Carson McCullers

(1917 – 1967)

Southern author whose psychological novels and stories examined the secrets of lonely, isolated people. Many of her works are set in the South. McCuller's best known novels are THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER 1940), written at the age of twenty-two, and REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1942), a psychological horror story set in a military base. Both of the books have been filmed.

Lula Carson Smith (Carson McCullers) was born in Columbus, Georgia, as the daughter of a well-to-do watchmaker and jeweller of French Hugenot extraction. From the age of five she took piano lessons, and at the age of 15 she received a typewriter from her father. Two years later she moved to New York to study piano at Juilliard School of Music, but never attended the school - she managed to lose the money set aside for her tuition. McCullers worked in menial jobs and devoted herself to writing. She studied creative writing at Columbia and New York universities and published in 1936 an autobiographical piece, 'Wunderkind' in Story magazine. It depicted a musical prodigy's failure and adolescent insecurity.

In 1937 she married Reeves McCullers, a failed author. They moved to North Caroline, living there for two years. During this time she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a novel in the Southern Gothic tradition. It was set in the 1930s in a small Georgian mill town. The central characters are an adolescent girl with a passion to study music, 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. He 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 well-received when it came out, and it was interpreted as an anti-fascist book. 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 Nwe 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.

McCullers's marriange turned out to be unlucky, and she and her husband separated in 1940.  She moved to New York to live with George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar. McCullers became a member of the art commune February House in Brooklyn. Among their friends were W.H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, and the striptease artiste Gipsy Rose Lee. After World War II McCullers lived mostly in Paris. Her close friends during these years included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.

In 1945 McCullers remarried with Reeves, and in 1948 under depression she attempted suicide. Reeves killed himself in a Paris hotel in 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 experinces. THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING (1946) described the feelings of a young girl at her brother's wedding. The Broadway production of the novel had a succesful run in 1950-51.

Carson McCullers suffered throughout her life from several illnesses - she had contracted rheumatic fever at the age of fifteen and a series of strokes left her a virtual invalid in her early 30's. She died in New York on September 29, 1967, after a stroke and a resultant brain haemorrhage. Her last book, ILLUMINATION AND NIGHT GLARE (1999), McCullers dictated during her final months. Her oeuvre is often described as "Southern Gothic." All her novels were written with elegant, plain style. In the grotesque world of McCullers's fiction her eccentric characters suffer from loneliness that she 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.''

Major Works

Novels
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter ( 1940 ).
Reflections in a Golden Eye ( 1941 ).
The Ballad of the Sad Café ( 1943 ).
The Member of the Wedding ( 1946 ).
Clock Without Hands ( 1961 ).

Plays
The Member of the Wedding ( 1951 ).
The Square Root of Wonderful ( 1958 ).

Short Stories
Collected Stories of Carson McCullers. Introduction by Virginia Spencer Carr.. Houghton Mifflin, 1987. This collection contains the stories, the novella Ballad of the Sad Café, and the novel Member of the Wedding.