She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917. Her mother was the granddaughter of a plantation owner and Confederate war hero. Her father, like Wilbur Kelly in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was a watchmaker and jeweler of French Huguenot descent. From the age of ten, Lula took piano lessons. When she was fifteen, her father gave her a typewriter on which to compose stories.
Smith graduated from Columbus High School. In September 1934 at the age of 17, she left home on a steamship from Savannah, Georgia, planning to study piano at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. After losing the money set aside for her tuition, she never attended the school. McCullers worked in menial jobs and studied creative writing under the Texas writer Dorothy Scarborough at night classes at Columbia University, and with Sylvia Chatfield Bates at Washington Square College of New York University. In 1936 she published her first work. "Wunderkind", an autobiographical piece which Bates had much admired, appeared in Story magazine. It depicted a musical prodigy's failure and adolescent insecurity. It is also collected in the The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.
From 1935 to 1937 she divided her time, as her studies and health dictated, between Columbus and New York. In September 1937 she married an ex-soldier and aspiring writer, Reeves McCullers. They began their married life in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Reeves had found some work.
Carson McCullers, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1959
Maxim Lieber served as her literary agent in 1938, 1941, and 1948-1949. In Charlotte and Fayetteville, North Carolina, McCullers wrote her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in the Southern Gothic or perhaps Southern realist traditions. Suggested by McCullers's editor, the title was taken from Fiona MacLeod's poem "The Lonely Hunter." The novel was thought to be anti-Fascist at the time.
McCullers published eight books. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), which she wrote at the age of twenty-three; Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941); and The Member of the Wedding (1946) are the best known. The novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1951) depicts loneliness and the pain of unrequited love. At the time of its writing, McCullers was a resident at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga, New York.
Many know her work only by their film adaptations. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was adapted as a film by the same title in 1968 with Alan Arkin starring in the lead role. Reflections in a Golden Eye was directed by John Huston (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. "I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York," said Huston in his autobiography 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 20s, and had already suffered the first of a series of strokes. 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 afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger."
Carson and Reeves McCullers separated in 1940 and divorced in 1941. After separating from Reeves, she moved to New York to live with George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar. In Brooklyn, she became a member of the art commune February House. Among her friends were W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul and Jane Bowles. After World War II, Carson lived mostly in Paris. Her close friends during these years included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
In 1945, Carson and Reeves McCullers remarried. Three years later, under the spell of depression, she attempted suicide. In 1953, Reeves tried to convince her to commit suicide with him, but she fled and Reeves killed himself in their Paris hotel with an overdose of sleeping pills. Her bittersweet play, The Square Root of Wonderful (1957), drew upon these traumatic experiences.
The Member of the Wedding (1946) describes the feelings of a young girl at her brother's wedding. The Broadway stage adaptation of the novel had a successful run in 1950–51 and was produced by the Young Vic in London in September 2007.
McCullers suffered throughout her life from several illnesses and from alcoholism. She also contracted rheumatic fever at the age of 15 and suffered from strokes that began in her youth. By the age of 31, her left side was entirely paralyzed. She died in Nyack, New York, on September 29, 1967, after a brain hemorrhage, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.
McCullers dictated her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare (1999), during the final months of her life. Her home from 1945 to 1967 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
Burial: Oak Hill Cemetery, Nyack, Rockland County, New York, USA. Plot: High Lawn section
Southern-born author Carson McCullers was purportedly bisexual and married to a man who may have been gay. This need to conceal her sexuality in a time and place that weren´t exactly open to her lifestyle was often reflected in stories that celebrated the misfit loner. Nowhere is this theme of the isolated outsider more prevalent than in McCullers´s Southern gothic masterpiece The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It is hinted that a few characters may be gay or bisexual, while they each embody some difference or eccentricity that sets them apart from the "normal" denizens of their small town. The story includes a shocking, abrupt plot twist that has haunted me since I first read it back in high school. (It was assigned reading my sophomore year, and I was one of the few students in class who actually liked it, perhaps because I identified so readily with the themes presented.) Depressing but poignant, this book isn´t exactly light reading. I recommend it on a day when you´re less in the mood to be entertained and more so to think.--Katrina Strauss
If anything, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is an anti-romance. No one ends up happy. John Singer is a deaf-mute who lives with his companion, another deaf man named Antonapoulos. At the beginning of the story, Antonapoulos is sent to an aslyum and Singer moves into a boarding house. The rest of the book is about how the inhabitants of the house interact with Singer, each feeling as though he somehow enriches their lives to some extent, though none of them ever really gets to know him or realizes he himself is deeply saddened by the loss of his friend. I don't know if it's considered a GLBT novel or not, but I always felt it could withstand a gay reading, as I saw the friendship between Singer and Antonapoulos as something much more than what was explicitly portrayed in the story. Given the way the book ends, there has to be more than mere friendship between them. If you aren't too hung up on happy ever after and want to lose yourself in some damn fine literature, give this one a try. --J.M. SnyderFurther Readings:
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Paperback: 359 pages
Publisher: Mariner; 1st Mariner Books Ed edition (April 21, 2004)
Amazon: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
With the publication of her first novel, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, Carson McCullers, all of twenty-three, became a literary sensation. With its profound sense of moral isolation and its compassionate glimpses into its characters' inner lives, the novel is considered McCullers' finest work, an enduring masterpiece first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1940. At its center is the deaf-mute John Singer, who becomes the confidant for various types of misfits in a Georgia mill town during the 1930s. Each one yearns for escape from small town life. When Singer's mute companion goes insane, Singer moves into the Kelly house, where Mick Kelly, the book's heroine (and loosely based on McCullers), finds solace in her music. Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition, and with a deft sense for racial tensions in the South, McCullers spins a haunting, unforgettable story that gives voice to the rejected, the forgotten, and the mistreated -- and, through Mick Kelly, gives voice to the quiet, intensely personal search for beauty.
Richard Wright praised Carson McCullers for her ability "to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness." She writes "with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming," said the NEW YORK TIMES. McCullers became an overnight literary sensation, but her novel has endured, just as timely and powerful today as when it was first published. THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER is Carson McCullers at her most compassionate, endearing best.
Understanding Carson McCullers (Understanding Contemporary American Literature) by Virginia Spencer Carr
Paperback: 196 pages
Publisher: University of South Carolina Press (September 27, 2005)
Amazon: Understanding Carson McCullers
Updated with a discussion of recent scholarship, Understanding Carson McCullers provides a balanced introductory study of the Georgia-born novelist's major fiction and the reasons for her extraordinary and lasting acclaim. Carson McCullers was deemed the "find of the decade" when she appeared on the literary scene at the age of twenty-three and is best remembered for her celebrated novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding. Through Virginia Spencer Carr's insightful discussion and lucid analysis of these and lesser-known works, McCullers is shown here as more than a southern writer, more than a lesbian novelist. McCullers emerges as a complex and multifaceted artist not yet fully comprehended and deserving of more contemplative study and thoughtful understanding.
February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Brooklyn by Sherill Tippins
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (July 12, 2006)
Amazon: February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Brooklyn
In this captivating book, Sherill Tippins brings to life the story of what was possibly the most fertile and improbable live-in salon of the twentieth century. Known as February House, its residents included, among others, Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Paul Bowles, and the famed burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. This ramshackle Brooklyn brownstone was host to an explosion of creativity, an extraordinary experiment in communal living, and a nonstop yearlong party fueled by the appetites of youth. Here these burgeoning talents composed many of their most famous, iconic literary works while experiencing together a crucial historical moment--America on the threshold of World War II.
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