Salomon, "Someone to Talk To," in The Nation (copyright 1940 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), July 13, 1940, p. 36.
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With the depression as a murky backdrop, ["The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter"] depicts the bleak landscape of the American consciousness below the Mason-Dixon line. Miss McCullers' picture of loneliness, death, accident, insanity, fear, mob violence and terror is perhaps the most desolate that has so far come from the South. Her quality of despair is unique and individual; and it seems to me more natural and authentic than that of Faulkner. Her groping characters live in a world more completely lost than any Sherwood Anderson ever dreamed of. And she recounts incidents of death and attitudes of stoicism in sentences whose neutrality makes Hemingway's terse prose seem warm and partisan by comparison. Hovering mockingly over her story of loneliness in a small town are primitive religion, adolescent hope, the silence of deaf mutes—and all of these give the violent colors of the life she depicts a sheen of weird tenderness….
I don't know what the book is about; the nearest I can come to indicating its theme is to refer to the Catholic confessional or the private office of the psychoanalyst. The characters, Negro and white, are "naturals," and are seen from a point of view that endows them with a mythlike quality. The core of the book is the varied relationships of these characters to Singer, a lonely deaf mute….
The naturalistic incidents of which the book is compounded seem to be of no importance; one has the feeling that any string of typical actions would have served the author's purpose as well, for the value of such writing lies not so much in what is said as in the angle of vision from which life is seen. There are times when Miss McCullers deliberately suppresses the naturally dramatic in order to linger over and accentuate the more obscure, oblique and elusive emotions.
To me the most impressive aspect of "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.
In the conventional sense, this is not so much a novel as a projected mood, a state of mind poetically objectified in words, an attitude externalized in naturalistic detail.
Richard Wright, "Inner Landscape," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1940 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 5, 1940, p. 195.
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I have rarely read a work of fiction like "Reflections in a Golden Eye," a novelette in which are held, in unstable equilibrium, a certain not unimpressive intuitive quality (pointedly reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence), a feverish concern with distorted and neurotic types, and a kind of innocence, as if the author had never encountered any of the experiences she describes but were making them up, as a child invents a magical tale. The net effect is completely unconvincing.
Mrs. McCullers' characters make Mr. Faulkner's seem like the folks next door. (p. 78)
Mrs. McCullers was herself in her first novel. In her second effort she seems to be borrowing from her reading of others. This mimicry gives an effect of falseness which is further strengthened by her too obvious desire to create people and situations that are strange and startling. She has undeniable talent. It would grow more harmoniously if she could, right at this point in her development, give herself a humorous once-over. If she did, she might find something to laugh at in the grotesque and forced hallucinations of which "Reflections in a Golden Eye" is composed. (p. 80)
Clifton Fadiman, in The New Yorker (© 1941 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 15, 1941.
In its sphere, [Reflections in a Golden Eye] is a masterpiece. It is as mature and finished as Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, though still more specialized. Its story is about life as Carson McCullers sees fit to create it in a Southern Army camp, and is almost desperately psychomedical. Within its 183 pages a child is born (some of whose fingers are grown together), an Army captain suffers from bisexual impotence, a half-witted private rides nude in the woods, a stallion is tortured, a murder is done, a heart-broken wife cuts off her nipples with garden shears.
In almost any hands, such material would yield a rank fruitcake of mere arty melodrama. But Carson McCullers tells her tale with simplicity, insight, and a rare gift of phrase. She makes its tortures seem at least as valid as the dull suburban tragedies from [James T.] Farrell's or [Theodore] Dreiser's Midwest, commonly called lifelike. Reflections in a Golden Eye is the Southern school at its most Gothic, but also at its best.
"Masterpiece at 24," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1941), February 17, 1941, p. 96.
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["Reflections in a Golden Eye"] is a sad disappointment, not only after [Miss McCullers'] remarkable first novel, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," but after its own opening pages. It is instantly plain that the book is by some one who can write, with a haunting power and suggestiveness that can be felt at once; but it all too soon becomes clear that the story is a vipers'-knot of neurasthenic relationships among characters whom the author seems hardly to comprehend, and of whose perversions she can create nothing. On the first page she promises us a murder on an army post, involving "Two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse"; and it is no joke, but the simple truth, to say of this cast, the horse is the only one for whom one can feel comprehension of his character and pity for his tragedy….
Such a collection of sick and unnatural souls could become the stuff of tragedy only if handled with the greatest comprehension, and woven into a pattern which gave some logical conclusion to the bent of each character. Neither of these conditions is here fulfilled. The murder which we have been promised comes as an anticlimax, not because the preceding emotions are too great, but because so many of the narrative threads do not lead to it, and because it is no resolution even of those which do: the book does not culminate in tragedy, it trails off into futility. And to Miss McCullers her characters' vagaries seem merely something to be cold-bloodedly chosen for their bizarrerie, contemplated, and set down, without pity or comment or any sort of use. (p. 12)
Basil Davenport, in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright, 1941, by The Saturday Review Co., Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 22, 1941.
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[Miss McCullers' concerns in "Reflections in a Golden Eye"], and ours, is what she sees going on within, for her people are masks underneath which pulse strange, distorted psyches.
Miss McCullers is young, but quite of age…. "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" proved that. It was youthful in its special intensity and in its probing candor, its certain relentless, merciless quality. But it was a remarkable novel, placing a strange, original talent on display…. The present much shorter and slighter novel exhibits to some degree the same quality. But it is vastly inferior. Quite unlike the other, it suggests the youthful prodigy; and one suspects it was written first and unwisely pressed into service by the publishers to follow up the success of the first novel. Either that or it has been over-hastily written.
"Look!" cries the Filipino sitting before the fire, staring at the glowing embers, "a peacock of a sort of ghastly green. With one immense golden eye. And in it these reflections of something tiny and"—
"Grotesque," suggests the Major's wife. That gives us title and mood. These people, shifting shadow shapes, are distortions, dancing reflections in a glowing eye shining through an epicene penumbra. And it is, of course, entirely proper for the literary as the pictorial artist to treat of the grotesque and arabesque, of masks and puppets, of distortions and of horror and evil, of things unreal and unknown things, darkly hidden, if such be his way of approach to verity. But the six principals here …, moving two by two through a puppet show that appears to be a mere masquerade, seem only costumed….
No one could say, however, that Miss McCullers has not succeeded in making her genuine talent felt, a talent which is less of subtlety than of infant-terrible insight expressed with quite grown-up precision, as yet unmellowed and unhallowed. It should not be forced in order to take advantage of a passing vogue, for it will surely crack up in the hurly-burly of competition. It is a brave talent; but not, I think, a very sturdy plant. It calls for a gentle handling and careful cultivation.
Fred T. Marsh, "At an Army Post," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1941 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 2, 1941, p. 6.
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Carson McCullers is a writer of undoubted sensibility and talent who seems to have difficulty in adjusting her abilities to a dramatically effective subject…. ["The Member of the Wedding"] has no element of drama at all.
The whole book is a formless chronicle of Frankie's musings as she walks about the town, and of her interminable conversations in the kitchen with the maid and the little cousin. These kitchen scenes are very well done in the sense that they create an atmosphere and that the characters are droll and natural: the maid is particularly good; the way she is made to talk is perfect. But they have no internal structure and do not build up to anything. The whole story seems utterly pointless….
I hope that I am not being stupid about this book, which has left me feeling rather cheated. (p. 87)
Edmund Wilson, "Two Books that Leave You Blank: Carson McCullers, Siegfried Sassoon" (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright 1946 by Edmund Wilson; copyright renewed © 1973 by Elena Wilson), in The New Yorker, March 30, 1946.
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["The Member of the Wedding"] is Carson McCullers's third book; and we have now, I should think, sufficient evidence for remarking that, while there are quite a few writers who unfortunately resemble her, she fortunately resembles nobody else. She is unique….
["The Member of the Wedding"] is not just a study of adolescence. Frankie Addams, it is true, conforms to a possible pattern of behavior. She does nothing which a twelve-year-old girl might not do. Yet the further you read into "The Member of the Wedding" the more you realize, it seems to me, that Frankie is merely the projection of a problem that has nothing much to do with adolescence.
The three chief characters are Frankie herself, her [cousin] John Henry, and the [cook] Berenice…. Their problem is elementary, unanswerable, and common to all age levels….
In other words, the problem which obsesses them is human loneliness: the basic problem which Virginia Woolf, after years of investigation, could only state in terms of "here is one room, there another." Miss McCullers states it in its most undifferentiated form; places it in this light and in that; looks at it savagely, gleefully, tenderly; seems almost to taste it and to roll it round her tongue; but never attempts to find an answer.
Indeed, what makes this story so unusual is the fact that most of it takes place through the medium of desultory conversations between three really weird people sitting in an even weirder kitchen. Nothing or almost nothing occurs here, and yet every page is filled with a sense of something having happened, happening, and about to happen. This in itself is a considerable technical feat; and, beyond that, there is magic in it….
I would be the last to deny that Miss McCullers has [her limitations]. It must be obvious to everyone who has read her books that her art excludes many important things with which the artist today is rightly preoccupied. It is an exclusive art, not out of choice but out of necessity: not because it does not wish to include but because it cannot.
She is a suggestive rather than an eloquent writer, and often seems to present us less with a meaning than with a hint. And yet the lines of her work are clear and firm. I do not know how this is done; but my ignorance will not deter me from attempting to provide an explanation.
Though she has an acute observation, she does not use it to make rounded people. Her characters invariably remind one of faces one may have seen, in a dream perhaps, in a tabloid newspaper possibly, or out of a train window. Their clothes, their gestures, their conversations are selected with an admirable eye and ear to verisimilitude; but the actual inhabitants of these clothes, gestures, and conversations are not themselves quite human. In fact, this book seems more and more to insist that it is, as it were, a monologue furnished with figures.
For Carson McCullers's work has always seemed to me to be a form of self-dramatization. It is true that this can be said of most immature fiction. But Miss McCullers is both a mature and fine writer. She does not dramatize herself in the sense that she is merely autobiographical; but she does dramatize herself in the sense that she seems to invest the various sides of her personality with attributes skilfully collected from the outside world.
From this point of view, "The Member of the Wedding" is a masquerade; but a serious, profound, and poetic masquerade in which the Unconscious (or the Subconscious or whatever you wish to call the subliminal personality) expresses itself, now through the voice of Frankie Addams, now through that of John Henry, now through that of Berenice Sadie Brown. The other characters, who certainly belong to the real world, hover round the edge of this extraordinary monologue, with one foot in it and one out; behaving with none of the awkwardness which you might expect from them in such circumstances, but adding richness to the story and relating it to more normal fiction….
[This] is, to my mind, a marvelous piece of writing. Not merely does it sustain the interest all the way through, but it does so under circumstances which demand the utmost delicacy and balance from the author.
The book avoids what T. E. Lawrence called "the kindergarten of the imagination" on the one hand; on the other hand, it never becomes a mere sequence of neurotic images. It steers a wonderful middle course between these two morasses. It is a work which reveals a strong, courageous, and independent imagination. There are other writers in the contemporary field who are of more importance than Carson McCullers. Of her it should be sufficient to say, once again, that she is unique.
George Dangerfield, "An Adolescent's Four Days," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright, 1946, by the Saturday Review Co., Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 30, 1946, p. 15.
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Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding, astutely and frugally designed, is a deceptive piece of writing, and its candor may betray the unwary reader into accepting it as what it first seems, a study of turbulent adolescence…. [McCullers' portrait of childhood is composed of] a com-plexus of unreal, real, and surreal events, in a pattern which is itself as delusive as the dream of a total happiness. Merely by thinking in terms of the individual childhood here presented rather than in terms of the many and carefully erected symbols employed by the author in an argument concerned with man in his relation to various kinds of reality, the reader may miss the importance of this curiously spiritual book…. Mrs. McCullers, sometimes depicted as a sensationalist revelling in the grotesque, is more than that because she is first of all the poetic symbolist, a seeker after those luminous meanings which always do transcend the boundaries of the stereotyped, the conventional, and the so-called normal. Here, then, is a fairly clear, explicit writing—explicit even in its use of the anomalous, the paradoxical, the amorphous—the confusions of life. Though its themes are romantic, their working out is classically controlled. There is no wilderness for the reader to get lost in, and if he is lost, it is perhaps because this writing does not weep, gnash, wail, shout, wear its heart on its sleeve. It is rather like a chess game, where every move is a symbol and requires the reader's counter-move. (pp. 151-52)
At first level, it is the story of a boy girl Frankie who, during a torrid summer, plans to join her brother's wedding, to get married to the two who are getting married, to belong, to be a member of something, to break down all barriers of atomic individualism, to be somehow intimately involved with all the intimate concerns of the happy human race. If Frankie can only crash in on this wedding of two other people to each other, being the third member, loving both, loved by both, even though she is excessive, why, then, there will be the kind of perfect happiness which man has always dreamed of, like a union of all the nations…. What Frankie is dreaming of is possible only inside her own creative head, is nowhere else, is very far from possible. The purely imaginary goal is still a goal for Frankie, who cannot easily give up. She and Berenice sit discussing these crucial matters in endless, capacious luxury, capacious for them and for the reader, who can ponder as they ponder, think backward and forward. Then there is an audience, John Henry, aged six, who chimes in every once in a while and provides, in the drama, his own special, peculiar insights. He is beautifully described, once as a little blackbird running against the light. In fact, all three characters, all major, are treated with dignity and revealing tenderness, especially Berenice, whose blue glass eye is like Frankie's dream of the impossible wedding, a dream of almost heavenly harmony on earth. Berenice does not precisely dream of turning white, but her blue glass eye is a terrible commentary on the color line and the arbitrary divisions which shut off people from each other. All this book is a discussion of happiness, done as quietly as Rasselas by Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, and the conclusion is faintly similar to his. There are minor characters moving back and forth like the minor figures on a chessboard, in this case both cosmic and human. Nobody is ever disparaged. The Negro people are always people, thoughtful, mature, at home with Frankie who wants to belong to the human race, at home with John Henry, who is very soon to leave it…. (p. 152)
I see the impossibility of describing the book without describing it in terms of its intricate symbols…. One thing is always described in terms of another. The argument, though veiled by diverse imagery, is never lost. The imagery is functional. In fact, if there is any one statement to define Mrs. McCullers' position as a writer, it is not that she is merely the sensationalist but that she is … concerned with theories of knowledge—though the by-play of wit does not entice her away from the main themes. There is no lush undergrowth. Control is never absent. The framework is always visible.
People want to be told what they already believe, and Mrs. McCullers, in this case, is not telling most people what they already believe. Rather, she is continually questioning a great many complacent assumptions as to what is what, for she is too closely skeptical and analytical a writer to suppose that in the accepted platitudes lies truth. She weighs, she measures. Wild idealism does not carry her beyond the boundaries of a rigorous common sense world, partly for the reason that she finds the given world itself a sufficient phantasmagoria of lost events. Her attitude toward human nature is patient, behaviorist, clinical. Her writing, brooding and exploratory though it is, remains for these reasons as formal as a problem in geometry, though the perspectives bewilderingly and constantly shift. She sees life as impressionistic, but she herself is not the impressionist. She is a logician in an illogical realm.
Is there a given pattern in the nature of things, a music of the spheres, or was it all, as Mrs. McCullers implies, accident and chaos and fragment to begin with? Mrs. McCullers, speculative like her characters, dreams of an omniscient pattern but finds that such a pattern is rather more man's project than God's and that its realization may comprise another chaos. Then, too, there is the problem of how to make the inner world and the outer world conjoin, the problem immediately faced by Frankie, an anarchist in an old baseball cap. These three people, Frankie, John Henry, and Berenice sit around the kitchen table talking most musically while the green summer heat grows more and more oppressive around them. The focal subject is the impossible wedding, the illusory goal, out of which grow other illusory subjects, all related. John Henry draws crazy pictures on the wall. The piano tuner comes to tune the piano (perhaps next door), and the notes become a visible music climbing to the ceiling. And this is almost all that ever happens in the book but enough to keep the sensitive reader appalled to hear meaning after meaning dissolve, while the old problems continue. Is even green a color that can be said to be green to everybody? The metaphysical grows out of the immediate and returns to it, made no less rich because its origin is known…. Berenice, Frankie, and John Henry, many-dimensioned, talking about what it means to be human, play in an alien system, all the while at a three-handed bridge game, emblematic of their plight. Some of the cards are, though they do not know it, missing from the beginning, maybe like those cards which God threw down at creation—and maybe that is why nothing ever turns out right, why there are expectation and disappointment. John Henry expresses his desire for an angular vision with which to read through and around the cards, a vision that can bend at will, for John Henry is of a philosophic turn of mind besides being a painter of crazy pictures.
At the end of the book, when the strange trilogy is broken up by death and moving away, it seems, in retrospect, a pattern as illusive and perfect as the wedding of three. It can never be recovered. The enchantment is implied in the writing but is not expressed by Frankie, who has come to the banal point of declaring that she just loves Michelangelo. Uncertainty seems to be her future. Either she will grow up, or she will not grow up. (pp. 152-55)
Marguerite Young, "Metaphysical Fiction," in The Kenyon Review (copyright 1947 by Kenyon College), Winter, 1947, pp. 151-55.
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[Reflections in a Golden Eye] is a second novel, and although its appreciation has steadily risen during the eight or nine years since its first appearance, it was then regarded as somewhat disappointing in the way that second novels usually are. When the book preceding a second novel has been very highly acclaimed, as was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, there is an inclination on the part of critics to retrench their favor, so nearly automatic and invariable a tendency that it can almost be set down as a physical law. But the reasons for failure to justly evaluate this second novel go beyond the common, temporal disadvantage that all second novels must suffer, and I feel that an examination of these reasons may be of considerably greater pertinence to our aim of suggesting a fresh evaluation. (p. ix)
I believe that I am safe in assuming that it was [the critics'] identification of the author with a certain school of American writers, mostly of southern origin, that made her subject to a particular and powerful line of attack.
Even in the preceding book some readers must undoubtedly have detected a warning predisposition toward certain elements which are popularly known as 'morbid.' Doubtless there were some critics, as well as readers, who did not understand why Carson McCullers had elected to deal with a matter so unwholesome as the spiritual but passionate attachment that existed between a deaf-mute and a half-wit. But the tenderness of the book disarmed them. The depth and nobility of its compassion were so palpable that at least for the time being the charge of decadence had to be held in check. This forbearance was of short duration. In her second novel the veil of a subjective tenderness, which is the one quality of her talent which she has occasionally used to some excess, was drawn away. And the young writer suddenly flashed in their faces the cabalistic emblems of fellowship with a certain company of writers that the righteous 'Humanists' in the world of letters regarded as most abhorrent and most necessary to expose and attack. (pp. x-xi)
I am not at all sure what title has been conferred upon this group of writers by their disparaging critics, but for my own convenience I will refer to them as the Gothic School. It has a very ancient lineage, this school, but our local inheritance of its tradition was first brought into prominence by the early novels of William Faulkner, who still remains a most notorious and unregenerate member. There is something in the region, something in the blood and culture, of the southern state that has somehow made them the center of this Gothic school of writers. Certainly something more important than the influence of a single artist, Faulkner, is to be credited with its development, just as in France the Existentialist movement is surely attributable to forces more significant than the personal influence of Jean-Paul Sartre. There is actually a common link between the two schools, French and American, but characteristically the motor impulse of the French school is intellectual and philosophic while that of the American is more of an emotional and romantic nature. What is this common link? In my opinion it is most simply definable as a sense, an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience. (pp. xi-xii)
Reflections in a Golden Eye is one of the purest and most powerful of those works which are conceived in that Sense of The Awful which is the desperate black root of nearly all significant modern art, from the Guernica of Picasso to the cartoons of Charles Addams. (pp. xvii-xviii)
The first novel had a tendency to overflow in places as if the virtuosity of the young writer had not yet fallen under her entire control. But in the second there is an absolute mastery of design. There is a lapidary precision about the structure of this second book. Furthermore I think it succeeds more perfectly in establishing its own reality, in creating a world of its own, and this is something that primarily distinguishes the work of a great artist from that of a professional writer. In this book there is perhaps no single passage that assaults the heart so mercilessly as that scene in the earlier novel where the deaf-mute Singer stands at night outside the squalid flat that he had formerly occupied with the crazed and now dying Antonopolous. The acute tragic sensibility of scenes like that occurred more frequently in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Here the artistic climate is more austere. The tragedy is more distilled: a Grecian purity cools it, the eventually overwhelming impact is of a more reflective order. The key to this deliberate difference is implicit in the very title of the book. Discerning critics should have found it the opposite of a disappointment since it exhibited the one attribute which had yet to be shown in Carson McCullers' stunning array of gifts: the gift of mastery over a youthful lyricism.
I will add, however, that this second novel is still not her greatest; it is surpassed by The Member of the Wedding, her third novel, which combined the heart-breaking tenderness of the first with the sculptural quality of the second. But this book is in turn surpassed by a somewhat shorter work. I am speaking of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, which is assuredly among the masterpieces of our language in the form of the novella. (pp. xviii-xix)
I have found in her work, such intensity and nobility of spirit as we have not had in our prose-writing since Herman Melville…. [The work she has already accomplished] is not eclipsed by time but further illumined. (p. xxi)
Tennessee Williams, in his introduction to Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers (copyright © 1941 by Carson Smith McCullers; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1950, pp. ix-xxi.
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Here in one omnibus volume ["The Ballad of the Sad Café"], which includes her three novels, a half dozen short stories, and an unfamiliar longer one which gives the volume its name, is the whole fabulous world of Carson McCullers: the dwarfed and the deformed, the hurt and the lonely, the defeated and the despised, the violent and the homicidal—all the masks and symbols which she has employed over a decade of writing to shock the reader into a shared experience of her own intense sense of human tragedy. When "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" was published in 1949, it was widely recognized as an original and mature work, and the acclaim for it was mixed with mild astonishment that the book should be the work of a twenty-three-year old writer. Something like that first astonishment is induced by the present collection, which exhibits what an impressive and unified body of work has been produced by Mrs. McCullers at an age when many another writer has hardly started his career. For "The Ballad of the Sad Café" makes abundantly clear, which was not generally seen at the time of their separate publication, that "Reflections in a Golden Eye" and "The Member of the Wedding" extend and broaden the themes of her first book, as do the shorter pieces, so that each takes its place in an expanding structure in which each part augments and strengthens the rest.
A recurring theme throughout Mrs. McCullers' work—perhaps the central theme—is the human tragedy of the failure of communication between man and man, and the sense of loss and separation and loneliness which accompanies that failure….
In Mrs. McCullers' world of symbols the urgent need to communicate is most often presented in the guise of the physically maimed or deformed, who are at once the favored and the damned. (p. 1)
The establishment of communication, the breaking down of the barriers of a torturing separateness, is the ultimate achievement of Mrs. McCullers' characters….
"The Sojourner" and "A Domestic Dilemma" and "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" are, in their various ways, stories of the separateness which may exist in the "we" of man and wife. It is, however, in the title story, "The Ballad of the Sad Café," that Mrs. McCullers' achievement is seen at its most intense. A short novel, or long short story, or novella … it is condensed and disciplined and brilliant writing, which carries the reader along so easily on the wave of the story that he may not at first be aware how completely he has been saturated with symbolism…. Miss Amelia and the hunchback and Marvin Macy, the instrument of the disaster, are a grotesque crew…. Mrs. McCullers' freaks are not to be dismissed: they are Everyman. (p. 13)
Coleman Rosenberger, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1951 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 10, 1951.
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The art of Carson McCullers has been called "Gothic." Perhaps it is—superficially. Certainly her day-to-day world, her little Southern towns, are haunted by far more masterful horrors than were ever conjured up in the dreary castles of a Horace Walpole. It seems to me, however, that the "Gothic" label misses the essential point. Because Carson McCullers is ultimately the artist functioning at the very loftiest symbolic level, and if one must look for labels I should prefer to call her work "metaphysical." Behind the strange and horrible in her world there are played out the most sombre tragedies of the human spirit; her mutes, her hunchbacks, speak of complexities and frustrations which are so native to man that they can only be recognized, perhaps, in the shock which comes from seeing them dressed in the robes of the grotesque. They pass us on the street every day but we only notice them when they drag a foot as they go by.
At the very opening of the title story [of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe], the face of Miss Amelia, the proprietor of the "Sad Cafe," is described as a face "… like the terrible dim faces known in dreams … sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inwards so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief." This description, remarkable for its metaphysical fusion of horror and compassion, might serve as a symbol of Carson McCullers' art. And this fusion, I would say, represents an achievement equalled by few other contemporary American writers. (p. 243)
William P. Clancy, in Commonweal (copyright © 1951 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), June 15, 1951.
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[Few writers] are as consistent and thoroughgoing as Carson McCullers in creating a sustained body of work. This underlying unity is partly the result of her prevailing theme of loneliness and desire, partly the working of the special sensibility which colors her perception of people and events. Her writing has both center and substance…. (p. 1)
[Even] though Mrs. McCullers' purpose was frequently misread, there was never any doubt as to the vividness of her writing. She possessed from the first those qualities which distinguish the born writer: the ability to recreate with fidelity and rich complexity a world of sense impressions, an intimation of the mystery surrounding our circle of awareness, and a technique giving form and meaning to the raw lump of experience. (pp. 1-2)
[We] are struck at once by the oddly dreamlike quality pervading her work. Most of her stories reveal some degree of nightmarish intensity because of the indirect lighting on her material. This effect is one of perspective as well as sensibility. Without being archaic, her fiction suggests the faraway and long ago, and with her opening paragraphs she takes us into her own special world. Sometimes it is the lost world of childhood, as in The Member of the Wedding…. Sometimes Mrs. McCullers' style gives a suggestion of remoteness to the commonplace present. The first sentence of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter could easily begin a medieval legend of piety and grace: "In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together." Instead, we read a story of life in a southern mill town toward the end of the depression. The feeling of distance may come also from her treatment of landscape and setting. The village in The Ballad of the Sad Café is "lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all the other places in the world." This effect of distance is neither sentimental nor quaint: its aesthetic value is to define the point of view from which action and scene are presented in somber aspect. It is a perspective revealing a world of half-lights and shadows. The logic of things in Mrs. McCullers' stories is no longer the daylight logic of everyday life. (p. 2)
At the same time her talent has firm roots in the local scene. The settings of her novels are Georgia mill towns, a dusty crossroads hamlet, an army post in the Deep South. Against this regional background she has created a world of tragic reality, as violent as Dostoevski's, as richly symbolic as Kafka's, though unmistakably her own. It is a limited world, but within it she is capable of precise and evocative effects. She has all the realist's concern for shapes and colors, for the particularities of persons and things. Her books are filled with images drawn, not from the historic tradition of literature, but from the background of particular experience in which her characters are involved….
Her writing develops interesting juxtapositions; the simple and the elusive, realism and imaginative symbolism. To the realist's strict regard for appearances and sense experience she has joined the symbolist's preoccupation with meaning and value. This fusion allows her imagination to operate simultaneously on two levels—one real and dramatic, the other poetic and symbolic. The quality of dualism in her work is best illustrated by her handling of character. The men and women in her novels exist as clearly realized human beings, even while they function as symbols of the human predicament. John Singer, the mute who stands at the center of action and meaning in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, is such a figure, realistically drawn…. His value, however, is symbolic. To the other characters in the novel he is the embodiment of that sense of isolation, of separation from the community, which makes their lives wretched. (p. 3)
Most of the men and women in her world are grotesques in the manner of Sherwood Anderson's people in Winesburg, Ohio: social misfits, psychological freaks. Many of them are maimed or deformed…. Apparently Mrs. McCullers can realize her own tragic vision of life only through symbols of the misshapen and the hurt, whose physical deformities reveal outwardly the twisted, distorted spirits of their inner lives. (pp. 3-4)
The people in these books feel a desperate need to communicate with their fellows…. When they fail to break through the barriers of self, they are driven to moods of violence and despair. The symbolism of the café, that "clean, well-lighted place" for the lonely and the sleepless, is as clearly motivated in Mrs. McCullers' novels as it is in Hemingway's story.
In fact, this is the basic symbol in The Ballad of the Sad Café…. It is not a perfect story, for there are flaws in its structure and style …; but it brings into perspective and balance the chief elements of her narrative pattern: a plot of double conflict, external and internal, between the individual and a hostile environment; a dramatic structure unfolding the tension of crisis, when the individual realizes that he is separate and lost; a theme of moral isolation presented in terms of social disunity and the wasted human effort to escape the loneliness which life itself imposes; style as technique, to disclose thematic meanings which parallel the dramatic line of action. (p. 4)
This novelette has the casual tone of an old wives' tale, retold with touches of horror and wry humor…. It is also a story of compassion and insight, for deeper meanings lie under the simple narrative pattern…. Mrs. McCullers' triumph is that she has made Miss Amelia grotesque without letting her become ridiculous, just as Cousin Lymon is sinister without being melodramatic. In this fable the writer ponders the mystery of love and the hatred which lies close to it, and the ways by which character is shaped for betrayal and ruin. The Ballad of the Sad Café is an impressive story because it takes a long, steady look at the moral evil which is also the devouring, obsessive evil of modern society, the isolation of the loving and the lonely.
All of Mrs. McCullers' fiction turns on the single theme of loneliness and longing….
It is this view of moral isolation as the inescapable condition of man which makes The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter so impressive as a first novel. (p. 5)
No one, so far as I know, has commented on the thematic structure of this novel—thematic as that term is used to describe form in a musical composition. Mrs. McCullers had her early training in music, and she has drawn upon her knowledge to give the design of her book its structural analogy. Themes and character motifs appear early in the novel, only to be dropped and later resumed, so that the structure becomes one of introduction, repetition, variation, dissonances, unresolved harmonies. The design of the novel alone should have indicated to her first reviewers how far she had progressed beyond realistic reporting.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the broadest social picture she has attempted. In contrast, the world of Reflections in a Golden Eye has grown restricted and intense. Her setting, an unnamed army post, presupposes a particular society and special forms of conduct, so that her novel seems [morally insulated]…. The pressure of the narrowed field makes for speed and concentration, and the reader has a feeling of powerlessness before this swift unfolding of physical violence and psychological horrors. (p. 6)
But Reflections in a Golden Eye is more than a simple chronicle of violence. For Mrs. McCullers the real thing is not the effect of horror she creates but the enveloping moment which reveals man's capacity for error, cruelty, guilt, self-deception, self-destruction. The book is an example of the planned novel, with every detail and symbol deliberately created and plotted. Story, character, and setting exist as one great metaphor. For the special world of this novel is also the larger world, and its characters—the weak, the impotent, the skeptical, the predatory, the lonely, the unreflecting primitive—are its society. Her method in this novel is that of much modern poetry and fiction, but it is also a method as old as the first myths and fables.
In one sense her stories are never finished, for she has the habit of returning to the same characters and situations and reworking them, as much for her own understanding, apparently, as for that of her readers. There are points of similarity, for instance, between the section of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter dealing with Mick Kelly and The Member of the Wedding…. In The Member of the Wedding she makes us feel that adolescence is the thing she says it is, a haze of loneliness and groping shot through with private fantasy and furious outbreak against a complacent adult society. (p. 7)
It is easy enough to understand why this novel succeeded as a play. In the story of Frankie Addams Mrs. McCullers has reduced the total idea of moral isolation to a fable of simple outlines and a few eloquently dramatic scenes, set against a background of adolescent mood and experience familiar to us all.
Since all her novels represent some kind of variation on the one theme of human loneliness, a knowledge of her treatment of this theme is necessary to understand the purpose and cast of her writing. We should not take it for granted, however, that her work is in any way systematic or mechanical. Her way is not the course of allegory, tracing an exact correspondency between image and idea, but the way of myth. She is, after all, a novelist haunted by the elusive nature of human truth, and her underlying theme gives coherence to the variety and surprises she has found in the world about her.
By means of theme, symbol, and style she has thrown some light upon a dark corner of human experience. This in itself is no small achievement, especially so in view of the fact that her command of illuminating structure and style has been considerably complicated by the nature of her sensibility. (pp. 7-8)
The general high level of her writing makes all the more apparent … the slackening in the tensions of structure and style to be found in The Ballad of the Sad Café. In her effort to give this novelette the simple outlines of a ballad story she has let self-conscious archaism creep into her prose at several points…. In very much the same way Mrs. McCullers weakens the tightness of her structure by stepping into the foreground of the story to comment on her characters….
[This shows] the writer's capacity for relaxed and wise observation, but [it] may also indicate on her part the feeling of a need to editorialize, as if she thought her story too weak to carry unsupported its burden of theme and sensibility.
These minor flaws in her later work are defects of technique, not of vision, and, since they are not moral, they are curable…. Meanwhile she has given us novels of warmth and significance. In doing so, she has exhibited considerable resourcefulness and technical skill. (p. 8)
Dayton Kohler, "Carson McCullers: Variations on a Theme," in College English (copyright © 1951 by the National Council of Teachers of English), October, 1951, pp. 1-8.
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Miss Carson McCullers [is] the most remarkable novelist, I think, to come out of America for a generation. Coverage is ignored by her. She is a regional writer from the South, but behind her lies that classical and melancholy authority, that indifference to shock, which seem more European than American. She knows her own original, fearless and compassionate mind. The short novels and two or three stories now published in The Ballad of the Sad Café—the singsong Poe-like title so filled with the dominant American emotion of nostalgia—make an impact which recalls the impression made by such very different writers as Maupassant and D. H. Lawrence. What she has, before anything else, is a courageous imagination; that is to say one that is bold enough to consider the terrible in human nature without loss of nerve, calm, dignity or love. She has the fearless "golden eye" of the title of one of her stories. She is as circumspect as Defoe was in setting down the plain facts of her decaying Southern scene—a boring military camp, the dying little mill town with its closed café and empty streets, the back-kitchen life of a widower's daughter—and yet the moment she picks out her people, they are changed from the typical to the extraordinary. Like all writers of original genius, she convinces us that we have missed something which was plainly to be seen in the real world. So that if it is a matter of freaks like a gangling, mannish, hard-spitting, hard-hitting old virgin, or the hunchback dwarf she falls in love with, we are made to see that ordinary human love can transform them as it can any other creature: and, reversing the situation, when love gives its twist to a pair of dull officers and their wives at a military station, they become as strange, in their way, as the freaks. Like a chorus the mass of ordinary people crowd round these afflicted hearts. It may be objected that the very strangeness of the characters in a story like The Ballad of the Sad Café is that of regional gossip and, in fact, turns these characters into minor figures from some American Powys-land. They become the bywords of a local ballad. But the compassion of the author gives them their Homeric moment in a universal tragedy. There is a point at which they become "great." A more exact definition of the range of her genius would be to say that human destiny is watched by her in the heart alone. She is—but in the highest and most sensitive degree—limited to the subject of personality.
On that subject she is a master of peculiar perception and an incomparable story-teller. The Ballad, though it concerns oddities, is a most ingenious and surprising work and, as in her other stories, its invention and surprise are found not in plot but in the contemplation of the characters themselves. She winds her way backwards and forwards into her people in a way that is sometimes too dilatory, but at every digression she cannot fail to come upon some new bearing on their fate. The almost intolerable, magnetised suspense of her stories comes from the leisure of telling and her power to catch the fatal changes in people. (p. 137)
In her power to show the unconscious breaking surface, Miss McCullers is remarkable. She is a wonderful observer—this is rare in Anglo-Saxon writers—of the forms of love. In describing things like a neurotic illness, the seductiveness of a silly woman of slightly feeble mind, a pious soldier suddenly made sinister and exalted by the shock of desire, theory is buried far out of sight; one sees these things as they are in life but one is covertly made to understand the force behind them at the same time. Once again, [in Reflections in a Golden Eye.] the atmosphere created from innumerable fine strokes of local detail is momentous, and the winding course of the story adds to its effect. Perhaps, engrossed by her own skill in the devious line of continuity, Miss McCullers digresses or pads too much. There is a portrait of a Filipino servant which is a failure because he too usefully embodies the personal ideal of a moral sensibility that is perfect aesthetically. He is too precious a distillation of insight and humility in a story that is, very properly, a satire on the lethargy of life at a military station.
Although this is the most ambitious story in the book and the most powerful, it did not strike me as having the total originality of The Member of the Wedding…. Stories of adolescence are apt to be fatally infected by the morbidity, the continued adolescence of their authors. This one is not. Once again, this story goes on too long; it is filled with too many instances; but I have never seen anything on this subject done with a comparable insight. The squalor of dirty-faced, aggressive childhood, its physical awkwardness, its stupidities and jealousies, its ignorance of the world, its gusts of idealism, its lapses into the infantile are rendered in just detail; and when I say "rendered" I do not mean merely stated or analysed but, in the Jamesian sense, dramatised and put into the skin of life. And the terror of life, the fact that, to an intense imagination, life is terrifying from moment to moment because we do not know the fierce shadow inside ourselves or other people, is always conveyed…. A town comes to life in the child's wanderings, a place whose seamy and sinister meanings are half grasped, half ignored. Running wild about this place in her condition, the child is walking a tight-rope between normal human kindness and callous, frightful, casual wickedness and she has no fixed notion of either. So again this is a story of terror, but not of morbid terror. The child is not presented as a little sentimentalised victim of seediness, but as a creature forming itself, becoming a member of life, undergoing a completing experience without knowing she is doing so. For the complete are the scarred. Miss McCullers is a writer of the highest class because of her great literary gifts; but underlying these, and not less important, is her sense of the completeness of human experience at any moment. She is a classic, not a convert. (pp. 137-38)
V. S. Pritchett, in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1952 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 2, 1952.
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To all appearances Carson McCullers belongs to a School, the Gothic School of Southern writers unconsciously established by William Faulkner, a school supposedly concerned with the grotesque and the abnormal, with an outlandish love for the morbid, conveniently provided with characters of the decadent aristocracy and depraved poor whites which supposedly make up the population of the South. But whereas other Southern writers, perhaps Eudora Welty and Truman Capote, seem often to have capitalized upon interest created simply by differences and to have delved into strange creatures with artistic and precise surgery, Carson McCullers seems to have been concerned with a larger vision—in which the abnormal figures, it is true, but with a functional purpose, not simply to gain from the instinctive, primitive quickening we have for things strange or perverted. (pp. 53-4)
[It is probably] the tenderness of her seeing, the childlike compassion and interest without any of the more probing adult pity and surgical psychology that gives her writing the air of simple, star-like purity and beauty, the truth and humility of one who has learned to love a rock, a tree, a cloud, and finally all mankind. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a novel about the loneliness of all men, abnormal or normal, deformed or whole…. Her vision is a clear, compassionate one of people spiritually isolated each from the other, all as though living in a town that is "lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world." If she has used the grotesque it is because the loneliest of all human souls is found in the abnormal and deformed, the outward and manifest symbol of human separateness….
This pilgrimage through loneliness is symbolized superbly in the relationship of the two mutes, Singer and Antonapoulos, in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. (p. 54)
But the irony we realize is that only Singer is aware of the tremendous meaning of [their] "togetherness." Antonapoulos is obese, sensual, separate in his own fleshy, faraway world, a complacent Buddha-figure sublimely indifferent to all of Singer's impassioned and spiritual love….
This almost incomprehensible attraction is paralleled again by Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. (p. 55)
The difference in this relationship is another aspect of the constant theme of human loneliness. It is always the lover who gains, even if the way is sorrow, as indeed it is for Miss Amelia, deserted by the weird little dwarf she has clothed, cared for, and loved, because he too has become a lover and must now follow the object of his love…. This is the love of "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud," the brilliant and poignant short story of an old man, a tramp, who wanders silent and alone, learning to love through the penance and sorrow of a self-imposed pilgrimage, the Wanderjahre of the heart.
Carson McCullers does not limit her stories to the bizarre and the strange (and never for those qualities alone), to the wayfarer, to the traveler who stops in all-night cafes. Mick Kelly and Frankie Addams, who are both really the same girl in different novels, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunger and The Member of the Wedding, begin seeking in a sudden new world the way to escape the solitude they are discovering with the first brilliant sensitivity of adolescence…. (p. 56)
The theme of loneliness is a constant one, recurring, if not openly to or within a character, symbolically in the imagery or description. The towns are nearly always small and provincial, lonely Southern towns where "in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and of loneliness." They are always places where men walk alone, forever strangers and alone but seeking solidarity and kinship with others. (p. 57)
Every detail is selected, every aspect of a description is well chosen; there is nothing which does not contribute either overtly or intrinsically to the theme.
The truth of the theme and of the way Carson McCullers has told her stories is something we recognize instinctively although we may postpone if possible the conscious acceptance of so devastating a knowledge. But she has not left us without a solution to the problem of human loneliness. Sometimes, Carson McCullers shows us, men find for a radiant moment the Thee they are seeking and so are lifted above their own loneliness by a sense of togetherness, of being with others in love, sorrow or beauty. They find truth, a moment of pure love, a sudden illumination, and, like Frankie, feel that someone or something is "the we of me." Then, no matter how evanescent the instant, the experience brings a sense of warmth and togetherness that makes the barest solitudes endurable, that gives the heart a brief respite from aloneness. (p. 58)
Jane Hart, "Carson McCullers, Pilgrim of Loneliness," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1957, by the University of Georgia), Spring, 1957, pp. 53-8.
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With greater complexity and greater realism, although perhaps with less art [than J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye], Carson McCullers embodies [the] same problems of adolescence, and its confrontation of the evils of experience, in her novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding. The latter more resembles The Catcher in the Rye, in that it focuses on the failure of the adolescent to adjust to the confusions of the adult world. But The Heart … is a larger and richer book. (pp. 63-4)
[The disturbed adolescent in The Member of the Wedding], Frankie Addams, embodies in exaggeraged form all those traits of immaturity which other novels have described more normally, and thereby rivets our attention on them the more firmly. Frankie's feeling of desperate isolation and alienation drives her to identify herself with her older brother and his fiancée, until she tries to join them even on their honeymoon. But this grotesque situation merely emphasizes the confusion of all adolescents, and of all maladjusted members of human society.
What raises The Member of the Wedding above the merely grotesque (as described in the author's other novel Reflections in a Golden Eye) is its inclusion of other characters suggesting the parallel tragedies of other alienated people. Berenice Sadie Brown, the Negro mammy whose husband has died leaving her lonely, and her foster-brother "Honey," who runs afoul of the law, suggest the tragedy of Negroes who can never become full "members" of society; the young John Henry is the "gentle boy" who is too good for this world; while over all hangs the cloud of the atom bomb, which everyone discusses casually.
By contrast, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter seems hardly to describe adolescence at all. The youthful Mick Kelly appears a background figure, observing and partly sharing the tragedies of the deaf-mutes, the Negroes, and the labor agitators…. [Essentially] it describes the struggle of all these lonely people to come to terms with their world, to become members of their society, to find human love—in short, to become mature. (p. 64)
Frederic Carpenter, in English Journal (copyright © 1957 by the National Council of Teachers of English), September, 1957 (and reprinted in Readings about Adolescent Literature, edited by Dennis Thomison, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1970).
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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 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.
To understand a work, it is important for the artist to be emotionally right on dead center: to see, to know, to experience the things he is writing about. (p. 274)
I understand only particles. I understand the characters, but the novel itself is not in focus. The focus comes at random moments which no one can understand, least of all the author. For me, they usually follow great effort. To me, these illuminations are the grace of labor. All of my work has happened this way. It is at once the hazard and the beauty that a writer has to depend on such illuminations. After months of confusion and labor, when the idea has flowered, the collusion is Divine. It always comes from the subconscious and cannot be controlled. For a whole year I worked on The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter without understanding it at all. Each character was talking to a central character, but why, I didn't know. I'd almost decided that the book was no novel, that I should chop it up into short stories. But I could feel the mutilation in my body when I had that idea, and I was in despair. I had been working for five hours and I went outside. Suddenly, as I walked across a road, it occurred to me that Harry Minovitz, the character all the other characters were talking to, was a different man, a deaf mute, and immediately the name was changed to John Singer. The whole focus of the novel was fixed and I was for the first time committed with my whole soul to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. (p. 275)
A writer's main asset is intuition; too many facts impede intuition. A writer needs to know so many things, but there are so many things he doesn't need to know—he needs to know human things even if they aren't "wholesome," as they call it. (p. 276)
One cannot explain accusations of morbidity. A writer can only say he writes from the seed which flowers later in the subconscious. Nature is not abnormal, only lifelessness is abnormal. Anything that pulses and moves and walks around the room, no matter what thing it is doing, is natural and human to a writer. The fact that John Singer, in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, is a deaf-and-dumb man is a symbol, and the fact that Captain Penderton, in Reflections in a Golden Eye, is homosexual, is also a symbol, of handicap and impotence. The deaf mute, Singer, is a symbol of infirmity, and he loves a person who is incapable of receiving his love. Symbols suggest the story and theme and incident, and they are so interwoven that one cannot understand consciously where the suggestion begins. I become the characters I write about. I am so immersed in them that their motives are my own. When I write about a thief, I become one; when I write about Captain Penderton, I become a homosexual man; when I write about a deaf mute, I become dumb during the time of the story. I become the characters I write about and I bless the Latin poet Terence who said, "Nothing human is alien to me." (pp. 276-77)
Many authors find it hard to write about new environments that they did not know in childhood. The voices reheard from childhood have a truer pitch. And the foliage—the trees of childhood—are remembered more exactly. When I work from within a different locale from the South, I have to wonder what time the flowers are in bloom—and what flowers? I hardly let characters speak unless they are Southern. [Thomas] Wolfe wrote brilliantly of Brooklyn, but more brilliantly of the Southern cadence and ways of speech. This is particularly true of Southern writers because it is not only their speech and the foliage, but their entire culture—which makes it a homeland within a homeland. No matter what the politics, the degree or non-degree of liberalism in a Southern writer, he is still bound to this peculiar regionalism of language and voices and foliage and memory. (p. 279)
The writer by nature of his profession is a dreamer and a conscious dreamer. How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being? He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love? (p. 280)
The passionate, individual love—the old Tristan-Isolde love, the Eros love—is inferior to the love of God, to fellowship, to the love of Agape—the Greek god of the feast, the God of brotherly love—and of man. This is what I tried to show in The Ballad of the Sad Café in the strange love of Miss Amelia for the little hunchback, Cousin Lymon.
The writer's work is predicated not only on his personality but by the region in which he was born. I wonder sometimes if what they call the "Gothic" school of Southern writing, in which the grotesque is paralleled with the sublime, is not due largely to the cheapness of human life in the South…. To many a poor Southerner, the only pride that he has is the fact that he is white, and when one's self-pride is so pitiably debased, how can one learn to love? Above all, love is the main generator of all good writing. Love, passion, compassion are all welded together.
In any communication, a thing says to one person quite a different thing from what it says to another, but writing, in essence, is communication; and communication is the only access to love—to love, to conscience, to nature, to God, and to the dream. For myself, the further I go into my own work and the more I read of those I love, the more aware I am of the dream and the logic of God, which indeed is a Divine collusion. (pp. 281-82)
Carson McCullers, "The Flowering Dream" (originally published in Esquire Magazine, December, 1959), in her The Mortgaged Heart (copyright © 1963 by Carson McCullers; © 1971 by Floria V. Lasky; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton, 1971, pp. 274-82.
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[For] me not a word could be added or taken away from this marvel of a novel ["Clock Without Hands"] by Carson McCullers.
Her talent is extraordinary: the name of her first book "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" might be a description of it: the steady life-giving beat that is the core of every book: the pursuit of the quarry she sees and would catch and hold for us, often something so fleeting and ephemeral that most authors would quail at trying to catch it in words—and Mrs. McCullers' words are the coin of every day, plain, frank, slangy, unemotional. Above all her gift is apart, aloof, inevitably lonely: it owes nothing to any other writer and is paradoxical, a sure sign of richness: it is powerful yet humble, dignified yet utterly unpretentious….
"Transcendental"; "master of peculiar penetration"; "an incomparable storyteller." These praises of Carson McCullers do not exaggerate, yet I think that she has something more rare: a capacity for telling the unvarnished truth. This sounds simple but it is extraordinarily difficult for a sensitive writer to reach the real truth of what he or she sees; sensitivity glosses with its very depth of feeling; it is the bedevilment of writers, especially women….
Of course truth is not always palatable. There are parts in this book that even now may shock in their matter-of-fact treatment of certain subjects. Truth, too, can give an uncomfortable bleakness, and one can well understand that, of Mrs. McCullers' novels, only "The Member of the Wedding," a masterpiece, has become universally popular. This book may well be too strange and strong, too frank, for many people. But like J. T. Malone [its main character], it grows richer and quieter as it draws towards its end….
Rumer Godden, "Death and Life in a Small Southern Town," in New York Herald Tribune Books (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), September 17, 1961, p. 5.
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It is hard to believe that twenty-one years have passed since The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, the first novel of Carson McCullers, was published. For those of us who arrived on the scene in the war years, McCullers was the young writer. She was an American legend from the beginning, which is to say that her fame was as much the creation of publicity as of talent. The publicity was the work of those fashion magazines where a dish of black-eyed peas can be made to seem the roe of some rare fish, photographed by Avedon; yet McCullers's dreaming, androgynous face in its ikon elegance subtly confounded the chic of the lingerie ads all about her. For unlike other "legends," her talent was as real as her face. Though she was progenitress to much "Southern writing" (one can name a dozen writers who would not exist in the way they do if she had not written in the way she did), she had a manner all her own. Her prose was chaste and severe, and realistic in its working out of narrative. I suspect that of all the Southern writers, she is the most apt to endure, though her vision is by no means as large or encompassing as that, say, of Faulkner, whom she has the grace to resemble not at all. (pp. 208-09)
The first thing to remark in McCullers is her style. From Wolfe to Faulkner, most Southern writing has tended to windy rhetoric of the "lost, lost and by the wind grieved" sort which I find entirely detestable. I can read very little of Wolfe, and much of the admirable Faulkner is ruined for me by that terrible gaseous prose (he went the length of Requiem for a Nun obsessively using "euphemistic" for "euphonious"). McCullers writes an exact prose closer to the [Gustave] Flaubert of Un Coeur Simple than to Absalom, Absalom. But her material is intensely Southern. Although she has had at times a passion for the extreme situation and the gratuitous act (The Ballad of the Sad Café, Reflections in a Golden Eye), whose intent I sometimes question, her means have always saved her. She gets entirely within the event told. There is never a false note. Technically, it is breathtaking to watch her set a scene and then dart from character to character, opening up in a line, a phrase, a life. It is marvelous, but …
But. Twenty-one years is a long time. The Member of the Wedding, her latest novel until now, was published in 1946. During those fifteen years other writers have come and gone. New attitudes, new follies, new perceptions have occurred to us. But most important, the world of the private vision which was her domain has been more and more intruded upon by the public world which threatens to destroy, literally, the actual world. Worse, though it may not do this final thing, the threat of extinction has made many doubt the worth of art. If the planet becomes an empty desert, why make anything, knowing it will soon be no more than a grain or two in the never-to-be-noticed dust? Not every writer of course has this apocalyptic vision, nor does a writer necessarily find the thought of the world's end any reason for not making what he wants to make in the present, which is all. But that ugly final thing is there, public and menacing and chilling the day. It is hard not to take it into account. (pp. 211-12)
[With] Clock without Hands, Carson McCullers acknowledges the public world for the first time in her work. Though her response is uneasy and uncertain, it is good to note that she writes as well as ever, with all the old clarity and fine tension. But the book is odd, and it is so because what has always been the most private of responses has been rudely startled and bemused by the world outside. The changing South. The Supreme Court Decision. Integration. The aviator as new man. All these things crop up unexpectedly in her narrative. One cannot say she handles these things badly; it is just that they do not quite fit her story…. The four characters interact. They are explored. They come alive. Yet one is not convinced by the story told. Symbolically, is it true or merely pat?
At the book's end, the old judge, enraged by the Supreme Court's decision, goes on radio to denounce the Court, but in his dottiness and great age he cannot recall anything to say except, word for word, the Gettysburg Address. Are we to take that as the South's last gasp as a new order begins? If so, I don't believe it. McCullers of course is free to make whatever she wants of a public situation. One quarrels not with her view of things, which is after all intuitive not liberal, but with the effect publicness has had on her art. Everything is thrown slightly out of kilter. She is not the only writer to suffer in this way. More and more of our private artists have fallen silent in the last twenty years, unable to cope with a world which has thrust itself upon the imagination like some clumsy-hooved animal loose in a garden. But even this near failure of McCullers is marvelous to read, and her genius for prose remains one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture. (pp. 212-13)
Gore Vidal, "Carson McCullers's 'Clock without Hands'" (© 1961 by Gore Vidal), in The Reporter, September 28, 1961 (and reprinted in his Rocking the Boat, Little, Brown, 1963, pp. 208-13).
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[Clock Without Hands] probes intensely the human spirit, yet captures indelibly the sights and the sounds, the sorrow and the tensions of the South [Mrs. McCullers] knows so well. Incisively exploring the minds and the motivations, the yearnings and dreams of the young, it at the same time conveys the longing and frustration, the sense of intruding death, of the old….
[Mrs. McCullers'] talent, the dreamlike—almost trancelike—quality of her fiction seemingly precludes her ever being completely uninteresting. Yet, somehow, the reader occasionally finds himself looking for something that is not there. Perhaps it is merely a sense that Mrs. McCullers has seldom permitted her characters to go the whole way, to achieve any final or satisfactory vision of the consequence of their actions. There are, perhaps, too many violent endings; too many questions which are averted by death. And, while it would be wrong to accuse Mrs. McCullers of artificially imposing "shock endings," the result has, on occasion, been very nearly the same as if she had tried to do just that….
The world of Carson McCullers is a world of outcasts; her universe the realm of extraordinary, rather than "normal," happenings. Yet, for all this, she succeeds in establishing a rapport of feeling, an aura of shared experience. (p. 73)
There are few "happy" characters in Carson McCullers' world, yet it is a universe which is somehow not altogether oppressive, for there is transition; there is development and a form of progression even within this lost and lonely humanity. Or at least there had been such a progression and development prior to [Clock Without Hands].
"Death is always the same," Mrs. McCullers writes in her opening sentence, "but each man dies in his own way." And, in its own way, it is a magnificent beginning; an attempt to explore an almost unbelievably difficult theme. And, by this very fact, because it is so difficult, one must admire any writer undertaking it. But strangely enough, it is not primarily on this level that Mrs. McCullers fails. The faults in Clock Without Hands are far more rudimentary and, for all her technical virtuosity, they are almost unavoidably obvious.
J. T. Malone, at the age of forty, thinks he is suffering from a severe case of "spring fever," but finds instead that he has leukemia and will die within a short time. How this affects him, his family, the lives of those around him, would seem a sufficiently fertile area for any novelist. And it is this one expects Mrs. McCullers to do—not so much because it is "logical," but because everything in her opening section points toward it. Instead, she succeeds in introducing another group of characters and another plot which, rather than complementing the original, only manage to provide a diversion. Significantly, the diversion becomes a great deal more intriguing than the original….
While there is a rather tenuous link established between the Judge's story [the sub-plot] and the supposed self-realization undergone by Malone, it is essentially so thin as to seem nearly contrived. On either the physical or metaphysical level, Malone is basically unnecessary to the Clanes; yet he is there. And as the chapters alternate between the two, one looks longingly for the moment at which the fictional gears will mesh. The gears never do manage to mesh—except in a conclusion which, when all else has been said, is as unsatisfactory as the entire attempt to establish their inter-relationship. (p. 74)
Mrs. McCullers has described Clock Without Hands as a novel "about response and responsibility—of man toward his own livingness." And, because it is so big a theme, because Mrs. McCullers is so obviously one of a fairly small number of American writers with the potential of successfully realizing it, the reader longs to see her succeed. In the end, however, his hopes are doomed by the conflict which exists within the novel itself and by Mrs. McCullers' inability to focus his attention where she seemingly wished it to be, on J. T. Malone. In saying that Clock Without Hands might better have been two novels, one really says relatively little. Perhaps it would be more realistic to admit that, despite its many fine stylistic qualities, it simply doesn't come off as a novel. And this, unfortunately, is something even Mrs. McCullers' flashes of genuine brilliance cannot conceal from us.
Brilliance there is, without doubt. For those who have indicted Mrs. McCullers and the whole school of Southern writers for their absorption in what often, for lack of anything better, is termed the "morbid," there can be, of course, no answer. Recognizing what Tennessee Williams has called "an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience," Mrs. McCullers elects to depict it in its own terms—terms sometimes fraught with an almost overpowering feeling of human suffocation in a world beyond control, yet terms ultimately successful through their very irresistible intensity.
In the labyrinth established for the McCullers characters, a world of "no exit," man is caught up in the dizziness of life, is inextricably drawn toward a crisis in which he either recognizes himself or, failing this, is lost forever in frustration and despair. It is a world of either/or, in which there are few half-way measures, where everything is viewed in nightmarish bold relief. Simultaneously unrealistic and yet supra-realistic, it is the unique and unforgettable world of Carson McCullers. (p. 75)
Catharine Hughes, "A World of Outcasts," in Commonweal (copyright © 1961 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), October 13, 1961, pp. 73-5.
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All outward experience of the characters of Clock Without Hands … is conditioned by a sense of moral isolation, a feeling of despair, and baffled search for an identifiable Self. (p. 15)
Mrs. McCullers is most herself as the novelist of inward experience, but in Clock Without Hands she attempts to add another dimension by making her characters stand for the whole South. It is a mistake. The private and the symbolic roles are not fused; the individual and the representative do not merge. The result for the reader is confusion arising from what seems to have been Mrs. McCullers' uncertainty about her objective. There is also a looseness of structure which weakens the novel and which apparently came of her attempt to make it a far bigger book than she finally published.
A novelist who begins, "Death is always the same, but each man dies in his own way," must expect to remind her readers of the famous first sentence of Anna Karenina. The expectation of a novel of scope is reinforced when it becomes apparent that each of the chief characters has a symbolic role; nothing less than the entire Southern dilemma is to be represented through the tangled private histories of a restricted group in a small city. Mrs. McCullers allows the Supreme Court decision on integration of schools to reach the bedside of a dying man who has sunk beyond any concern with news, in a scene which makes sense only if the large implications are a chief intention. Clock Without Hands does not live up to the intention, for the implications of the action undercut the symbolic roles assigned the chief characters.
The title is itself ambiguous. J. T. Malone, the druggist of Milan, Georgia, is under sentence of death from leukemia, a man confusedly watching his time run out on a clock without hands. But when in that last scene Malone's old friend Judge Clane bursts into the sickroom with news of the decision, the reader catches the suggestion that the Court's "all deliberate speed" is also to be measured by a clock without hands. Behind this scene and the other references to the clock there is the implied warning "It is later than you think."… (pp. 15-16)
Besides Malone and Judge Clane, there are two other characters of importance: Jester Clane, the Judge's grandson, and Sherman Pew, a Negro. Both are eighteen. Their connections with Judge Clane provide once more the contrast of youth with age which deepens the pathos of many scenes in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding. They also, in a friendship which holds them in close conflict, repeat the baffling experience which Mrs. McCullers envisions for all friends and all lovers: isolation without hope of communication, within the bonds of an affection that is onerous to the loved one and frustrating to the lover.
The symbolic roles which were to have given Clock Without Hands its forceful social reference detract from the effectiveness of the novel on the level of immediate, inward experience where Mrs. McCullers' powers are greatest. Besides, the symbolic action is questionable. J. T. Malone represents the conscience of the South, and at a crucial moment he recoils from violence. His quiet death in bed, however, has doubtful implications for the collective conscience for which he stands. Judge Clane, with all his demagoguery and his delusions, is made the embodiment of the Old South. He is obvious as a type and symbol, but one feels uneasy. Granted that Mrs. McCullers uses him to express contradictions of attitude amounting to bankruptcy of ideas in a class, the Judge as a man is a grotesque. If, on the other hand, he is to be accepted as a pitiable old man whose curse through life has been a combination of sentimentality and invincible stupidity in all human relations, the burden of his symbolic role is too great.
As representatives, the younger characters appear to no better advantage. Jester Clane is forcefully identified as one of the "men of good will" who may redeem their society, but in his symbolic role he is not only ineffectual in aiding his friend (he cannot even persuade Sherman to escape murder), he is incapable of retribution when the wretched human condition of the murderer is brought home to him. Sherman Pew is the rebellious Negro whose accumulated humiliations and frustrations drive him to the senseless cruelty of hanging Jester's dog, and to the open defiance of renting a house in the white section of town. He is isolated by hatred and self-contempt for all men, and his gestures become equally compulsive and self-destructive. More even than the others he is unacceptable as the symbol Mrs. McCullers has tried to make him, for he is an Outsider rather than the representative of a social class.
The crux of the difficulty is most apparent in the portrayals of Sherman Pew and Jester Clane, and it comes of Mrs. McCullers' being sensitively penetrating when she deals with the inner life but fumbling and uncertain when she attempts a social paradigm. (pp. 16-18)
Besides failing to achieve the dimensions which Mrs. McCullers intended, the novel is structurally weak. Mrs. McCullers has customarily restricted the scope of her fictions, and she limits her cast in Clock Without Hands. But there is no central character with whom all the others feel the sole relation they all experience, as with the deaf-mute Singer in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. There is no tight pattern of antipathies such as enmeshed the men, the women, and the horse in Reflections in a Golden Eye. No single character such as Frankie Addams of The Member of the Wedding exists to give the novel a viewpoint. In her latest novel, Mrs. McCullers begins with Malone and the Judge, neglects this relation to concentrate on the Judge, Jester, and Sherman, and returns to it to put a period to the action. Malone is removed almost from significance in the lives of the others. (pp. 18-19)
Compassionate identification which reveals how Malone, the Judge, Jester and Sherman all grope toward a sense of identity is too far removed from awkward political symbolism for easy reconciliation; the distance explains the defects of the novel, the looseness of plot, and the failure of Clock Without Hands to rank with Mrs. McCullers' best work. This same distance, however, justifies praise of Mrs. McCullers' best qualities, which appear even in the disappointing attempt to merge individual and typical roles for a timely social commentary. (p. 19)
Mrs. McCullers' novel contains thematic material which would flesh out a quartet of thin, brainless fictions, but the sum of it is confused, and Clock Without Hands is most interesting in the context of all of her work. The same compassionate voice speaks in this novel of the loneliness of mankind, of the frustration of love which makes the lover take refuge in a world of fantasy doomed to violation, and of the inability to communicate either love itself or the despair which follows its defeat. The author finds the search for identity a perennial quest, most touchingly seen in the gropings of the adolescents, the outcasts, and the grotesques of society. The threat of raw physical violence hangs over all of them. (p. 27)
[How] does one regulate a clock without hands? The symbol which Mrs. McCullers has used in her latest novel is emblematic, as is Singer's dream in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the changed, flat, prison-like world which Frankie Addams discovers when she tries to flee, or the chained state of the twelve mortal men [in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe]. Each symbol reinforces the others, and if Clock Without Hands is richest in the context of Mrs. McCullers' other work, it in turn sharpens the contrasts in her picture of man's fate….
[She] discloses a world in which troubles from eternity do not fail and the instrument of their chronology marks no certain hour. (p. 28)
Donald Emerson, "The Ambiguities of 'Clock without Hands'," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (© 1962, Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature), Fall, 1962, pp. 15-28.
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[Carson McCullers] is governed by the aesthetics of the primitive. This means that her overview is essentially anti-realistic. She has cut herself off from the world of ordinary experience and ordinary human beings who might entertain ordinary ideas. Her people are bizarre, freakish, lonely, hermaphroditic. This aesthetic dictates an intense concentration on man's most urgent emotional needs: a communion of dialogue and love. For her, further, the truth of the fable is the truth of the heart. It is not concerned with abstractions about the structure of society or with ideological conflicts in the contemporary world. She has banished these sociological and intellectual matters from her fiction, narrowing its range, perhaps to its detriment, in favor of memory and mood, and above all, feeling. This aesthetic demands a poetic prose and a style which, in Mrs. McCullers' case, often appears childlike. Her prose has a deliberately jerky rhythm and uneven pace, creating a movement which is designed to give the impression of simplicity. Toward that same goal of simplicity, she is occasionally monotonous in tonal qualities and repetitious, again deliberately and to good effect. Her extravagant use of color and sensuous descriptions of food are further evidences of her immersion in the world of the senses.
The purpose of her aesthetic lies in the artist's need to communicate his vision, a need that Mrs. McCullers says she feels intensely. "The function of the artist," she has written, "is to execute his own indigenous vision, and having done that, to keep faith with this vision." If to keep faith is to pursue consistently a single theme, then she has succeeded. For everywhere in her fiction she works at variations on the theme of moral isolation. It is the paradoxes of loneliness and love that impel her characters to a wretched abandonment of hope and leave them to feed on the pain of frustrated communion. She is fascinated by the loneliness of individuals in a world full of individuals. She is possessed by the unceasing failures in the consummation of love, because the lover is always rejected by the beloved, who would himself be a lover, and the lover thus goes on dying, into infinity, his spiritual death. (pp. 243-44)
[Mrs. McCullers] understands the need of the individual to define himself by something outside himself. This is the motive force behind her play on the dialogue of love. The desolation of her characters, and her own pessimism, lie in the failure to achieve the kind of communion that Martin Buber has described, the meeting of ich und du [I and Thou], joined in a mystical reciprocity. (p. 244)
Mrs. McCullers' implicit hope is that lovers, all men and women, might flow toward each other as the imperatives of Buber's mystical insight bids them do. But the visible assumptions of her theory of love doom them to inevitable failure and condemn them to eternal loneliness. Their fate is to be at the end what they were at the beginning—half-people.
But it must also be said that the failure of dialogue lies in the carefully selected characters Mrs. McCullers permits to engage in it. She has stacked the deck to guarantee ruptured communion and fruitless love by choosing people whose need, to be sure, is demonstrable but whose capacities are crippled. It is her gothic imagination that dictates this narrowly specialized range of character. It is the gothic principle that drives her to a consideration of the outsider: the adolescent who has no place and no sex, the deaf mute, the beloved hunchback, the bisexual adult, or the maternal male. These bizarre characters, alienated from society and the self, dramatize the problem of their ambiguous sex in a life that is curiously desexualized…. It is flight from normative behavior [which is the pattern of her fiction]; it is the frantic flight of the divided soul between the poles of male and female in the prison of the self that interests her. It is her gothic vision that denies a final resting place to this tortured soul, for no resolution of its dilemma is possible.
Although Mrs. McCullers published The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) at an unbelievably early and presumably impressionable age, the novel is indubitably all her own. (p. 245)
[In her statement and treatment of theme] she bares the loneliness of each sentient human being whose need is to create an image of wisdom and receptivity which receives and resolves one's problems, providing release and fulfilment. And here, with magisterial firmness, she condemns her characters to failure. The image they create out of their need has the same need they suffer from. They have wilfully obscured the fallibility of the image. They have stubbornly embarked upon a monologue in the mistaken notion that they have established the reciprocity necessary for dialogue. They are self-deluded in the conversation each holds with himself. And the dimensions of this failure of dialogue are in the collapse of the inner self and the frustration of the social being. Mrs. McCullers does not, in a kind of warmth generated by a barroom milieu, permit her characters to live by the illusions they create. Honesty, not harshness I think, triumphs over warmth when she strips the illusion to reveal íts essential nothingness. (p. 246)
It has been claimed that Singer has a God-like function in the novel, but I prefer to see him as the figure of the Virgin Mother and the Son. He has none of the terrible majesty of God, but he does represent for the others [an] all-embracing, comforting, maternal force…. [The other characters] do not exist for him, either intellectually or emotionally, in any consequential way. Yet he is at the center of their lives. He is, although they do not yet know it, the false Virgin and the false Son. (p. 247)
The most sensitive treatment of character, and the most successful, is saved for Mick Kelly, the adolescent girl in the novel. She is like all the others in her isolation and in her failure to communicate love, in her case a generalized love for people. Full of dreams and aspirations that will not be realized, she feels herself different from others. She is independent of spirit and rejects God. She yearns for she knows not what. She is forced in upon herself, but she cannot achieve an inner peace. In a word, she is the typical adolescent struggling blindly toward maturity, unaware that the pain of alienation she now endures is the proper preparation for later life. Her refuge in her loneliness is her inner room, where she may create her own world. But the unalterable condition of adolescence is insecurity, and it manifests itself in Mick in the terrible self-consciousness and the trembling uncertainties that overtake her. Stifled like the other characters, she must in addition undergo the painful process of growth. It is growth toward sex awareness, which has its culmination when the boy next door takes her. This event does not altogether end a certain ambiguity about Mick's sex, for she has seemed, in the course of the book, to resist the role of woman toward which she is destined. The adolescent girl, in Mrs. McCullers' fiction, has the problem not only of sex awareness but of sex determination. It is not the responsibility of womanhood that she reluctantly must take up but the decision to be a woman at all that she must make. She is, then, sexless, hovering between the two sexes, this girl with a boy's name. In Brannon and in Singer, the sexes seem to achieve a beneficent union. In Mick they make for a chaotic confusion.
The bedding of Mick is a determination of this sex ambiguity more redolent of surrender than of glory. And this is characteristic of the fate Mrs. McCullers has arranged for her. Afraid and alone as she is during much of the book, she nevertheless waits with intense excitement upon the infinite possibilities of life. Then she is more or less compelled to take a job at Woolworth's. All her hopes are dashed. She feels trapped and cheated. She can no longer get into her inside room. Her potentiality in music will be dissipated in this numbing descent into the humdrum. Release from the anguish of adolescence, in Mrs. McCullers' view, brings one into nothing better than the stifling world of adulthood. No measured sense of responsibility comes to Mick because she now earns money necessary for the household. She is angry all the time with a bafflement at life's blasted promise. (pp. 250-51)
[The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter] elicits a warmth of response from us partly because its psychological problems are placed in a familiar social context. The same cannot be said for Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941). Its scene is an army post in the South, but Mrs. McCullers makes no attempt to render it in depth. Neither soldiers nor army life is the subject of this novel. The book is virtually cut off from the external world of recognizable social reality. It creates its own bizarre climate. (p. 251)
It does seem clear, however, that Mrs. McCullers is pursuing a theme that she began to explore in her first novel. Human beings, she seems to say, are not whole. As half-people, their deficiencies prevent them from realizing their humanity; their course in life is errant, unpredictable, painful. (pp. 251-52)
[The] reflections in the immense golden eye of the green peacock are tiny and grotesque. The prevailing tone of the novel derives from this image given back by the bird's eye. The image describes the uneasy and remote relations of the people to each other. It describes the atmosphere through which these people move, so often filled with cold yellow light or blunt splashes of yellow. Mrs. McCullers even makes an attempt to justify the grotesque, insofar as it may be equated with the aberrant. Penderton argues that if human fulfilment is obtained even in an abnormal way, it is good as long as it brings happiness; moral judgments about such means are irrelevant. But the book is not really a defense of the deviant any more than it is an attack upon the heavy-handed, army-shaped moral standards of so essentially conventional a man as Major Langdon. Mrs. McCullers takes a few false steps toward such rhetorical goals out of a sense of rebellion against conventional morality or taboos which could block the natural movement of the personality toward fruition. But her real theme seems to be the impossibility of such fruition, given inherently incomplete human beings.
The Member of the Wedding (1946) takes us from the obsessed and fevered world of Reflections to the warmer and more understandable world of the adolescent, where the pursuit of love and human communion is as real as the southern kitchen in which much of the action takes place. The reality of this novel displaces the gothic character of the first two, and in doing so makes it necessary for Mrs. McCullers to skirt carefully around a sentimentalization of her material. She avoids this danger, happily, but she does lay herself open to the charge of repetition. The Frankie Addams of this novel is the Mick Kelly of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The themes are those of the first book: that human beings wish to ameliorate their loneliness by joining themselves, one to another, in meaningful relationship, and that the pains of adolescence are succeeded by a growing recognition of the limits of selfhood and the inevitability of aloneness…. The emphasis is on the interior life of her protagonist. The substance of the novel is conveyed in an investigation of feeling—the poignance of adolescence offering so rich an opportunity—offered with an artist's eye to color and a heightened sensitivity to mood. The particular movement in the novel may be charted in this way: Frankie suffers from insecurity and a sense of loss at the beginning; she is then the victim of a self-generated fantasy about belonging; finally, at the end, her effort at joining is frustrated and she resolves her disappointment.
Frankie, who again bears a masculine name as a sign of the not-yet-determined sex of the adolescent girl, is at the beginning a member of nothing at all, the juvenile outsider alienated from her peers and her elders. The world seems separate from herself. Then she determines to join her brother's wedding and become a we person instead of remaining an I person. She is motivated by the search for love and security that will banish fear. The fear is a compound of the ineffable sadness of growing up, of the melancholy of a summer afternoon, of an undefined sense of guilt, all rendered with a skill that captures the evanescent moment and the inarticulate yearning. The love is the girl's wish to be accepted as a part of the magnetic chain of humanity, and it is the love of man for woman which Frankie does not yet understand. It is her innocence which permits her to think she can join her brother's wedding. It is this innocence the drunken soldier assaults when he tries to seduce her. It is this innocence that Berenice, the Negro cook, quietly dissolves as she instructs Frankie in the meaning of love. Out of all these episodes comes a knowledge of sex, but she has not yet undergone a decisive initiation into sexual love. The limitations of the novel are in its focus on the child's self-centered world in which the macrocosm plays no part. The contribution of the novel is to state once more the universal need for human dialogue. (pp. 254-56)
Out of the still and twisted world in which her imagination dwells, Mrs. McCullers has drawn some truths that come home to all men. She has illuminated the possibilities for loneliness and the capacities for deviant behavior that mark the human lot. But there is a troubling sense of something wanting in what she does. The world of the adolescent child is, after all, only a promise of life to come in adulthood. The crazy, private world of her freakish and tortured adults is on the periphery of our experience, even if a significantly disturbing one. It is a narrow corner of human existence that she has chosen to exploit in her fiction. Her view of man's fate, therefore, adds little, in the largest sense, to the dimensions of our understanding. The gothic view of life has conjured up the terror of life but has not weighed the consequences of that terror. Mrs. McCullers knows something of the conditions under which life must be carried on, but she has gone beyond this to examine how men might endure under these conditions. There is no room in her work for the consequences of human action; there is no sense of the continuity of life. She has succeeded perhaps too well in creating an art form that is cut off from life. It is a form cut off from society, from morality, from religion, from ideas, from concern with man's burden or with man's hope. It is a special art form, and its special quality makes it symptomatic of the phenomena we have always with us—a disturbed psyche and a disturbed time. (p. 258)
Chester E. Eisinger, in his Fiction of the Forties (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; © 1963 by Chester E. Eisinger), University of Chicago Press, 1963.
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Together with such other writers as Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty, Mrs. McCullers forms a Southern triad that has carried on and modified the basic Faulknerian themes of lust, disease, mutilation, defeat, idiocy and death. All of these notes, with a shift in emphasis, are played in her fiction over and again: disease crops up in the form of permanent distortion in the figures of the cretin, the crippled and the incurable; the theme of death is effectively pitted against that of adolescence; the idea of defeat is narrowed down to personal disillusion resulting from tragic initiation into life or from the failure of a misdirected lifework—it does not carry the historical implications as in Faulkner's concept of the past bearing down heavily upon the present; mutilation is the fate of the social underdog, the Negro, in the fangs of unjust justice; idiocy is used rather in the way Faulkner uses it, as a symbol of futility, of the impossibility of redemption although, again, [Faulkner's] Benjy is given a more comprehensive meaning than is Antonapoulos in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; finally, lust is transformed into a more complex theme that is central to her prose: it is the constant insistence on the impossibility of mutual love. All of these themes spread a web of sadness, isolation and disenchantment over Carson McCullers' work.
As she follows up the issues of Faulkner's earlier period, most of his later and more significant themes are lacking. She is far more concerned with the present than with the past, and therefore the collective burdens of fathers and forebears have but little weight on the outcome of her novels. In a sense, she entirely forgoes the broad social and historical dimensions that Faulkner and, for that matter, Robert Penn Warren are so keenly aware of. Moreover, she is out of touch with nature or, to put it in Faulkner's phrase, the land, in which he seems to have anchored some of his more recently voiced hope and affirmation. There is but little change of outlook in her development; the same ideas, though intensified and formally varied, are harped on repeatedly. Thirdly, in her attitude toward her themes and characters, she fails to develop Faulkner's passion and obsession; she remains cool and detached, at the most, compassionate. Wherever her heart goes into her pages, it tends to add pathetic touches that, at times, verge on the sentimental. Still, her "ordinary town," the setting of her plots, lies in the middle of the deep South…. (pp. 187-88)
The most puzzling novel is undoubtedly The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter…. What has led to some confusion is the multiplicity of characters, parallel actions and understandings of 'truth' (none of which seems central) without any apparent norm to give the plot perspective. As a consequence, the story gives the impression of being made up of loosely juxtaposed elements which are parts of a barely coherent whole. Unless one can perceive governing patterns, the book leaves in the reader a disjointed, if not chaotic, effect. Almost any of the main figures or 'truths' might then be selected as central, summing up the total experience. (p. 188)
The story is mainly concerned with four figures grappling with life from the different angles of growing childhood, the race problem, socialism and common sense. In addition, there are a couple of deaf-mutes that are closely tied up with the meaning of the whole. (p. 189)
Structurally, Singer as the hub seems to occupy the dominating position in the novel. It is his figure that gives the book its frame in the first section, it is his exit that closes its main portion and causes Copeland, Jake, Mick and Biff to revise their differing experiences with life, now life without the illusive prop. However, there is a neatly elaborated structure running counter to this grouping. It arranges the characters in a different way, namely in proportion to the viability of their ideas. If we exclude Singer, the persons are introduced in the following order at the beginning: Biff dominates the second chapter, the third is mainly about Mick, the fourth is devoted to Jake, the fifth deals with Copeland…. They live in their individual divisions as in watertight compartments. This technique of encasing the figures in their separate worlds underscores their isolation in life: each stands by himself. In the epilogue, the third section, the order of presentation is exactly reversed: Copeland is followed by Jake, Mick by Biff. Between the beginning and the end there is thus a chiastic correspondence in the order of presenting the figures…. If we accept the different distribution of emphasis … we see the figures in a new order of importance ranging from Biff through Mick and Jake down to Copeland. (pp. 190-91)
What does this sequence and this regrouping of the personages that both adds and runs counter to the flight-of-steps image tell us about the meaning of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? What are the grounds for this double grouping? The main theme of Carson McCullers' first novel is not the social problem nor is it primarily that of human isolation. It is rather the question of truth and illusion (or, disillusionment). Each of the four characters around Singer is in his own way concerned with distinguishing truth from illusion. Biff Brannon … looks out for truth behind appearances from behind his restaurant counter. He is a realist, interested in facts and the whys behind them. For the adolescent Mick Kelly, the problem of truth is that of initiation into a drab world. For a long time, she is unable to make her imaginary and her real worlds meet. Her friendly "inside room" is furnished with her dreams and aspirations while the "outside room" of the world leaves her puzzled and perplexed. For Jake Blount … the world is similarly split up: there are the "knows" and the "don't knows" according to people's reactions to his socialist good tidings. The fourth person is … Benedict Copeland, obsessed with the dissemination of "real truths". He has sacrificed his family life to the pursuit of his "real true purpose" of liberating his race. He is an atheist, suspicious of the heart, living only with his brain. (p. 191)
Reflections in a Golden Eye can best be regarded as a repeated but abortive attempt to deal … with a concatenation of bizarre feelings…. It lies in the absence of the necessary observer, a Nick Carraway, to give meaning to the last act of the tragedy which the form does not make clear as in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The author, obviously aware of this failure, was later to make amends in The Ballad of the Sad Café. (p. 196)
There is a rhythm in Carson McCullers' output: full-length treatment alternates with the short novel or novelette, a form in which her problems of love and isolation can be stated more cogently. The choice of the intermediary fictional genre seems especially adequate as it allows of condensation of atmosphere and detachment of the narrator. The Ballad of the Sad Café marks the artistic climax of her writing up to that time. It contains a philosophy of love that has slowly evolved through her earlier works and has now reached a point of completeness where it is not only presented dramatically, but also explicitly in a reflective passage: not only may love not be returned by the beloved, it may also cause the latter to hate the lover. This idea is the result of a consistent development of such relations as between the deaf-mutes, and it accounts for the singular and terrible connection of the characters in her fourth book. (p. 198)
It is a long way from Carson McCullers' first to [Clock Without Hands], written with her age in the meantime doubled and with tragic experience behind her. Although the old watermarks still show through the pages—loneliness, freakishness, men in pursuit of separate and clashing dreams, the odd, ironic human chain with the beloved lashing out at the lover—, her writing has apparently entered a new phase. Life has become more wholesome, order and meaning are perceived in it at last, and even mutual love begins to blossom. (p. 201)
Both the latter-day evangelists and the adolescents are important figures in her first and third books and their ideas have to be reduced to proper proportions by means of structural devices and contrasting characters. Thus, order in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is mainly imposed by the principle of organization …, and by the central rôle which Biff Brannon plays. His importance, however, still depends on the place he is given within the formal framework of the novel. In Reflections in a Golden Eye, the theme of one-sided love is tentatively developed and brought to an unsatisfactory conclusion. The antithesis of the double ethical norm—'square peg' standard versus the feeble judgment passed by Alison as a moral arbiter—is not resolved and leaves the three surviving personages in an unexplained chaos. By a shift in emphasis, reduction of characters and concentration on one major theme, a balanced world emerges at the end of The Member of the Wedding. Here, for the last time, the adolescent is allowed a dominating part. This novel as well as the army camp novelette are variations on themes inherent in portions of the first book whereas The Ballad of the Sad Café belongs to a new category in matter and manner. The theme of love chasing its tail forms the logical capstone of an evolution through the three previous works. Its morbidity is made bearable and convincing by narrative detachment, remoteness in time and the witnessing town that stays outside the emotional boundary line. With Clock Without Hands a new concept of order is announced. Life becomes a state in which, at least at the end, everything is in its right place.
The overall theme of Carson McCullers' books is that of man's problematic and painful existence with various veerings from its proper course. Man's drab life is presented at critical points such as adolescence, loss of friendship, oncoming death, and leads to types of escape, imaginary and real. Escape may be actual as in Frankie's case; but it is of short duration and fails due to lack of direction. In its extreme form, it becomes the negation of meaning in life itself, as in Singer's suicide. Another source of escape is the recourse to the "inner room". Fancy fastens on the distant in time and place; the seashell on Frankie's desk stands for the warm wash of the Gulf of Mexico, her glass snow globe reminds her of cool Alaska, the wedding proves more attractive because it takes place in 'Winter' Hill. Uneventful life is also adorned by lying which provides a form of vicarious life. Yet inevitably, man is brought back from fanciful flights. Without fail his wishful dreams are thwarted by the onslaughts of reality and only his nightmares materialize. His experience is that of being caught, of being left as an alien in a strange land, symbolized in the corresponding images of the prisoner caged in a stone cell with iron bars before the windows and of the chain that both connects and isolates the members of the gang. The song of the "twelve mortal men" mediates between the tragic vision of Biff and the rediscovered little miracles of everyday life that reconcile J. T. Malone with his too early death. His love for his wife has returned just as Martin Meadows in a short story 'A Domestic Dilemma' finds back to "the immense complexity of love."… Thus the burden of impersonal love that Biff takes up and that is rationalized in an early story 'A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud' is replaced by mutual personal love for the first time.
The imaginary scope of the author is not wide. Typical figures and ideas, characteristic scenes, forms of behavior recur in all of her books. Nor does her fictional town alter much. It is expanded or contracted as needed, a café or a drugstore forms its significant center: in short, the stage remains, the properties are shifted. On the stage, man's drama is enacted, and it is his attitude toward life that has undergone a change and testifies that, in the second decade of her writing, Mrs. McCullers' themes have changed tending to emphasize the one side of Brannon's vision, putting more stress on 'radiance' and 'faith' than upon 'irony' and 'darkness'. (pp. 203-04)
Klaus Lubbers, "The Necessary Order: A Study of Theme and Structure in Carson McCullers' Fiction, in Jahrbuch Für Amerikastudien (© 1963 Carl Winter, Universitätsverlag, Gegr. 1822, Gmb H., Heidelberg), Band 8, 1963, pp. 187-204.
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Carson McCullers has frequently employed mythic patterns to explicate the psychological tensions urging her characters…. The people in her books, stripped of all irrelevant behavioral flesh, present the heart's core of action that we also see played out for us in legend, fairytale, and folk-story.
Yet her books—such as Reflections in a Golden Eye, Clock Without Hands, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—are contemporary reports of life in America…. As a novelist one of her gifts has been the ability to fuse the demands of verisimilitude and romance, one of her difficulties the occasional splitting of the two—as in Clock Without Hands—to the detriment of her work's impact….
[In] The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter she successfully employs one of our oldest myths—that of initiation—to solve a delicate problem of verisimilitude, and how at the same time she perfectly retells the myth in convincingly contemporary terms…. McCullers' nearly allegoric retelling is amazingly faithful to the heart of the myth's pattern. [Her] reworking handles the complex process of ritual initiation with a natural simplicity and beauty worth noting. In describing young Mick Kelly's poignant loss of virginity, and her more painful loss of childhood, McCullers travels the path of both contemporary novelist and timeless mythmaker, and shows that, with her at least, the dual roads ultimately converge. (p. 76)
Jack B. Moore, "Carson McCullers: The Heart Is a Timeless Hunter," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1965, Hofstra University Press), April, 1965, pp. 76-81.
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[The Square Root of Wonderful] is to a large extent autobiographical. When it appeared in book form, the author explained in her preface:
In The Square Root of Wonderful I recognize many of the compulsions that made me write this play. My husband wanted to be a writer and his failure in that was one of the disappointments that led to his death. When I started The Square Root of Wonderful my mother was very ill and after a few months she died. I wanted to recreate my mother—to remember her tranquil beauty and sense of joy in life. So, unconsciously, the life-death theme of The Square Root of Wonderful emerged.
The play's protagonist is a young woman, Mollie Lovejoy, who has been twice married to and divorced from the same man, a once-famous writer who, after the failure of his latest play, has attempted suicide and is convalescing in a rest home. Mollie has meanwhile fallen in love with an architect, John, and is on the point of marrying him when Phillip, her ex-husband, returns. The two men are opposites: John is dull but strong; Phillip is weak and has learned to use his weakness to advantage with women, but he is charming and perceptive. He does not love Mollie—it is made clear that he is incapable of loving anyone—but he needs her desperately and insists that she love him. (pp. 162-63)
From what Mrs McCullers has said in her preface, the reader is obviously expected to identify Phillip with Reeves McCullers, and Mollie Lovejoy with Mrs Smith [Mrs McCullers's mother]. But it is not quite so simple as that: the careful reader will note at once that it is Phillip and not his wife who was successful as a writer, even if he is now a 'has-been'…. And the circumstance of Mollie's having married the same man twice reminds us not of Mrs Smith but of Mrs McCullers. What the author has done is to identify herself now with Phillip (in the speeches in which he discusses his writing), now with Mollie (in the dialogue which she exchanges with her ex-husband). This is of course perfectly proper: it is what most authors do when they create characters, so that the result is seldom an authentic portrait of a single individual but a composite or amalgam. But it is useful for us to realize that the author, consciously or unconsciously, has not kept herself out of the play quite as much as her preface might suggest—useful because it explains the lack of aesthetic distance which separates her from her characters. For if this is Mrs McCullers's weakest performance—and I believe it is—the reason for it may well be that she is still too close to her materials. (p. 163)
Though her choice of a life-death theme suggests that Mrs McCullers has consciously chosen a new area of literary interest, the reader will remember that the same theme was present in Reflections in a Golden Eye…. The polarization of characters in this play also reminds us of Reflections in a Golden Eye: John (like Major Langdon) is dull and 'normal' while Phillip (like Penderton) is brilliant and neurotic. The contrast extends also to the women characters: while two men compete for Mollie, Sister is obliged to invent her lovers….
In his inability to love, Phillip personifies the death principle, or, in Freudian terms, the death wish (it is significant that he takes his own life), and Mollie, who is capable of loving more than one man simultaneously, personifies the élan vital. Life triumphs over death in the play, and in a sense it is the triumph of the mediocre over the exceptional, for Phillip is certainly the more interesting character. (p. 164)
Subordinate to the primary theme is a variety of minor motifs (too many, possibly, for the play to maintain its unity)…. Thus, the irrationality of love is again insisted upon…. So also is the loneliness that springs from an incapacity for love…. (p. 165)
But the most important of the minor themes has to do with time. The relation of time to love is obvious: it is the Great Enemy of love as it is of life, of which love is the surest sign and the happiest manifestation…. Its relation to the problem of identity is equally obvious, since one's identity, as Frankie learns in The Member of the Wedding, changes with its passage.
In relation to loneliness, however, time takes on yet another significance…. Time passes quickly for the lover, and in that sense may be thought of as a traitor and an enemy, but it is an even greater enemy to the loveless. Phillip refers to it as 'that endless idiot that goes screaming round the world'…. (pp. 166-67)
Except in the case of Phillip (and, to a less extent, Mollie) the characterization is thin and lacking in complexity. (p. 167)
Technically, The Square Root of Wonderful is a well-made play (it makes surprisingly good reading), and the fact that it did not succeed on Broadway may merely mean that a popular audience is less interested in the personal problems of a literary has-been than in those of a fourteen-year-old girl—who might be the one next door—with growing pains. In this play Mrs McCullers is concerned with too specialized an area of human interest and experience—another way, perhaps, of saying that she is too close to her materials. (p. 168)
It is doubtful that any American writer since Hawthorne and Melville has handled the difficult form of allegory quite so well as Carson McCullers. A didactic writer in an age when didacticism, in the United States at any rate, is suspect (unless the message involved be one that flatters the reader at the same time that it does not make very considerable demands upon his intelligence), she may yet live to see the fulfilment of Mr Gore Vidal's prediction [see excerpt above] that 'of all our Southern writers Carson McCullers is the one most likely to endure'…. Her writing is almost never peripheral, as that of Faulkner often is: it goes straight to the heart of its subject, and it rarely fumbles. And while it is true that her talent lacks the impressive range of Faulkner's, within its limits she has succeeded in creating certain effects that are inimitable. Had she written nothing except The Ballad of the Sad Café her position among the half dozen or so who comprise the highest echelon of living American authors would still be unassailable. (p. 194)
Oliver Evans, in his The Ballad of Carson McCullers: A Biography (copyright © 1965 by Peter Owen Ltd.), Coward-McCann, Inc., 1966.
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In the preface to the published version of her play The Square Root of Wonderful (1958), the late Carson McCullers posed and answered a question that every writer has come to terms with sooner or later:
Why does anyone write at all? I suppose a writer writes out of some inward compulsion to transform his own experience (much of it is unconscious) into the universal and symbolical. The themes the artist chooses are always deeply personal. I suppose my central theme is the theme of spiritual isolation. Certainly I have always felt alone. In addition to being lonely, a writer is also amorphous. A writer soon discovers he has no single identity but lives the lives of all the people he creates and his weathers are independent of the actual day around him. I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen:
Many writers and critics of fiction would agree that Mrs. McCullers' work is an excellent illustration of these views; for her work seems to indicate that she was well aware of the nature of her own talents—and of their concomitant limitations. Further, many of her admirers would say that she always pretty well followed the precepts she set down. I am inclined to think, however, that this was not always the case; that her neglect of her own advice explains many of Mrs. McCullers' artistic failures and will ultimately deny her a place among the most accomplished and compelling practitioners of 20th century American fiction….
I believe that in [The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding]—as in hardly any other of her fictions save possibly one or two of her short stories—she came near to finding an inevitable and technically unexceptionable embodiment of the theme she correctly assessed as her principal one. Who could forget the first novel's adolescent Mick Kelly desperately searching for love and meaning? Who could remain untouched by the second's tormented Frankie Addams, trying frantically to be "included" in the wedding—to find what surely all of us are somehow looking for: "the we of me"? These are themes as old as the human heart, and it was Mrs. McCullers' great talent that she was able to discern and present them (especially in her Hunter) in a variety of characters and dramatic situations.
And what wisdom there is in these two books! Surely those critics are wrong who argue that it is Mr. Singer, the deaf-mute, who holds the diffuse first novel together, with his constant availability as a listener for all the talkers that work is so full of. More likely it is the colored Portia, herself one of the least and meekest, who constitutes the novel's spiritual center—though probably, and unfortunately, not its structural one. Perhaps Mr. Singer is the structural center; but part of the novel's technical weakness may lie just there: its spiritual and structural centers do not coincide….
Another Negro, Berenice, seems to be both the moral and the technical center of The Member of the Wedding. Berenice too knows the deep unspoken longings of the human heart. She comes as close as anybody to understanding and helping tomboy Frankie, who passes through the wild romanticism of "F. Jasmine" to the somewhat greater maturity of "Frances" in her lonely search for identity and love. (p. 50)
But love, at its best, does not necessarily seek or hunt for anyone or anything: it simply is, and it gives. Sometimes Mrs. McCullers implies (as in the story "A Tree—a Rock—a Cloud") that one has to start with smaller things before he can work up to loving whole persons, just as they are…. At her best she is never false to this theme, though she is sometimes uncertain and confused in its execution. Even her two finest novels suffer from a considerable degree of incoherence, as though she were trying to tell too many stories at once. And even in these two she occasionally falls into tendentious exploitation of contemporary southern social problems or even of the grand affairs of world politics.
But it is in her lesser works that her defects become fully evident—novels like the kinked-up Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and the ridiculous The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1951), with its fabricated primitivistic folkishness. Here her keen sense of the grotesque goes wild, and she twists kink into kink until the whole pattern becomes meaningless…. Tiresome also is the fictionally meaningless homosexual longing of Jester Clane for the Negro Sherman Pew in Clock Without Hands. What does all Mrs. McCullers' grotesquerie mean anyhow? Certainly very little where almost everything is grotesque…. In this matter Mrs. McCullers is inferior to Flannery O'Connor, with whom she is often compared. Alas, Mrs. McCullers' work is more akin to that of Tennessee Williams or of the young Truman Capote. (pp. 50-1)
I am driven to counter another misleading comparison—the assertion of affinities between Mrs. McCullers and Eudora Welty. Miss Welty's fiction too is very much concerned with the heart's reasons, with the searching love that can bless but, if not carefully regulated, can also destroy. But she always keeps this theme under control; she never uses it as a springboard to launch into topics of the day or plunge into stories irrelevant to the one in hand.
Indeed, I believe that the greatest weakness in Mrs. McCullers' fiction is precisely this lack of form. She was truly obsessed by her one story, her principal theme, and at her best she was true to it. But in so many cases she simply did not know what to do with it, how to embody it economically and persuasively in her fictional characters. Why?
It would be provincial, and also perhaps somewhat wide of the mark, to say that she should have stayed at home in Georgia and not gone off to fall among the thieves and vultures of the New York literary salon scene. But there may be some saving truth in this apparently chauvinistic observation. Let me try to put it into critical terminology: Mrs. McCullers wrote best when her head and her heart were working in harmony to produce the fictional music which was uniquely hers. She was at her worst when her head took over, when she forgot or ignored her real story and started to examine pathological specimens or to write up the news from home—segregation in [Clock Without Hands], for example….
I believe that, despite her occasional triumphs—and they were valid ones—her talent never came to its full fruition. (p. 51)
Robert Drake, "The Lonely Heart of Carson McCullers," in The Christian Century (copyright 1968 Christian Century Foundation; reprinted by permission from the January 10, 1968 issue of The Christian Century), January 10, 1968, pp. 50-1.
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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…. [As] a specialized collection, it will prove a valuable appendage to devotees of the author's major works….
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."…
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.
Presumably Carson McCullers never meant much of this material for the public and it is with this in mind that the stories and essays provide a sort of autobiographical and literary background that helps to round out the picture of the author as creative person. (p. 371)
Jeanne Kinney, in Best Sellers (copyright 1971, by the University of Scranton), November 15, 1971.
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When a writer dies leaving early work uncollected, it is often uncollected for a very good reason; and readers who come to The Mortgaged Heart without previous exposure to Carson McCullers may wonder whether her reputation is justified. This posthumous collection contains 14 stories …, an outline for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, some nonfiction magazine pieces, and five poems. The stories are clearly apprentice works, some of them from the "How I Grew Up Last Summer" school. They use typical McCullers subjects (painful adolescence, loneliness in the big city, youthful exposure to adult sexuality), but what is beautifully fragile in her best writing is too slight in these early exercises to hold one's interest. Most of the nonfiction is undistinguished. A Thanksgiving article from Mademoiselle is surprisingly like a blandly pious holiday sermon; and a maudlin recollection of a legless girl with whom McCullers once spent Christmas in a physical therapy hospital is embarrassing, because McCullers uses our knowledge of her own physical pain to achieve pathos in ways that are unworthy of her.
What partially redeems the volume is "The Flowering Dream," a series of fragmented observations on writing and life that don't go very far but are stated with admirable simplicity. (p. 73)
John Alfred Avant, in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, January 1, 1972; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1972 by Xerox Corporation), January 1, 1972.
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The use of the bizarre theory of love offered by the narrator of [Ballad of the Sad Café] as a formula for interpreting all of McCullers' fiction has hampered analysis not only of the novella itself but of her other works as well. The description of her narrative as a ballad, so obviously presented in the title, provides a key to understanding which unlocks the novella's difficulties of literary mode, point-of-view, characterization, and plot structure. (p. 329)
McCullers' ballad concentrates on the strange love triangle formed by a manly giantess, a selfish dwarf, and a demonic bandit. The action unfolds in a few weird events which culminate in an epic battle waged purposely on Groundhog Day to decide the death or rebirth of love. The setting is a romantic wasteland where piney woods and swamps counterpoint the stunning heat of August afternoons. The concrete symbols of the ballad world both explain and motivate the action; buildings lean in precarious decay; trees twist grotesquely in the moonlight; birds and animals provide mysterious analogues to human action.
Clearly this is the traditional world of the ballad, a world of passion and violence, of omens and portents, of the full wild impulsiveness of archetypal human behavior…. (pp. 329-30)
Of course, McCullers' ballad is a literary one, wrought by a modern, conscious artistry not by the folk mind or by an artless imagination…. The structural and stylistic integrity of the story, especially of narrative voice marks her literary ballad as an unqualified success. McCullers presents a narrator who can spin the fine fabric of romantic fiction from the raw materials of mill-village life without violating either realm. In Ballad a ballad-maker evokes from the world of the Georgia back-country a timeless, compelling story of human passion. His voice fixes the style of the novel—a perfect blend of the literate and colloquial, the objective and personal, talky observation. The existence of this filtering personality assures the novella's achievement.
Neither McCullers nor the typical third person omniscient voice, narrates; the ballad-maker tells the tale. (p. 330)
This device also releases McCullers from responsibility for the universalization of the fantastic observations on the mutual exclusiveness of love so often ascribed to her by earlier critics (such as Oliver Evans … and Klaus Lubbers) [see excepts above]. The narrator defines love as "joint experience between two persons," the lover and the beloved. The experience between them is not necessarily the same for each party, for the lover and the beloved "come from two different countries." The lover attaches his love to some person, often without rational purpose. He creates an imaginary world surrounding the beloved and then releases his stored creative energies on this dream vision. "Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself." The narrator continues: "It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain."
The ballad-maker's theory of love is substantiated by the character relationships in the novella, but the limited number of cases prevents immediate acceptance of it as a universal law of human nature; it clearly remains the narrator's hypothesis, not McCullers'…. In her later novels and stories love does live for a few people, at least for a time. Yet the earlier novels have partially demonstrated this pattern. (p. 331)
As in both [The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye] a geometrically patterned relationship of characters is the basis of symbolism and structure.
After the description of the town, which opens the tale, the narrator introduces Miss Amelia. On the hot, empty afternoons of August, the season when the town seems most desolate and isolated, her strange face peers down crazily from an upper window of the town's largest structure which is now boarded up and fast decaying. The building has "a curious, cracked look that is very puzzling," and Miss Amelia's haunted face with her severely crossed eyes provides the human analogue of the structure. (p. 332)
Plot is developed tightly and economically so as to dramatize the creation of [the love] triangles and to emphasize the role of the balladeer-narrator….
The narrator quickly moves the story through these years of human growth for Miss Amelia, symbolized by the emergence of the café. (p. 336)
The years pass in this fruitful manner until Marvin Macy comes back to the village; bad luck follows him to his home town…. Marvin Macy's fearful reputation increases, and in direct proportion so does Cousin Lymon's adoration of him…. After the snow Cousin Lymon brings his beloved to stay in the rooms over the café; this final displacement of Amelia precipitates the total collapse on February 2, Groundhog Day. The date proves significant because Cousin Lymon sees the groundhog observe his shadow, an indication of six more weeks of winter ahead and a prefigurement of Marvin Macy's destructive triumph….
The climactic battle begins at seven o'clock, as Miss Amelia sets great store by the mystical number seven. Significantly the fight takes place in the café; the center of companionship and symbol of love has become a place of hatred and combat. (p. 337)
Miss Amelia is severely beaten, and left in disgrace…. Cousin Lymon and Marvin Macy leave that night, but, before they go, they completely wreck the café: food, whiskey, decorations, the mechanical piano. The café ends as Miss Amelia's love ends. Slowly she shrivels into an old maid; her muscles shrink and her eyes cross to look inward. After three years of lonesome waiting for Cousin Lymon to return, she has the store-café boarded up. Retreating into the upstairs rooms, she remains there alone and isolated. The town takes on a new loneliness also; a perpetual August drought envelops it in a claustrophobic malaise. Time hangs heavy and dull. (p. 338)
The chain gang [epilogue which takes place in the present] illustrates the prison house aspect of the human condition. The coda, entitled "Twelve Mortal Men," emphasizes how man can achieve creativity, in this case the beautiful work songs and ballads of the gang, even in the most difficult situations if there is harmony and cooperation. The last sentence of the novella points out that they are only "… twelve mortal men who are together." The picture of the chain gang contrasts with the reader's final vision of Miss Amelia. She could release her creative efforts when she was "together" with Cousin Lymon; alone she can accomplish nothing. Where love and harmony exist much can be created; sadly enough, they exist in few places and for short times—human failings quickly frustrate them, and they are often replaced by hate and isolation. McCullers' other novels demonstrate this condition in the modern social world; the strange ballad of the café that becomes sad traces the roots of these difficulties in the timeless province of the lonely human heart. (pp. 338-39)
Joseph R. Millichap, "Carson McCullers' Literary Ballad," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1973, by the University of Georgia), Fall, 1973, pp. 329-39.
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When one reads the novella [The Ballad of the Sad Café] in the understanding that the narrator is a character in the story, he notices a subtle but significant shift in the story's form and subsequent themes. Such a reader finds himself absorbed not so much with the bizarre goings-on in the old café as with the changing perceptions of a person in the process of intense introspection….
The first clue to the actual point of view is the fact that the story begins and ends in the present tense. In itself, the present tense does not a fictive narrator make. Considered in the context of the references to "here" and "now," though, the use of the present suggests a person who is describing the café "on the spot."…
To read the story in the light of this perception is to read a very different story indeed—it is to read a story in which, for one thing, the apparent authorial intrusions and digressions are no longer flaws in the narrative but actually key passages in the story's curious network of meanings….
As an actual character, then, the narrator is less to be faulted for digressing than would a simple omniscient narrator—for real people do digress when they tell stories.
But there is more to this than mere verisimilitude. As the concern of a character-narrator, the "digression" is more clearly related to the later section in the story in which the narrator describes the effects of the music of the chain gang. For, just as Miss Amelia's liquor had once "warmed his soul," "shown the truth" and the "message hidden there," so now the music causes his "heart to broaden," his soul to "grow cold with ecstasy and fright." The café he had once visited gone, the narrator seeks truth in the music of "the earth itself," of the "twelve mortal men who are together."
Besides the liquor "digression" and the enigmatic chain-gang passage, there are other frequent points in the narrative at which the narrator asserts his personality…. (p. 41)
If in these passages the narrator reveals something of himself, what is it? In other words, who is he? What does he mean? (p. 42)
The whole story he remembers—digressions and all—has the effect of changing his perceptions of himself and his present predicament. He realizes, for example, that the characters he has recalled were incapable of sharing love, that each was the other's hell. He recalls a pageant of grotesquery and violence that eventually turns the nostalgia to bitterness and pain. More than anything else, though, he experiences the contrast between the proprietress in her prime and the bent, broken and inward-turned terrible face she now shows at the window.
The recollection done, he is a man who sees himself in the town in which he sits, who sees the town—like the remembered café—as a reflection of his own static image. It is here—after the flashback—that he repeats "Yes, the town is dreary…." It is so dreary that "the soul rots with boredom." It is so dreary that he "might as well go down to the Fork Falls highway and listen to the chain-gang." This last paragraph suggests, then, that the narrator is a man who realizes he has refused to obey his impulse to move—to go listen to the chain-gang. It shows him to be a man who has wrestled with the past and who has used the past to reinterpret the present. It shows that he knows that when nothing moves—the spirit dies; "the soul rots with boredom."
The so-called epilogue, "The Twelve Mortal Men," seen in the context of the character-narrator's struggle becomes not a cryptic appendix to a gothic tale but, instead, the positive act of a man of changed perspective…. The whole section is seen in direct contrast to the flashback section of the story. Where in the café reminiscences the narrator found free people unwilling or incapable to share love with one another, in the epilogue he finds people in chains who share their suffering and who, in sharing, bring music from the earth and sky. Such music is what keeps the narrator's soul alive.
It has not been my purpose here to insist that the inside story—the flashback about the café that is still remembered—is of minor significance. On the contrary, that story is an intriguing one: it is a grotesque delineation of love's power to destroy. It has been my purpose, though, to show that its chief significance lies in what it reveals about the character who, in recalling it, gives it its shape and who, in reaction to it, finds new meaning in his own existence. (pp. 42-3)
What we have in The Ballad of the Sad Café, then, is a beautifully sculptured piece of writing…. The Ballad is a song of the human spirit. (pp. 43-4)
John McNally, "The Introspective Narrator in 'The Ballad of the Sad Café'," in South Atlantic Bulletin (copyright © 1973 by South Atlantic Modern Language Association), November, 1973, pp. 40-4.
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The limits of McCullers's accomplishments are real. One reads through her works with a sharp sense of the highly individual, almost eccentric nature of her achievement, but also with a growing sense of their author's restricted range of interest and abilities. And when one looks closely at the whole course of her career, one is even more struck by its disappointments and unfulfilled promises. For there is something initially inspiring but eventually dispiriting about McCullers's life as a writer. It is almost as if the disappointment felt by the would-be wunderkind of her first published story were a prophesy for her own career. (pp. 122-23)
Her fiction does not grow out of a broadening intellectual inquiry into new areas of though and experience. Rather it is limited to the repeated exploration of one idea or emotional state—the human being in isolation. Though her first and last novels bring up questions of politics, religion, race, and history, her primary concern in these and all her novels remains the same—man alone. For McCullers it was a profound but circumscribed area of concern and one which after The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter turned inward on itself, taking her novels into areas increasingly removed from outside contemporary life, areas such as the subjective imagination of a twelve-year-old girl or a remote village in a land of myth and fairy tale "like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world." The failure of Clock without Hands to repeat the success of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter only demonstrates further how far removed McCullers's concern with human isolation had grown from contemporary issues. Few Americans have evoked the terrors and the pathos of man alone as well as she has. Loneliness is a feeling pervasive and permanent in the physical world of her novels; it is also a fact in all of her characters' lives, a condition that brings each of them together into fragile communities of mutual isolation. But as if caught within its own terrible meaning, human isolation is a theme that in McCullers's fiction circles further and further inward, leading less and less to concerns beyond itself—a solipsistic pattern that may eventually have strangled her art.
Moreover, restrictions inherent in her theme were further subject to restrictions in time and place…. The South as she remembered it as a child was the land of her inspiration…. [But after] finishing The Member of the Wedding, McCullers turned from the South of her childhood to the urban and suburban North for the material of her short stories and her play, The Square Root of Wonderful. She returns to the South in Clock without Hands, but to the South of the 1950s of which she had only the most casual understanding. In turning from her childhood memories for her inspiration she lost touch with a world that she knew intimately and exactly, where loneliness, boredom, and frustration merged into an inescapable daily agony. She also lost her capacity to create interesting believable characters. Removed from the wealth of odd and homely details that create in her best works a felt sense of time and place, the people in the short stories and the play never come alive, stand up, and cast real shadows. (pp. 123-25)
But if the muse of isolation was for Carson McCullers inward-turning and at home only in the South of her childhood memories, it inspired her best writing with a rare sympathy for and insight into hidden suffering which, I think, represent the highest accomplishments of her fiction…. Running throughout her works is the unstated conviction that no human being can in his inmost, truest self ever be really known, that he is doomed either to eternal loneliness or to compromise with the crass world outside…. It is in their vulnerability to the crude, violent, leavening forces in the outside world that McCullers's people are isolated…. Grotesque and unfinished in their intense subjectivity, they would risk their ideals and individuality if they joined the outside world of "normal" public human beings. And yet the loneliness of their incomplete and unjoined state is more than they can bear.
McCullers believed that only through the compassion and empathy of art could such vulnerable inwardness be freed and appreciated for the valuable and rare quality that it was. Her vision of human loneliness is a vision born of love…. (pp. 126-27)
McCullers possessed what most of her characters tragically lack, a double vision that enabled her to see the inside and the outside of people: a hopeless love for a departed friend beneath John Singer's deferential politeness, a sincere moral outrage beneath Jake Blount's loud talk and belligerent manner, an uncertainty of identity and terror of the future beneath Frankie's foolishness and irritability, and a desperate, lonely passion beneath Miss Amelia's masculine dress and crafty business practices. In her most successful works McCullers could, as she once claimed, "become" her characters, enter their lonely lives, the places where they lived. And without letting us lose sight of their awkward, sometimes frightening and often amusing outwardness, she let us see into their secret inwardness. (p. 128)
Richard M. Cook, "Carson McCullers's Career: The Achievements, the Disappointments," in his Carson McCullers (copyright © 1975 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Frederick Ungar, 1975, pp. 121-29.
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There is a peculiar quality of isolation about Carson McCullers's work … that owes some of its intensity perhaps to her own status vis-à-vis the South. She does not belong to the great generation of the "renaissance," that is clear enough…. But she does not really belong to the new wave of Southern writers either, since apart from Clock Without Hands—a book dealing, among other things, with the issue of desegregation, which was not published until 1961—all of her more important fiction had been written by 1946; and was collected into a uniform edition some five years later. Her major period of creativity was very brief, consisting of about five years in all; and the last twenty or so years of her life were so marred by ill health that, in retrospect, it seems remarkable she was able to write the little, during the period, that she did. Certainly, illness offers a sufficient explanation for her gradual lapse into silence. Coming after the great fiction and poetry of the twenties and thirties, but before the more recent examples of Southern Gothic … her novels and short stories occupy, consequently, a particular transitional moment of their own in the tradition. Theirs is a special, and especially separate, place in the history of Southern literature, which makes their author seem occasionally like one of her own characters—alone, cut off from all normal channels of communication, and strangely vulnerable.
Other factors, quite apart from her unusual literary situation, probably contributed to McCullers's interest in the dimensions of loneliness. Her childhood, for example, seems to have been a very quiet one. "Almost singularly lacking," as her biographer [Oliver Evans] has put it, "in the excitement of external events."… Always afraid of a full commitment to others, searching for the possibility of betrayal and claiming to find it even when it was not there, she seemed to draw a magic circle around herself for much of the time, and live in an inner world that was compounded equally of memory and imagination…. [It was] her ghostly, private world, that she tried to reproduce in most of her fiction. She gave it many names, over the years, and placed it consistently in the South. Southern though its geographical location might be, however, it was like no South anybody had ever seen before. It was not the South of newspaper articles and political speeches, nor the South of country humor or magnolia-blossom romance; it was not even the South described so extensively in [William Faulkner's] Yoknapatawpha novels. In effect, it was another country altogether, created out of all that the author had found haunting, soft, and lonely in her childhood surroundings—a new place offering a new perspective on the experience from which it had been drawn. (pp. 265-66)
[The] effect of McCullers's prose is accumulative. She does not work in a series of detached, glittering phrases as, say, Truman Capote does. Nor does she, imitating Faulkner, write sentences that coil up snakelike and then strike, suddenly, before the period. Her language is cool and lucid, almost classical in its precision, her descriptions clipped and occasionally cryptic. A nuance in one place, a repetition or a shading somewhere else: this is all she needs really because … she tends to rely on the resonance given to a detail by its total context—and to use concealment almost as a medium of communication. The inertia, the desolation, and the brooding violence of the small-town South are caught in images that are hermetic, despite their apparent candor, and in incidents brimming with undisclosed biography.
The act is performed so quietly that it may tend to go unnoticed: what McCullers has created,… is a world where emotion and vision can coalesce—in which, through the agency of her prose, her own particular sense of life can be externalized. The town [in "The Ballad of the Sad Café"] is no dream kingdom, that is clear enough. It is anchored in this world, in a firm if understated way, by such details as … references to the bus and train services and by an implicit understanding of its economic function. But it is no ordinary place, either—the kind of town we might easily come across in Georgia, in the South, or anywhere else. Why? Because, quite apart from establishing this anchorage, the writer has used every means at her disposal to reorder, rearrange, and so metamorphose; in a way that must be familiar to us by now, she has created another country out of her own known home. In this respect, the anonymity of the prose ties in with the evasiveness of the narrator, the hermeticism of the imagery with the apparent emptiness of the scene. For together they direct our attention to precisely the same subject; a feeling of "lonesomeness" or loss seems to result from them all…. [This feeling is not imposed on the material:] it is there in the Deep South already, waiting to be acknowledged. McCullers has, however, emphasized it almost to the exclusion of everything else and, in doing so, cleverly established a nexus, a point of connection between the geometry of her self and the geography of her childhood surroundings. Gently, she has nudged the regional landscape into the expression of a fresh mood.
McCullers's aims are, of course, not just personal. Quite apart from externalizing her own state she is trying also, through the medium of the South, to anatomize human nature, to chart, in her plan of her region, the coordinates of all our lives. And in order to make this clear she will occasionally punctuate her narrative with little explanatory passages … which suggest that, remembering her own doubts about the possibility of proper contact between man and man—and, perhaps, experiencing some misgivings about her oblique methods elsewhere—the author is afraid the reader will otherwise miss the point…. [This] does, naturally, tend to carry its own dangers with it. The "message" may … seem a little too pat to be convincing, too limited and limiting even for the purpose of fable. The writer may, in short, end up with didacticism of the crudest possible kind. McCullers is saved from such dangers most of the time, I think, though; and what saves her more than anything else is her constant awareness of the human situation—the specifically emotional and imaginative terms into which her ideas have to be translated. Her landscapes, for all their initial sparseness, are inhabited. More to the point, the figures inhabiting them possess a special kind of resonance, that sense of roots and a definite history which marks them out as the descendants of recognizable Southern types. They have the substance and immediate credibility of people long brooded over, and so well understood—and to this is added that freshness, the sense of surprise and valuable discovery, which can only come when someone as well known as this is seen from a radically altered standpoint. We may suspect, while we read a McCullers story, that we have seen characters like hers before; in fact, if we have read much earlier Southern fiction we are sure we have. But until now, she makes us feel, we have never been properly acquainted with them: there is something about them, some crucial side of them we have somehow managed to miss. (pp. 267-69)
[The central character of "The Ballad of the Sad Café," Miss Amelia,] is a grotesque, perhaps, but she is a grotesque for the same reason that most of McCullers's subjects are—because, as the author herself once put it, her "physical incapacity" is being used primarily as "a symbol of [her] spiritual incapacity …—[her] spiritual isolation." She is not just the comic loser…. [She is] "lonesome," and her lonesomeness is intended eventually to figure our own. Like an image seen in a carnival mirror, she is meant to offer us an exaggerated, comically distorted, and yet somehow sadly accurate reflection of ourselves…. We are drawn to the woman even while she still seems a little odd to us. The knowledge we have of her by [the end of the story] has, of course, something to do with this development: we understand why she is odd and, understanding, we perhaps suspect that her oddity touches upon ours…. [Of immeasurable significance] is something almost indefinable—which, for want of a better phrase, we must call the sheer texture of her prose…. [McCullers's style] manages to be lyrical and colloquial, lucid and enigmatic, at one and the same time…. [It] is as a direct consequence of this strange combination, really, that we find ourselves held back from Miss Amelia here—and brought close up into a special kind of intimacy with her as well. She is distanced from us by a certain lingering freakishness of expression, a mysterious image, it may be, or a quirky turn of phrase; and yet she is also brought into an immediate contact with us by our sense that this is, after all, a conventional idiom we are listening to—that the language Miss Amelia inhabits, so to speak, belongs to normal, everyday conversation. This is an extraordinarily subtle relationship to set up between character and reader—far subtler than anything we are likely to come across elsewhere, in the work of other writers who have experimented with the Southern comic mode. It has its origins, of course, in McCullers's belief that a paradox lurks at the heart of experience, naturally attaching itself to the idea of a shared isolation. As for its issue, that we find in the mood or ambiance to which our minds first return when recalling a McCullers novel—our memories of a quiet, but peculiarly inclusive, pathos. (pp. 270-71)
McCullers's fiction, at its best (by which I mean "The Ballad of the Sad Café," The Member of the Wedding, and parts of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) … shows, I think, how tough and really critical an emotion pathos can be. Her characters are pathetic, but they are pathetic in the finest sense…. [The] pathetic is used as an agent of moral instruction more than anything else, a means of telling us, quietly and sadly, what we are and the most we can do and of advising us, by inference, as to how we should behave.
McCullers's is, then, the definitive use of a specific emotional effect—a pathos that at once lends a strange atmosphere to landscape and character, and helps establish an intimate, unusually searching relationship between tale and reader. This is an impressive achievement—showing the kind of subtlety and even deviousness of intent we are perhaps more inclined to associate with more "difficult" fiction—and its very impressiveness has, I believe, led one or two of McCullers's critics into overestimating her. For there is a tendency, noticeable especially among those with a bias toward the New Criticism, to assume that because her work represents a perfect adaptation of means to ends she is, therefore, more or less unsurpassed among writers of her own region…. [However,] the very perfection of McCullers's work depends, after all, upon her own level-headed acceptance of her limitations. She knows that she can describe, quite subtly, one particular dilemma or area of life and she concentrates almost her entire resources on that. There is no place in her fiction, really, for the rich "over-plus" of experience—by which I mean any aspects of behavior that cannot be included under the heading of theme, or any dimensions of feeling that cannot be reconciled with the major effect of pathos. And recognizing this she demonstrates little interest in such matters as the historical and social context, and no commitment either to the idea of a developing consciousness. (p. 272)
As for McCullers's actual achievement, though, setting aside all such exaggeration, that surely is certain and secure. She is not a major writer…. But she is a very good minor one—so good, indeed, that she seems to reap a definite advantage from her minor status and turn her limitations into virtues. The absence of the historical dimension is a useful illustration of this. With many other writers, and especially Southern ones, such an absence might prove fatal…. With McCullers, however, just the opposite is true;… in some strange way she manages to make history function as an absent presence in her work. It seems to be not so much omitted from her writing as concealed, made to disappear, and in such a way that the disappearance itself, like the disappearance of the religious perspective from later Victorian fiction, encourages our active comment. McCullers's characters, we infer, have not even this, the mere possibility of a tradition, to sustain them;… [they are] so disoriented as to have no point of reference really, no common denominator with which to chart their disorientation. They may suffer pangs of nostalgia; in fact most of them do, it is a natural consequence of their loneliness. But that nostalgia is for a condition they can hardly define. They may be adrift, homesick; but that homesickness is for a place that has never, personally, been theirs. Just as space seems to recede from them even while it is being described, to try to hide from them in a way, so time in its larger dimension appears somehow to mock them by remaining hidden; the vacuum its departure creates is, we sense, there as a positive force in the narrative contributing to their despair. One sometimes wonders if, in all this, McCullers is not trying to add her own idiosyncratic footnote to Nietzsche by suggesting that not only God, that traditional comforter of the lonely and spiritually disfigured, is dead now—history, as a common secular resource and the modern substitute for God, is as well. (p. 273)
Richard Gray, in his The Literature of Memory: Modern Writers of the American South (copyright © 1977 by Richard Gray), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
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[If we take Carson McCullers] at her word, and I believe we should, [the] theme of spiritual isolation is the cornerstone to her house of fiction. One of the smallest rooms of that house is the region of her short stories [published in The Mortgaged Heart and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe]…. Certainly all are typical McCullers, with this exception: they are all less likely to be labeled "Gothic" or "grotesque" when compared to her novels. For whatever reason, there is less physical abnormality in the stories. Instead of mutes and dwarfs, what we generally encounter here are people isolated by circumstance rather than physical appearance or malady. Instead of freaks we find an inner freaking-out….
One of the amazing things in considering McCullers is not only how many variations she played upon this theme [of spiritual isolation] in book after book, story after story, and two plays, but also how early that vision was formulated. It is to be found in her very first story, "Sucker," written when she was a seventeen-year-old school girl. There the title character, Sucker, is an orphan, and therefore unrelated to the family with whom he lives…. Sucker desperately wants to be loved, to become a member of the family….
At first "Sucker" seems to be the story of the narrator, Pete, and the pull between agape (Pete and Sucker) and eros (Pete and Maybelle). But by the time of the story's climax, the awful scene in which Pete tells Sucker he doesn't care for him one bit, we realize the story bears the correct title after all. It is Sucker's story, the story of an outsider who tries to fit in. (p. 66)
Being an orphan, then, was McCullers's first projection of a spiritually isolated being. She used the same projection in "The Orphanage." Yet another early story, "Breath from the Sky," depicts a young woman orphaned from her family not by parental death, but by her own invalidism. (p. 67)
Some of Carson McCullers's most successful characterizations of the isolated individual are, of course, her adolescents—characters like Mick Kelly and Frankie Addams, who belong neither to the adult world nor to the world of childhood. One such in-betweener is the thirteen-year-old younger sister in the early story "Like That." Perceiving the pain of growing into womanhood experienced by her older sister, she resists rather than embraces maturation. Like Sucker, she rebels, only her rebellion is against such overwhelming forces as menstruation, sexuality, premature death.
Another adolescent is the heroine of "Correspondence," a slight epistolary story of a one-way correspondence undertaken by a Frankie Addams type, here named Henrietta Evans…. That there is no response from the other country is indicative of McCullers's negative world view.
Not all of McCullers's suffering adolescents are female. In the long "Untitled Piece" a boy called Andrew Leander seems a male Frankie, and his father is also a jeweler. The action takes place during one crazy summer, and Berenice Sadie Brown has somehow been transmogrified into a younger black named Vitalis. In his attempt to become joined to something, Andrew commits an act of unpremeditated miscegenation with Vitalis, then flees the town in guilt. His one act of union and love has forced his separation and fear. A later story, "The Haunted Boy," depicts a teenager named Hugh who is also isolated, in his case in the knowledge that his mother is mad and that he may once again discover her in a suicide attempt. The story is marred by a pat ending, but Hugh's fear is made extraordinarily real. (pp. 67-8)
Another category of McCullers's characterizations of young people is that of the adolescent as musician…. "Wunderkind" is one of the most famous of all her stories, even though there are several that are better. It concerns the realization of a fifteen-year-old music student that she simply does not possess the emotional capacity to match her facile pianistic technique. Outside she is all glitter; inside, she knows she is empty…. In the novels McCullers strove for grand moments; in the stories, for quiet occasions which nevertheless are vital occasions. When the washed-up wunderkind flees her piano teacher's studio and hurries "down the street that had become confused with noise and bicycles and the games of other children," the reader comprehends the loss of the girl's childhood, sacrificed to the music she cannot really play well. She is an emotional freak who is outwardly normal.
Another youthful musician appears in "Poldi," an early tale of hopeless love…. As in "Sucker," "The Haunted Boy," and the "Untitled Piece," McCullers successfully transforms herself into a young male. (pp. 68-9)
Bridging the generation gap between the author's younger and older short story protagonists is the eighteen-year-old university student in the early tale "Court in the West Eighties."… [Here] McCullers injects a potent symbol into the story in the form of a balloon man—that is, a man made of balloons, bearing a silly grin and hanging perpetually from one apartment window. He is an effigy mocking mankind and man's helplessness. In the world of McCullers's imagination we are all dangling, hanged men.
In McCullers's stories portraying adults confronting adult problems—or rather, not confronting them, since most either freak out or flee the situation rather than face it—the characters are occasionally absolutely normal in appearance. Later, however, they are rendered symbolically grotesque, as in "Instant of the Hour After," a mood piece in which a young married couple's love for one another is inexplicably destroying them. In the story's chief symbol they are seen as two figures in a bottle—small, perfect, yet white and exhausted, like "fleshly specimens in a laboratory." (p. 69)
In "A Domestic Dilemma," the isolated character is a housewife, physically transplanted from Alabama to New York. Unable to adjust to the changes involved in the move or to make friends, she seeks escape through drinking. Without the artifice of alcohol her interior life is insufficient…. In this, my personal favorite of her shorter fiction, McCullers explores love/hate relationships in marriage and what she calls "the immense complexity of love."
This inability to adjust to physical change signals a state of spiritual isolation in several of the best stories by McCullers, including "The Sojourner" and "A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud," as well as the more superficial "Art and Mr. Mahoney." (p. 70)
The disintegration of a marriage [creates a] dis-integrated soul in "A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud." The story relates the encounter in a café of a twelve-year-old boy and an old cuckold…. Love here is expounded as a condition which must be achieved through small steps. Rather than presuming to begin one's love life with a woman—what the old man (and McCullers) calls "the most dangerous and sacred experience in God's earth"—we should instead begin in very small ways, loving tiny inanimate objects first: a tree, a rock, a cloud. Only when we can relate to the minimal can we hope to possess the maximal. (pp. 70-1)
That McCullers sides with him is made clear by the actions she attributes to Leo, the café owner. Leo not only treats his regular customers stingily, but also does not love himself enough to nourish his body adequately. He grudges himself a bun. But then, in McCullers's love affairs, everyone seems to be grudging their buns….
Mr. Mahoney's inability to adjust, in "Art and Mr. Mahoney," is less dramatic. He is a man of great cultural pretensions and little education to back them up. Inadvertently he reveals his ignorance by clapping at the wrong time in a piano concert…. His little embarrassment, however, can in no way be compared to the illuminations experienced by the wunderkind and Ferris and the haunted boy, and "Art and Mr. Mahoney" remains a trivial story. (p. 71)
"Who Has Seen the Wind?" is the rather melodramatic tale of Ken, a writer who is blocked after two books. His inability to communicate is driving him mad….
The tale of "Madame Zilensky" is a superb one of a woman so dedicated to music that she is alien to the rest of the world, consequently compensating through lies—living vicariously the experiences she never had time to experience….
In "The Aliens," which is a sketch rather than a story, we are given speculations on the nature of grief from the mouth of a wandering Jew. There once was a time, I hear, when many provincial people thought a Jew was a freak, with horns and a tail. McCullers's Jew has neither horns nor tail, and can in no way qualify as a freak. She uses his Jewishness to emphasize his displacement. He is an alien on the bus of life, as it were—rootless and totally other. (p. 72)
[In "The Jockey"] we do find a freakish fellow…. With his diminutive physical stature and his life of mandatory dietary deprivation, he is a man-child in the world of men. A freak.
But more than size and diet separates this jockey from his peers. He is morally outraged by the behavior of the trainer, the bookie, and the rich man who populate the story….
In contrast to the physical and material values of these men, McCullers posits a symbol of the soul—green-white August moths which flutter about the clear candle flames. The soulful jockey and the moths are one. The image is a good one, because in this gallery of wanderers and aliens, failures and outcasts in a world in which all traditional values are, if not reversed, unrecognizable, all are seeking but one thing—the freedom of the moth, the unification of the spirit with the environment, the soul within the body of this earth. In these nineteen short stories, with only one certified freak among them, Carson McCullers depicts this quest with less sensationalism than in the novels, and often with true distinction. (p. 73)
Robert Phillips, "Freaking Out: The Short Stories of Carson McCullers," in Southwest Review (© 1978 by Southern Methodist University Press), Winter, 1978, pp. 65-73.
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