McCullers, Carson (Smith)

views updated

McCULLERS, Carson (Smith)

Born 19 February 1917, Columbus, Georgia; died 29 September 1967, Nyack, New York

Also wrote under: Lula Carson Smith

Daughter of Lamar and Marguerite Waters Smith; married Reeves McCullers, 1937 (divorced 1940, remarried 1945)

Carson McCullers' childhood was remarkable more for imaginative activity than for external events. She knew firsthand the monotony and dreary heat of a small Southern town, which later provided settings for her novels. Her family was very supportive of her artistic talents, which gave early promise in both writing and music.

In 1935 McCullers went to New York City to study music. She lost her tuition money to the Julliard School of Music, however, and took part-time jobs while studying writing at Columbia University. She married a young army corporal, whom she divorced in 1940 but remarried five years later.

Her health, always delicate, deteriorated steadily from a tragic series of paralyzing strokes, breast cancer, and pneumonia. Yet she received visitors, traveled, and worked at her writing while half-paralyzed until a final stroke killed her when she was fifty.

McCullers received immediate acclaim with her remarkable first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940, film version, 1968), written when she was twenty-two. She became one of the most controversial writers in America and had many prominent friends, including Tennessee Williams, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNiece, and Richard Wright. With The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers established the themes that concerned her in all subsequent writings: the spiritual isolation of the individual and the individual's attempt to transcend that loneliness through love. The action centers on a deaf-mute, John Singer, to whom an odd assortment of characters turn as to a being especially wise and benevolent. The adolescent Mick speaks to him passionately of music, although Singer has never heard music. Dr. Copeland, a black physician, confides desperately his dreams for educating his race. Jake Blount, an ineffectual agitator, rants about the workers' revolution. Biff Brannon, quiet observer of men, is fascinated by Singer because of his effect on all the others. But Singer loves another mute: an indolent, developmentally challenged Greek named Antonapoulos, who can never respond in kind to the outpourings of communication from Singer's expressive hands. Thus each man creates a god fashioned after his own need—but such gods fail. When Antonapoulos dies in a mental hospital, Singer commits suicide. His death signals the fading of a dream for each of those who revered him. This novel, like many of McCullers' works, is highly symbolic yet rich in concrete detail. A number of allegorical meanings have been suggested for the story, of which McCullers' own, concerning fascism, seems least appropriate.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941, film version 1967) is technically more polished and controlled than the first novel but more grotesque in character and event. In the static, ingrown environment of a Southern army post, Captain Penderton, a latent homosexual, is impotent with his beautiful wife, Leonora, but infatuated with their neighbor, Major Langdon, who is her lover. The catalyst is Private Williams, an inarticulate young man with an affinity for nature and horses, especially Leonora's high-spirited stallion, Firebird. Captain Penderton both loves and hates Private Williams with a repressed sadomasochism reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence's "The Prussian Officer." Williams glimpses the naked Leonora through an open door, and thereafter he creeps into the Penderton house at night and crouches reverently beside Leonora's bed simply to watch her sleep. Captain Penderton discovers him there and shoots him. The influence of Freud is unmistakable in this novel; McCullers was one of the first American writers to deal openly with homosexual impulses. The approach is consistently objective and nonjudgemental, as though reflected in the disinterested eye of nature.

McCullers' novella The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951, dramatized by Edward Albee in 1963) achieves more successfully the mode of archetypal myth she approached in Reflections in a Golden Eye. It combines realistic detail with the legendary quality of folk ballad, in a tale of love at once melancholy and sardonically humorous. Surely no more incongruous pair exists in literature than the manlike, independent, crosseyed Miss Amelia and her self-centered little hunchback, Cousin Lyman. Singlehandedly running an excellent distillery and the only general store, Miss Amelia is the leading citizen of a tiny backwoods community. The townsfolk, like a stupid and malicious Greek chorus, have no recreation but observing her colorful career. Miss Amelia once married a local bad boy but quickly threw him out when he tried to augment their partnership with sexual attentions. The humiliated lover made threats, turned to crime, and landed in the penitentiary. Now, a pathetic, homeless dwarf who claims kinship to Miss Amelia straggles into town. Contrary to all expectations, she takes in the stranger and builds her life around him. She opens a café, which becomes the social hub of the community, and the misshapen Cousin Lyman becomes a strutting little prince in her modest castle. Eventually, however, her despised husband returns from prison. Ironically, the dwarf becomes enamored with Macy, who uses him to harass Miss Amelia. The competition culminates in a public fistfight between Miss Amelia and Macy. Miss Amelia is actually winning when the dwarf leaps savagely upon her back and turns her victory into physical and emotional defeat. The two men vandalize her café and distillery and then get out of town. Miss Amelia becomes a recluse, and the town seems to share in her emotional death. There is nothing to do there now but listen to the melancholy singing of the chain gang.

McCullers hardly surpassed the skill and originality of The Ballad of the Sad Café, but many people prefer her mood piece, The Member of the Wedding (1946, film version 1952). It is certainly the most autobiographical of McCullers' novels, and may seem closer to everyday experience, although the view of life as painful and frustrating is consistent with her more bizarre creations. The story concerns a motherless adolescent girl's abortive attempt to outgrow her childhood and create a platonic bond of love with a dimly understood adult world. Frankie Addams wants to find the "we" of "me" and thus escape the prison of selfhood; she decides to go away with her brother and his bride at their forthcoming marriage. This preposterous dream is born of endless conversations in the kitchen with Berenice, the black maid who is her only adult companion, and her seven-yearold cousin, John Henry, who represents the relatively untroubled childhood she wishes to discard. The little boy dies unexpectedly at the end of the novel, suggesting not only that childhood passes but even children are not exempt from tragedy. Frankie, of course, is denied her dream of the perfect threesome on the honeymoon. She does not die of this traumatic rejection, but something rare and fragile is broken. McCullers converted this novel into an award-winning play, which ran for 501 performances in New York.

McCullers' other works include a number of significant short stories ("A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud," sometimes compared in theme to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," was chosen for O. Henry Memorial Prize Stories of 1942); some poetry for children; another, less successful play (The Square Root of Wonderful, 1958, with 55 performances on Broadway); and one other novel, written in the veritable shadow of death.

Clock Without Hands (1961) concerns a man who faces death from leukemia. The theme is still loneliness and isolation, but it has taken on existential overtones. Though the world is without intrinsic meaning, human life acquires significance through an individual's commitment to action. The protagonist, J. T. Malone, is Everyman, unrelievedly ordinary, who suspects he has never lived on his own terms. In his new and painful awareness, there are few decisions left to make, but he makes one small gesture: he refuses to accept the community's order to bomb the home of a black man who had made a commitment by moving into a white neighborhood. In Malone's aging friend, Judge Clane, McCullers has revealed with admirable precision that peculiar combination of sentimentality and cruelty which characterizes the old Southern variety of white racism.

Gore Vidal once predicted that "of all our Southern writers Carson McCullers is the one most likely to endure" (cited by Oliver Evans). "Her quality of despair is unique and individual," wrote Richard Wright (New Republic, 5 Aug. 1940), "and it seems to me more natural and authentic than that of Faulkner." Some have called her a writer's writer, which presumably implies she is more appreciated by professionals than by general readers. If this is true, it may merely indicate that people are uncomfortable with her bleak view of the world. She is, at times, perhaps morbidly engrossed in the grotesque and horrible; yet, the emphasis is never on brutality and gore, but rather on symbolic action equal to psychic pain.

In the foreword to The Square Root of Wonderful, McCullers wrote: "I suppose a writer writes out of some inward compulsion to transform his own experiences (much of it unconscious) into the universal and symbolical.… Certainly I have always felt alone." She admired, and to some extent emulated, some of the very greatest writers: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Flaubert. McCullers' works do not have the psychological insight or concentrated impact of the European masters, but they still cherished Christian redemption as the answer to human failure, which McCullers cannot do. For her, there is only human love to pit against the indifferent universe—and that love is tragically flawed.

One of the gentle ironies of the relationship between the author and her work is that McCullers herself, for all her loneliness, had a remarkable capacity for affection and loyalty to her friends. Her fortitude in the face of terrifying physical infirmity is the best symbol for the supremacy, at least briefly, of spirit over mortal matter.

Surprisingly, about half of the books about McCullers written in the 1980s and 1990s were published outside the U.S.—in India, Spain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. On a global scale, it seems, she is recognized as one of the more interesting writers the U.S. has produced. Among English-speakers, McCullers has provoked a small but steady stream of critical interest. The publication of her Collected Stories (1987), the film adaptation of her Ballad of the Sad Café (1992), and the release of her unfinished autobiography Illumination and Night Glare (1999) have helped keep her in the public eye.

As Judith Giblin James points out in Wunderkind: The Reputation of Carson McCullers, 1940-1990 (1995), many recent critics have turned away from the formal and stylistic interests of the "New Criticism" to examine McCullers' treatment of race, gender, social class, and sexuality. These new questions have led to markedly different understandings of her works and the isolated, freakish characters for which she was long known. James reviews the critical reception of each of McCullers' books, plays, stories, essays, and poems, showing how critics' concerns reflect broader social and academic trends. Her bibliography of English-language writings on McCullers is extensive and chronologically arranged from 1940 to 1993.

Critical Essays on Carson McCullers (1996), edited by Beverly Lyon Clark and Melvin J. Friedman, reprints contemporary reviews of McCullers' works, tributes to her career, and selected critical essays. It includes Richard Wright's 1940 review of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in which he praised McCullers as the first Southern white writer to "handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race." It also offers three new critical studies examining ethnicity in The Member of the Wedding, the chain gang in The Ballad of the Sad Café, and homoerotics in McCullers' fiction.

Much of this recent criticism illuminates McCullers' interest in communities, social structures, and social criticism. She was a subtle artist, and her "messages" were never blunt. Nevertheless, this recent work has revised the earlier perception McCullers was preeminently concerned with personal psychology and the isolated plight of the individual.

Other Works:

Sweet As a Pickle and Clean As a Pig: Poems (1964). The Mortgaged Heart (edited by M. G. Smith, 1971).

Bibliography:

Balakian, N., and C. Simmons, eds., The Creative Present (1963). Bloom, H. ed., Carson McCullers (1986). Carr, V. S., The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers (1975). Carr, V. S., Understanding Carson McCullers (1989). Eisinger, C. E., Fiction of the Forties (1963). Evans, O., The Ballad of Carson McCullers (1966). Jenkins, M., The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s (1999). McDowell, M. B., Carson McCullers (1980). Shapiro, A. M. et al, Carson McCullers: A Descriptive Listing and Annotated Bibliography of Criticism (1980). Westling, L., Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor (1985).

Reference works:

American Writers (1972). CA. CANR (1964). CLC. DAB. DLB. NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). SATA. TCA, TCAS.

Other references:

CE (Oct. 1951). Explicator (1988). Georgia Review (Dec. 1958, Summer 1963). Jahrbuch fur Amerikastudien (1963). Kenyon Review (Winter 1947). Mississippi Quarterly (Winter 1987-88). Pembroke Magazine (1988). SAQ (1957). Studies in American Fiction (Autumn 1990). Southern Literary Journal (Fall 1991, Spring 1992). Southern Studies (1993). WSCL (Jan. 1960, Feb. 1962).

—KATHERINE SNIPES,

UPDATED BY LORI J. KENSCHAFT

About this article

McCullers, Carson (Smith)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article