Carson McCullers: The Lonely Hunter
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
Hello everyone! Today, we are celebrating the life and work of author Carson McCullers. With a collection of work including five novels, two plays, twenty short stories, more than two dozen nonfiction pieces, a book of children’s verse, a small number of poems, and an unfinished autobiography, Carson McCullers is considered to be among the most significant American writers of the twentieth century. She is best known for her novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and The Member of the Wedding, all published between 1940 and 1946. At least four of her works have been made into films. SOURCES: The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers by Virginia Spencer Carr, 1975. "Carson McCullers," Biography.com, 2014. "Carson McCullers," New Georgia Encyclopedia by Carlos Dews, CSU.
“I have used the word ‘heart,’ but it is not an adequate word to define the core of Carson McCullers’ genius. It was a favorite word of hers and one of which she had exceptional understanding. Still, I believe, in fact I know, that there are many, many with heart who lack the need or the gift to express it. And therefore, Carson McCullers is what I would call a necessary writer: She owned the heart and the deep understanding of it, but in addition she had that ‘tongue of angels’ that gave her power to sing of it, to make of it an anthem. When physical catastrophes reduce, too early, an artist’s power, his/her admirers must not and need not enter a plea nor offer an apology. It is not quantity, after all, that the artist is to be judged by. It is quality of spirit and those occasions on which he/she was visited by assenting angels, and the number of those occasions is not the scale on which their importance is reckoned. Carson’s heart was often lonely, and it was a tireless hunter for those to whom she could offer it, but it was a heart that was graced with light that eclipsed its shadows.” Tennessee Williams, February 1974.
Born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, McCullers was the daughter of Lamar Smith, a jewelry store owner, and Vera Marguerite Waters. Lula Carson, as she was called until age fourteen, attended public schools and graduated from Columbus High School at sixteen. An unremarkable student, she preferred the more solitary study of the piano. Encouraged by her mother, who was convinced that her daughter was destined for greatness, McCullers began formal piano study at age ten. She was forced to give up her dream of a career as a concert pianist after rheumatic fever left her without the stamina for the rigors of practice or a concert career. While recuperating from this illness, McCullers began to read voraciously and to consider writing as a vocation. In 1934, at age seventeen, McCullers sailed from Savannah to New York City, ostensibly to study piano at the Juilliard School of Music but really to pursue her secret ambition to write. Working various jobs to support herself, she studied creative writing at New York’s Columbia University and at Washington Square College of New York University.
When she returned to Columbus in the fall of 1936 to recover from a respiratory infection, McCullers was bedridden several months. It was during this time she began work on her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Her first short story, “Wunderkind,” was published in the December 1936 issue of Story magazine and edited by Whit Burnett, her former teacher at Columbia. The story explored the painful revelation of a young girl who discovers that she is not a musical prodigy. Carson was 19. In September 1937 she married James Reeves McCullers Jr., a native of Wetumpka, Alabama, whom she met when Reeves was in the army stationed at Fort Benning. From the beginning, the marriage was plagued by alcoholism, sexual ambivalence, and Reeves’s envy of McCullers’s writing abilities. The couple moved to New York in 1940 when The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published. That year, McCullers received an enormous amount of critical praise and commercial success with her first novel. The work centered on a deaf-mute who finds himself the sounding board for four members of a small Georgia town—a restaurant owner, a political activist, an African American doctor, and a teenage girl. Through their stories, the characters reveal their frustrations, their loneliness, and their isolation from those around them.
Carson and Reeves
While her career was taking off, McCullers was going through a difficult time personally. Separated from her husband, she joined several other literary and artistic talents, such as author Richard Wright and composer Leonard Bernstein, to live in a house in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Called the February House by Anais Nin, the residence was owned by Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis. The house, located at 7 Middagh Street, became the center of a bohemian literary and artistic constellation including Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Oliver Smith. In spring 1941 McCullers and Reeves, who were temporarily reconciled, both fell in love with the American composer David Diamond. This complicated love triangle led to a second separation and found expression in the love-triangle theme of McCullers’s short novel The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and her novel and play, The Member of the Wedding. Following her father’s sudden death in August 1944, McCullers moved with her mother and sister to Nyack, New York, where Mrs. Smith purchased a house. McCullers spent most of the rest of her life in this house on the Hudson River.
George Davis, Carson McCullers, and W.H. Auden at The February House.
Divorced from her husband in 1941, McCullers had mixed results with her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, which was published that same year. It drew a number of negative reviews but had some commercial success. Continuing her exploration of loneliness and isolation, the work was more provocative than her first novel, tackling issues relating to impotency, bisexuality, infidelity, and murder. While she had divorced her husband, McCullers remained close to Reeves and the pair decided to remarry in 1945. Her career continued to thrive with the publication of the novella The Member of the Wedding the following year. Also in 1946, McCullers met a young, gifted writer named Truman Capote through her sister Rita. The two became fast friends, and McCullers helped launch Capote's career. In the end, she felt ill-thanked for her help. After the publication of Capote's first two novels, McCullers became convinced that certain passages had been plagiarized from her own writings. Her retribution was swift—she broke ties with Capote and treated him standoffishly from then on. Capote never lost his fondness for Carson and her family. He was the only person to attend both Reeves funeral in Paris and McCullers's funeral in Nyack several years later.
Having struggled with health problems much of her life, Carson was dealt a devastating blow in 1947 when she had two strokes—one in August and one in November—which left her paralyzed on one side. She grew increasingly despondent over her poor health, leading to a suicide attempt in 1948. Recovering physically and emotionally from the incident, she spent much of the latter part of the year with Tennessee Williams, a close friend, working on a stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding. In January 1950, her play opened on Broadway to strong reviews and won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play that year. In the early 1950s, McCullers also spent a lot of time in Europe with her husband and such literary friends as W. H. Auden, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams. Reeves McCullers was increasingly depressed and wanted the pair to commit suicide together. Fearing for her own well-being, McCullers returned to the United States in 1953, and Reeves ended his own life in a Paris hotel by taking an overdose of sleeping pills in November of that year.
Carson and Reeves
In 1957, her play The Square Root of Wonderful opened on Broadway, but it closed after only 45 performances. Her final novel, Clock Without Hands, was published in 1961 without garnering much critical attention or commercial interest. The following year, Carson had surgery to remove a cancerous breast and another surgery to repair her paralyzed left hand. Her final work, a collection of children’s verse titled Sweet as a Pickle, Clean as a Pig was published in 1964. Around this time, Edward Albee’s adaptation of McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café debuted on Broadway, earning six Tony Award nominations. Carson suffered a final stroke on August 15, 1967, which left her in a coma for 46 days. She died on September 29 at Nyack Hospital and was later buried at the town’s Oak Hill Cemetery. More than 200 people attended her funeral, including Capote, Williams, and actresses Myrna Loy and Julie Harris.
Shortly after her death, the first film adaptation of Reflections in a Golden Eye was released, starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. The following year, the film version of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968) appeared on the big screen and netted Academy Award nominations for two of its stars—Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke. Assessing McCullers’s stature in American arts and letters, biographer Virginia Spencer Carr wrote: “Critics continue to compare and contrast McCullers with Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Katherine Anne Porter, whom they generally consider to be better stylists in the short form than McCullers. Yet they tend to rank McCullers above her female contemporaries as a novelist. McCullers herself had a keen appreciation of her own work without regard to the sex of those with whom she was compared.”
Lunch in Nyack: Carson had always wanted to meet Isak Dinesen, the author of one of her favorite books, Out of Africa. Learning that Isak wanted to meet Marilyn Monroe, she asked Marilyn’s husband at the time, Arthur Miller if the “Millers” would come to lunch. Arthur and Marilyn picked up the 74-year-old Dinesen and drove to Nyack. Monroe, 33, had just finished Some Like It Hot. She arrived dressed in a black sheath and fur stole. Isak wore a scarf wrapped around her head as a turban. The guests were fashionably late.
In an appraisal of her life and work accompanying McCullers’s front-page obituary in the September 30, 1967, New York Times, Eliot Fremont-Smith wrote of the impact of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in what could also be an assessment of McCullers’s lasting influence: “It is not so much that the novel paved the way for what became the American Southern gothic genre, but that it at once encompassed it and went beyond it…. The heart of this remarkable, still powerful book is perhaps best conveyed by its title, with its sense of intensity, concision and mystery, with its terrible juxtaposition of love and aloneness, whose relation was Mrs. McCullers’s constant subject…. Mrs. McCullers was neither prolific nor varying in her theme…. This is no fault or tragedy: to some artists a vision is given only once. And a corollary: only an artist can make others subject to the vision’s force. Mrs. McCullers was an artist. She was also in her person, an inspiration and example for other artists who grew close to her. Her books, and particularly “The Heart,” will live; she will be missed.” In addition to the New York Drama Critics Circle and Donaldson awards for her play The Member of the Wedding, McCullers also received two Guggenheim fellowships (1942, 1946), an Arts and Letters Grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1943), and various other awards and honors. She was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1952 and Georgia Women of Achievement in 1994. In 2000 she was inducted as a charter member into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
On the left is Carson's house in Nyack, New York and on the right is her childhood home in Columbus on Stark Avenue.
In 2017, in celebration of the centenary of McCullers’s birth, Columbus residents held a series of events, including a viewing of a film adaptation of her short story “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” and multiple guest lectures from literary critics. Columbus State University also asked all of its incoming first-year students to read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. McCullers' childhood home on Stark Avenue is owned by Columbus State University and is the central location of the university's Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. The center is dedicated to preserving the legacy of McCullers; to nurturing American writers and musicians; to educating young people; and to fostering the literary and musical life of Columbus, the state of Georgia, and the American South. McCullers's therapist and longtime friend, Dr. Mary E. Mercer, bequeathed the house in Nyack to Columbus State University's Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. At Dr. Mercer's death in late April 2013, the McCullers Center inherited not only the house but also many artifacts and documents that shed light on the last ten years of McCullers's life. The two former McCullers houses now owned by Columbus State University together contain the world's most extensive research collection on the author. Next Week: We will start a new series next month, so stay tuned! Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next wee