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||(Lula) Carson McCullers (1917-1967) - original name Lula Carson Smith|
American author who examined the psychology of lonely, isolated people. McCullers published only eight books. Her best known novels are The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), which she wrote at the age of twenty-two, and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1942), set in a military base. Both of the books have been filmed. Although McCullers depicted homosexual characters and she had female lovers, she dealt with the theme of homosexuality in a wider context of alienation and dislocation.
"The late autumn sun laid a radiant haze over the new sodded winter grass of the lawn, and even in the woods the sun shone through places where the leaves were not so dense, to make fiery golden patterns on the ground. The suddenly the sun was gone. There was a chill in the air and a light, pure wind. It was time for retreat. From far away came the sound of the bugle, clarified by distance and echoing in the woods with a lost hollow tone. The night was near at hand." (from Reflections in a Golden Eye)
Lula Carson Smith (Carson McCullers) was born in Columbus,
the daughter of a well-to-do watchmaker and jeweler of French Huguenot
extraction. From the age of five McCullers took piano lessons and at
the age of 17 she moved to New York to study piano at Juilliard School
of Music. However, she never attended the school – she managed to
lose the money set aside for her tuition. Due to rheumatic fever, which she had contracted in her childhood, she did not have the physical stamina necessary for a concert pianist.
McCullers worked in menial
jobs and studied creative writing at Columbia and New York
universities. In 1936 she published in Story magazine an
autobiographical piece, 'Wunderkind,' which depicted a musical
prodigy's failure and adolescent insecurity. Although McCullers didn't mention Djuna Barnes, the writer of Nightwood, in the unfinished autobiography Illumination and Night Glare (1999), she had a great influence on her. According to a story, McCullers wanted desperately to see Barnes and used to hang around her door, begging to be let in. "Whoever is
ringing this bell, please go the hell away!" Barnes cried from the
In September 1937 she married Reeves McCullers, a failed author, who started to envy his wife's literary success. Before the wedding she told her parents that she did not want to marry until she first had experienced sex with him. "The sexual experience was not like D.H. Lawrence," she later said. "No grand explosions or colored lights, but it gave me a chance to know Reeves better, and really learn to love him." The couple moved to North Carolina, living there for two years. During this time she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a novel in the Southern Gothic tradition. The title, suggested by McCullers's editor, was taken from Fiona MacLeod's poem 'The Lonely Hunter'.
Set in the 1930s in a small mill town, similar to Charlotte of the 1930s, the story tells about an adolescent girl with a passion to study music. Other major characters include an unsuccessful socialist agitator, a black physician struggling to maintain his personal dignity, a widower who owns a café, and John Singer, the deaf-mute protagonist, who is confidante of people who talk to him about loneliness and misery. When Singer's Greek mute friend goes insane, Singer is left alone. He takes a room with the Kelly family, where he is visited by the town's misfits. After discovering that his mute friend has died, Singer shoots himself – there is no one left to communicate with him.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was interpreted as an anti-fascist book when it came out. In 1968 it was filmed with Alan Arkin in the lead role. Reflections in a Golden Eye was directed by John Huston (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Some of the film was shot in New York City and on Long Island, where Huston was permitted to use an abandoned Army installation. Many of the interiors and some of the exteriors were done in Italy. "I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York," said Huston in An Open Book (1980). "Carson lived nearby, and one day when Buzz and I were out for a walk she hailed us from her doorway. She was then in her early twenties, and had already suffered the first of series of strokes that made her an invalid before she was thirty. I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine. It wasn't palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her affections multiplied, she only grew stronger."
McCullers's marriage turned out to be unlucky. Both she and her husband had homosexual relationships. They separated in 1940. McCullers moved to New York to live with George Davis, the literary editor of Harper's Bazaar, and the British poet W.H. Auden, in a rented house in Brooklyn Heights. There she became a member of the art commune February House. Among her acquaintances were Paul and Jane Bowles, and the burlesque stripper Gipsy Rose Lee. In 1941 McCullers had a stroke, which temporarily impaired her vision and caused blinding headaches. After World War II she lived mostly in Paris. Her close friends during these years included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
Upon Reeves's return from the war, where he served in the Second Ranger Battalion in Europe, McCullers remarried him in 1945. A stroke permanently paralyzed her left side. While living in France, she became so depressed that she attempted suicide at her husband's urging. McCullers broke up with him, fled to the United States, and Reeves killed himself in a Paris hotel in November 1953 with an overdose of sleeping pills. McCullers's bitter-sweet play The Square Root of Wonderful (1958) was an attempt to examine these traumatic experiences. The Member of the Wedding (1946) described the feelings of a young girl at her brother's wedding. The Broadway production of the novella had a successful run in 1950-51. McCullers's best short stories include 'Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland,' collected in The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951). The title story, a novella, tells of a strong woman, Miss Amelia Evans, who falls in love with a hunchback, Cousin Lymon. At the end he destroys Miss Amelia's cafe with his lover, her former husband.
McCullers suffered throughout her life from several illnesses – moreover, she couldn't write without alcohol. She usually started her morning with a glass of beer, then it was time for her customary sherry or gin, and after the day's work was done, she went out for food and drinks with friends. Carson McCullers died in New York on September 29, 1967, after a stroke and a resultant brain haemorrhage. Her final novel was Clock Without Hands (1961), which was a bestseller, but received mixed review. Sweet as a Picle and Clean as a Pig (1964) was a collection of children's verse. Her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, she dictated during her final months.
Although McCullers's oeuvre is often described as "Southern Gothic," she produced her famous works after leaving the South. Her eccentric characters suffer from loneliness that is interpreted with deep empathy. In a discussion with the Irish critic and writer Terence De Vere White she confessed: "Writing, for me, is a search for God." This search was not acknowledged by all of her colleagues – Arthur Miller dismissed her a "minor author," but Gore Vidal praised her work as ''one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.''
For further reading: Carson McCullers, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (2009); February House by Sherill Tippins (2006); The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers by Virginia Spencer Carr (2003); Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau (2001); Critical Essays on Carson McCullers, ed. by Beverly Lyon Clark et al. (1996); Wunderkind: The Reputation of Carson McCullers, 1940-1990 by Judith Giblin James (1995); Understanding Carson McCullers by V.S. Carr (1989); Carson McCullers, ed by H. Bloom (1986); Carson McCullers by M.B. McDowell (1980); The Lonely Hunter by Virginia Spencer Carr (1975); Carson McCullers by R.M. Cook (1975); Carson McCullers by D. Edmonds (1969): Carson McCullers by L. Graver (1969)