Carson McCullers

views updated May 18 2018

Carson McCullers

One of America's most unique writers, Carson McCullers (1917-1967) wrote about isolation, loneliness and failures in human communication in popular novels and plays set in the Southern United States, mostly in the 1940s.

Carson McCullers is considered to be a member of the "Southern gothic" tradition in American literature, and is often compared to writers like Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. Her characters include tortured adolescents, homosexuals, and outcasts from conventional society. Several of her novels were popular, but critics have disagreed about her achievements. Because of her fluid, nuanced prose, she is most appreciated by other writers. Gore Vidal said her "genius for prose remains one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture." Playwright Tennessee Williams spoke of the "intensity and nobility of spirit" in her writing.

Lonely Heart

Lula Carson Smith was born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia. She was a precocious child encouraged by an indulgent mother to pursue her talents. She began piano lessons at age five and became an awkward and isolated prodigy. During her school days she was often harassed by children who called her a freak.

At 17, she entered the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York City, but poor health prevented her from going to classes. Instead, she took a series of odd jobs by day and studied writing at Columbia University at night. She was a failure at earning a living by any means other than writing. "I was always fired, " she once told an interviewer. "My record is perfect on that. I never quit a job in my life."

Her first published story was a thinly disguised autobiographical piece called Wunderkind. It tells the story of a girl who realizes at age 15 that she is not the musical prodigy her parents told her she was. She quits music and loses her friends and her parents' affection. In New York in 1937, she married Reeves McCullers. But neither was suited to heterosexual monogamy, and theirs was a difficult union. They divorced in 1940 but remarried in 1945.

Critic Robert F. Kiernan once noted that McCullers was "an eccentric, self-centered woman, preoccupied with money, with literary success, and with the satisfaction of her own emotional needs…. But the failings of M.'s life were the material of her art, and all of her characters share her egocentricity and suffer the pangs of its attendant loneliness."

The "air of stark, existential angst" which Kiernan noted in her work was present from the very start. In her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, published in 1940, when she was only 23, McCullers told a desperately sad story about a deaf-mute, John Singer, who cares for a mentally impaired deaf-mute, Spiros Antonatoulos. Four towns-people adopt Singer as their confidante. They believe Singer is sympathetic, but in fact he listens merely to be polite and does not understand them. Antonatoulos is sent to an insane asylum, and Singer commits suicide.

The novel explores the inability of human beings to soothe others' loneliness. None of the characters are capable of giving the love and understanding the others need. One of the characters is a black doctor who is frustrated at his inability to make progress in race relations in the Southern town. Another is an adolescent girl who dreams of becoming an orchestra conductor but is doomed by her family's poverty to a lifetime of working in a dime store; the character is modeled after McCullers.

Critics loved the way McCullers recreated the closed-in atmosphere of a Southern small town. They also admired how sympathetically the characters were portrayed despite their obvious failings. In her later work of collected essays and stories, The Mortgaged Heart, McCullers explained her themes: "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 isolation."

Defying Convention

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was a best-seller and instantly established McCullers on the American literary scene. Critics hailed her as a major emerging talent. Her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, shattered expectations, mostly because of its unconventional subject matter. The homosexual nature of the relationship between the two deaf-mutes in her first novel was only implied. In Golden Eye the characters' non-standard sexual behavior was obvious. Set on an army base in the South in the 1930s, the novel is about the relationships among Captain Penderton, a bisexual, sadomasochistic, impotent man; Major Langdon, who is having an affair with Penderton's wife; the two wives; a homosexual houseboy, Anacleto; and Private Williams, who has relations with a horse. The novel is full of perverse scenes and ends with a murder. Most critics found the characters grotesque and unsympathetic.

McCullers's second novel was written as her marriage fell apart. She had taken a female lover, and her husband had taken a male lover. After finishing the book, McCullers moved to New York to live with book editor George Davis. In 1942, McCullers was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. She was awarded another in 1946. She also got a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1943.

That same year, she completed her long novella, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Cast in terms of a folk tale with a nameless narrator, it is the story of a female giant, Amelia Evans, who is in love with Lymon, a hunchback. Evans runs a cafe in a small Southern town. Her husband, Marvin Macy, returns from prison and starts a relationship with Lymon. The story ends in a brawl between the married couple and the destruction of the cafe. Many critics considered the story McCullers's finest work, approaching the level of myth. Tennessee Williams said it was "among the masterpieces of the language."

In 1946, the novel The Member of the Wedding was published. McCullers had been working on the story off and on since 1940. Again set in a small Southern town, it concerns an awkward, lonely adolescent girl, Frankie Adams. She tries to become a member of her brother's wedding party to overcome her isolation, but her father prevents her from riding in the newlyweds' car. More realistic than her previous two works, The Member of the Wedding is a sympathetic portrayal of adolescent misery. It won a great reception from critics and the public. McCullers adapted it for the stage, and it had a successful run of 501 performances in New York in 1950, winning several important awards. In 1952, it was made into a film of the same name, starring Julie Harris.

Challenges and Decline

McCullers's health was never good, but by the time she was 30 it began to seriously hamper her career. In 1947, she suffered a series of strokes which left her blinded in the right eye and partially paralyzed. She could type with only one hand, and produced only a page a day. In 1948, in despair over her physical condition, McCullers attempted suicide but failed; she never tried again. But her husband was also suicidal because of his lack of success in a career and their unstable marriage. In 1953 he suggested a double suicide while they were living in Europe. She fled to the United States, and a few weeks later he killed himself in a hotel in Paris. McCullers returned to live with her mother, who died in 1955.

Her personal difficulties greatly diminished her literary output. In 1953 she wrote a television play, The Invisible Wall, for CBS. Her second and last stage play, The Square Root of Wonderful, was a failure in 1958. Her final novel was published in 1961. Titled Clock without Hands, it returns to the themes of homosexuality and racial bigotry McCullers first raised in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. A critical and commercial failure, Clock without Hands is the story of the bigoted Southern patriarch Judge Clane, who is raising his orphaned grandson Jester. The judge, who still believes in the principles of the old Confederacy, wants to send Jester to a military school, but Jester is more interested in music and flying and in his grandfather's mixed-race male secretary, Sherman Pew.

The same year Clock without Hands was published, McCullers had breast cancer surgery. In 1964, her second and last television screenplay, The Sojourner, aired on NBC. That year, her book of poems for children, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig, was published. Another children's book, Sucker, was published posthumously in 1986.

In 1967, McCullers suffered another stroke and soon died at the age of 50. That same year, Reflections in a Golden Eye was released as a Hollywood feature film. Directed by John Huston and starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, the movie was a flop despite its big names. The following year, a film version of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, starring Alan Arkin, won a little more attention.

The Mortgaged Heart: The Previously Uncollected Writings of Carson McCullers, came out in 1971. Another volume of short stories, Collected Stories, was published in 1987. In 1989, The Member of the Wedding enjoyed a revival at the Roundabout Theater in New York. McCullers's tale of suburban alcoholism in the 1950s, A Domestic Dilemma, became part of a 1991 HBO television anthology, Women and Men 2, starring Andie McDowell and Ray Liotta. That same year, Ballad of the Sad Cafe was made into a film, with Vanessa Redgrave as the giant woman and Keith Carradine as her husband. The film was a failure.

A Mixed Legacy

Critics disagree strongly on McCullers's standing in American literature. Stanley Kauffmann, reviewing the film version of Ballad of the Sad Cafe in the New Republic, blasted the story as a "fashion whose vogue is well over." Kauffmann said McCullers was overrated: "Nowadays it's hard to believe that some of the writers of the so-called Southern Gothic school…. were taken so seriously." Except for O'Connor and Welty, Kauffmann said, McCullers and the others were merely "Spanish moss hanging on the tree of American literature-once perhaps atmospheric but gone gray and dry." Kauffmann blasted Sad Cafe as "almost an epitome of in-grown artiness that depends for its reception on, in a way, browbeating readers: humbling them into acceptance of all this rampant sensibility at the risk of being thought philistine otherwise. Couch that sensibility in grotesquery, as is done here, add a dollop of Loneliness and the Need for Love, and you're home free."

But others have hailed McCullers as one of the giants of American literature. In 1994, playwright David Willinger adapted The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for the stage in a play he also directed at the Theater for the New City in New York. With little dialogue to work with, Willinger constructed a kind of extended physical style for his actors, rejecting the idea of using pantomime or dance to convey script points. A deaf actor, Bruce Hilbok, played John Singer. A non-deaf actor, Ralph Navarro, played Spiros Antonatoulos. "I don't know if McCullers is underrated, but I think of her as on a par with Hemingway, " said Willinger.

McCullers's career was short, but it was filled with daring and unusual work. Critics may disagree on her place in American literature, but clearly her writings were unique in their treatment of isolation, loneliness and people who were outcasts from conventional society. "No one has written more feelingly than her about the plight of the eccentric, " Kiernan contended, "and no one has written more understandingly than she about adolescent loneliness and desperation."

Further Reading

Carr, Virginia Spencer, The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers, Doubleday, 1975.

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 18, Gale, 1986.

James, Judith Giblin, Wunderkind: The Reputation of Carson McCullers, 1940-1990, Camden House, 1995.

Malinowski, Sharon, editor, Gay and Lesbian Literature, St. James Press, 1994.

Back Stage, May 20, 1994.

Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1987.

New Republic, May 20, 1991.

New York Times, July 14, 1987.

People, August 19, 1991.

McCullers, Carson

views updated May 18 2018


McCULLERS, Carson (b. 19 February 1917; d. 29 September 1967), writer.

Lula Carson Smith was born in Columbus, Georgia, the eldest of three children of Lamar Smith, a jewelry-store owner, and Vera Marguerite Waters. After graduating from high school in 1935, she studied creative writing at Columbia University and New York University. In the fall of 1936 McCullers began work on her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The story of a deaf mute to whom the lonely and isolated people of a southern town turn for silent solace, the novel (published by Houghton Mifflin in June 1940) considered the themes of loneliness and isolation that recur in much of McCullers's work. It was an immediate and much-praised success.

Reflections in a Golden Eye, McCullers's second novel, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1941. Readers who expected a book like the author's first novel were shocked by the story of voyeurism, obsession, repressed homosexuality, and infidelity set on a peacetime army base.

McCullers third major work, The Ballad of the Sad Café, a story of jealousy and obsession in a triangular love relationship involving an Amazon-like woman, a hunch-backed dwarf and an ex-convict, set in a small southern mill town, appeared in the August 1943 Harper's Bazaar. The work was later published in "The Ballad of the Sad Café": The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers (1951).

March 1946 saw the publication of McCullers's fourth major work, The Member of the Wedding, the story of a lonely adolescent girl, Frankie Addams, who wants to find her "we of me" by joining with her older brother and his bride. McCullers's theatrical adaptation of the novel opened on Broadway in 1950 to near unanimous acclaim and enjoyed a run of 501 performances.

The final fifteen years of McCullers's life saw a decline in the writer's health and in her creative abilities. Bedridden by paralysis from a series of strokes, McCullers was devastated by the failed production of her second play The Square Root of Wonderful, which closed after only forty-five performances on Broadway in 1957, and the mixed reception of her final novel Clock Without Hands (1961). Her final book-length publication was a book of children's verse, Sweet as Pickle and Clean as a Pig (1964). The Mortgaged Heart, a collection of short stories, essays, and poetry, edited by McCullers's sister Margarita Smith, was published in 1971. At the time of her death she was at work on an autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, which was posthumously published in 2000.

McCullers lived a complex and difficult personal and professional life. In September 1937, Carson married James Reeves McCullers, Jr., a native of Wetumpka, Alabama (born 11 August 1913), whom she met when he was in the army stationed at Fort Benning, near her hometown. The marriage was simultaneously the most supportive and destructive relationship in her life, and was from its beginning plagued by the partners' shared difficulty with alcoholism, their sexual ambivalence, and the tension caused by Reeves's envy of McCullers's writing abilities. The couple divorced in 1941, but reconciled and remarried in 1945. Reeves committed suicide in a Paris hotel room in November 1953.

During a separation from her husband in 1940, McCullers shared a house in Brooklyn Heights with

George Davis (an editor at Harper's Bazaar) and the British poet W. H. Auden. This house, located at 7 Middagh Street, became the center of a bohemian, sexually liberated, literary and artistic group including Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Richard Wright, and Oliver Smith. Following her father's sudden death in August 1944, McCullers, along with her mother and sister, moved to Nyack, New York. She spent most of the rest of her life in this house on the Hudson River.

McCullers's life was blighted by a series of cerebral strokes caused by a misdiagnosed and untreated childhood case of rheumatic fever. On 15 August 1967, McCullers suffered a final stroke. Comatose for forty-seven days, she died on 29 September 1967 in the Nyack Hospital and was buried in Nyack's Oak Hill Cemetery.

As part of a general renaissance of interest in her life and work, much of the consideration of McCullers since the 1980s has focused on her sexuality, the representation of LGBT characters in her work, and the consideration of McCullers's work vis-à-vis queer theory and LGBT aesthetics. Although she did not self-identify as a lesbian or as bisexual, McCullers was emotionally and sexually involved with both men and women during her life. Her personal philosophy regarding sexuality that was reflected in her work—that the gender of the person whom one loves is irrelevant to that love—complicates and transcends traditional, restrictive understandings of sexual and gender identity.


Adams, Rachel. "'A Mixture of Delicious and Freak': The Queer Fiction of Carson McCullers." American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 71 (1999): 551–583.

Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975.

——. Understanding Carson McCullers. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Evans, Oliver. The Ballad of Carson McCullers: A Biography. New York: Coward-McCann, 1966.

James, Judith Giblin. Wunderkind: The Reputation of Carson McCullers, 1940–1990. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995.

Kenschaft, Lori J. "Homoerotics and Human Connections: Reading Carson McCullers 'As a Lesbian.'" In Critical Essays on Carson McCullers. Edited by Beverly Lyon Clark and Melvin J. Friedman. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.

Kiernan, Robert F. Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers: A Reference Guide. New York: G. K. Hall, 1976.

McDowell, Margaret B. Carson McCullers. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

McKinnie, Betty E., and Carlos L. Dews. "The Delayed Entrance of Lily Mae Jenkins: Queer Identity, Gender Ambiguity, and Southern Ambivalence in Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding." In Southern Women Playwrights: New Essays in Literary History and Criticism. Edited by Robert L. McDonald and Linda Rohrer Paige. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Mukherjee, Srimati. "The Impoverishment of the Female Hero in The Ballad of the Sad Café." Proceedings of the Philological Association of Louisiana (1992): 105–109.

Portada, Arleen. "Sex-Role Rebellion and the Failure of Marriage in the Fiction of Carson McCullers." Pembroke Magazine 20 (1988): 63–71.

Savigneau, Josyane. Carson McCullers: A Life. Translated by Joan E. Howard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Shapiro, Adrian M., Jackson R. Byer, and Kathleen Field. Carson McCullers: A Descriptive Listing and Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. New York: Garland, 1980.

Sosnoski, Karen. "Society's Freaks: The Effects of Sexual Stereotyping in Carson McCullers' Fiction." Pembroke Magazine 20 (1988): 82–88.

Westling, Louise. "Tomboys and Revolting Femininity." In Critical Essays on Carson McCullers. Edited by Beverly Lyon Clark and Melvin J. Friedman. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.

Whatling, Clare. "Reading Miss Amelia: Critical Strategies in the Construction of Sex, Gender, Sexuality, the Gothic and the Grotesque." In Modernist Sexualities. Edited by Hugh Stevens and Caroline Howlett. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Whitt, Jan. "'The We of Me': Carson McCullers as Lesbian Novelist." Journal of Homosexuality 37, no. 1 (1999): 127–140.

Carlos L. Dews

see alsoauden, w.h.; literature.

McCullers, Carson

views updated May 11 2018


(b. 19 February 1917 in Columbus, Georgia; d. 29 September 1967 in Nyack, New York), novelist, short-story writer, and playwright who in 1961 published her last major work, Clock Without Hands, completing a small but important body of fiction known for its sensitive portrayals of social outcasts and misfits.

McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith, the oldest of three children of Lamar Smith, a jewelry store owner, and Vera Marguerite Waters. McCullers showed an early aptitude for the piano, but after moving to New York City in 1934, she studied creative writing at Columbia University and New York University. In 1937 she married James Reeves McCullers, Jr., a serviceman and would-be writer. Their relationship was tumultuous, fueled in part by their excessive alcohol use. They divorced in 1941 but remarried in 1945. In 1953 Reeves McCullers committed suicide. They had no children.

Carson McCullers published her best-known works well before 1960. She established her literary career at age twenty-three with her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), a haunting drama centering on an enigmatic deaf-mute and four loners who tell him their deepest thoughts. A year later she published Reflections in a Golden Eye, a short novel about sexual obsessions at a southern army base. It was followed by The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943), a novella about a bizarre love triangle between a mannish woman, a hunchback, and an ex-convict. The Member of the Wedding, chronicling a lonely twelve-year-old girl's desperate attempt to escape her hometown, was published in 1946. The stage version of this novel, adapted by McCullers herself, had a successful Broadway run from 1950 to 1951.

Despite her accomplishments, which included two Guggenheim Fellowships, McCullers entered the 1960s in a precarious state. She had suffered respiratory and heart ailments since childhood, and two strokes in 1947 had partially paralyzed her left side. She had not had a major publication in over a decade. When her semiautobiographical second play, The Square Root of Wonderful, failed on Broadway in 1957, she was devastated. Moreover, she was emotionally needy. During her marriage and afterward, McCullers had a series of crushes on men and women, including the writer Katherine Anne Porter. McCullers also experienced depression and in 1948 attempted suicide. She was in constant physical pain. Many friends did not expect that she would live to finish Clock Without Hands.

McCullers had conceived of the idea for Clock Without Hands in the 1940s and began writing it in 1951. She worked on it from 1952 to 1953, while she and her husband were living in France, and in 1954, during one of her several stays at Yaddo, a writers' retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York. With the encouragement of her friends, most notably her physician Mary Mercer, McCullers finally finished the manuscript in December 1960. Although some, including McCullers's longtime friend the playwright Tennessee Williams, did not deem the manuscript ready for publication, those closest to her feared that she could not work on it any longer. The novel was published in September 1961.

Whereas McCullers's earlier fiction focuses on the private agonies of people on the fringe, Clock Without Hands plays out on a more public stage. The novel is set in a small Georgia town on the eve of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools. As in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, there is a large network of loosely connected characters. Chief among them are Judge Fox Clane, a hidebound politician who tries to roll back time through ludicrous schemes; Jester Clane, his liberal but naive grandson; and Sherman Pew, an impetuous young man troubled by his mixed-race parentage. Together they embody the changing attitudes toward race relations in the postwar South as well as the continuing obstacles and tragedies in the fight for justice. Another key character is J. T. Malone, the town pharmacist, who on the opening pages of the novel discovers that he is dying of leukemia. The novel, which closes with his passing, is also a meditation on life's meaning and on death, a theme that preoccupied McCullers in her own life.

Coming fifteen years after McCullers's last major book publication, Clock Without Hands was eagerly anticipated—it remained on best-selling lists for months—and was widely reviewed. It received decidedly mixed notices. Those who found the book disappointing cited insufficient character and plot development and a weakening of McCullers's craft. Clock Without Hands is generally considered the least successful of McCullers's longer works of fiction. It is also the only one not to have been dramatized.

McCullers endured more health setbacks in the 1960s, including breast cancer, a broken hip and elbow, and several corrective surgeries for her atrophied limbs. For most of her last years she was wheelchair-bound or bedridden in her Nyack, New York, home, where she had lived for the most part since 1945. Despite her near paralysis, she traveled to England in October 1962 and Ireland in April 1967, the latter trip at the invitation of John Huston, who had just directed a film version of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

As McCullers's health further declined in the 1960s, so did the volume of her literary output. Following Clock Without Hands, she published only a handful of short stories and articles in magazines, and a collection of children's verses titled Sweet as a Pickle, Clean as a Pig (1964) was published posthumously in 1971. A musical version of The Member of the Wedding, a collaborative effort with Mary Rogers, was not realized. But if McCullers herself produced little in the 1960s, others kept her works alive in the public mind. In addition to Huston's film, McCullers saw two of her other works take on a life of their own. Edward Albee's adaptation of The Ballad of the Sad Café played on Broadway from 1963 to 1964. In 1965 Thomas Ryan completed his screenplay for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which was directed by Robert Ellis Miller and released in 1968. In 1966 McCullers began dictating her autobiography to her assistants and friends. Left incomplete when she died from a cerebral hemorrhage the next year, it was published in 1999 as Illumination and Night Glare. McCullers is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Nyack.

In a sense, McCullers's fiction is prophetic. Her novels are populated with blacks agitating for equal rights, men and women struggling to redefine unconventional love, and people unhappy with the status quo—all themes that came to the forefront in the 1960s. Some scholars have suggested that illnesses kept McCullers from fully realizing her talents, but what she did write has given an eloquent voice to the alienated, the oppressed, and those who simply do not fit in.

A major collection of McCullers's manuscripts, correspondence, and other papers is at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin. Additional correspondence is held at the Robert Flower Collection at Duke University. Virginia Spencer Carr, The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers (1975), is the definitive book-length study. Josyane Savigneau, Carson McCullers: A Life (2001), which was written with the cooperation of McCullers's estate, including permission to quote from unpublished materials and an interview with Mary Mercer, presents a more sympathetic portrait. An obituary is on the front page of the New York Times (30 Sept. 1967).

Jeffrey H. Chen

McCullers, Carson

views updated May 14 2018

McCullers, Carson (1917–67) US writer. Her remarkable debut novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), showed her to be a sensitive exponent of the ‘southern gothic’ style, epitomized by Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. Other poetic stories include Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1951).