Carson McCullers, novelist, short story writer, and playwright, was born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia, the daughter of Lamar Smith, a jewelry storeowner, and Vera Marguerite Waters. Best known for her novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Café, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and The Member of the Wedding, McCullers also won awards for her adaptation of The Member of the Wedding for the Broadway stage. After completing high school, Carson studied for two years in New York before marrying James Reeves McCullers and moving to New York permanently upon the publication of her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in 1940 when McCullers was only 23. Heralded as a wunderkind by critics, McCullers's most significant was published between 1943 and 1950. Plagued by a series of strokes attributed to a mis-diagnosed and untreated case of childhood rheumatic fever, McCullers died at age fifty in 1967. With a collection of work including five novels, two plays, twenty short stories, over two dozen nonfiction pieces, a book of children's verses, a small number of poems, and an unfinished autobiography, McCullers is considered among the most significant American writers of the twentieth-century.
Lula Carson, as she was called until age fourteen, attended public schools and graduated from Columbus High School at sixteen. An unremarkable student, Carson preferred the more solitary study of the piano. Encouraged by her mother, who was convinced that her daughter was destined for greatness, Carson began formal piano study at age nine, but was forced to give up her dream of a career as a concert pianist after a childhood case of rheumatic fever left her without the physical stamina necessary for the rigors of practice and a concert career. While recuperating from this illness Carson began to read voraciously and to consider writing as a vocation.
In 1935, at age seventeen, Carson sailed from Savannah to New York City, ostensibly to study piano at the Juilliard School of Music but actually to pursue her secret ambition to write. Working various jobs to support herself, Carson studied creative writing at Columbia University and at Washington Square College of New York University. Back in Columbus in the fall of 1936 to recover from a respiratory infection, Carson was bedridden several months during which 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, edited by Whit Burnett, her former teacher at Columbia.
In September 1937, Carson married James Reeves McCullers, Jr., a native of Wetumpka, Alabama (born August 11, 1913), whom she met when Reeves was in the army stationed at Fort Benning, near Carson's 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 (both were bisexual) and the tension caused by Reeves's envy of Carson's writing abilities. Moving to New York in 1940 when The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published, Carson and Reeves divorced in 1941, but reconciled and remarried in 1945.
During a separation from Reeves in 1940, Carson moved into a house in Brooklyn Heights owned by George Davis (literary editor of Harper's Bazaar) and shared with the British poet W. H. Auden. This house, located at 7 Middagh Street, became the center of a bohemian literary and artistic constellation including Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Richard Wright, and Oliver Smith. In the spring of 1941, Carson and Reeves, who were temporarily reconciled, both fell in love with the American composer David Diamond. This complicated love triangle led to Carson and Reeves's second separation and found articulation in the love-triangle theme found in McCullers's novella The Ballad of the Sad Café and her novel/play The Member of the Wedding. Following her father's sudden death in August of 1944, Carson with her mother and sister moved 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.
While living near Paris in the early 1950s, Reeves tried to convince Carson to commit suicide with him. Fearing for her life, Carson fled to the United States. Remaining behind, Reeves committed suicide in a Paris hotel room in November 1953.
In April of 1938, Carson submitted an outline and six chapters of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter to Houghton Mifflin and was offered a contract and five-hundred dollar advance. The book was published in June 1940. The story of a deaf mute to whom the lonely and isolated people of a southern town turn for silent solace, the novel included the themes of loneliness and isolation that recur in much of McCullers's work. The novel was an immediate and much praised success. Rose Feld's New York Times review was typical of the positive response to the power of the young author's work: "No matter what the age of its author, 'The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter' would be a remarkable book. When one reads that Carson McCullers is a girl of 22 it becomes more than that. Maturity does not cover the quality of her work. It is something beyond that, something more akin to the vocation of pain to which a great poet is born. Reading her, one feels this girl is wrapped in knowledge which has roots beyond the span of her life and her experience."
Reflections in a Golden Eye, McCullers's second novel, first appeared in Harper's Bazaar in August 1940, and was published in book form by Houghton Mifflin in 1941. Readers who expected a book like the author's first novel were shocked by the troubling story of voyeurism, obsession, repressed homosexuality, and infidelity set on a peacetime army base. Reflections in a Golden Eye received a mixed critical reception, and its author faced ridicule from the people of her hometown who saw negative reflections of themselves in the maladjusted characters of the novel.
The years 1943 to 1950 saw the publication of what many consider McCullers's finest creative work. "The Ballad of the Sad Café", the lyrical story of jealousy and obsession in a triangular love relationship involving an Amazon-like Miss Amelia, a hunch-backed midget Cousin Lymon and an ex-convict Marvin Macy, set in a small southern mill town, appeared in the August 1943 Harper's Bazaar. The work was later published by Houghton Mifflin in an omnibus edition of the author work, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe: 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. This adaptation proved to be her most commercially successful work.
The final fifteen years of McCullers's life saw a marked decline in the writer's health and in her creative abilities. Bedridden by paralysis from a series of debilitating 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). At the time of her death she was at work on an autobiography, "Illumination and Night Glare." A more encouraging event in her final years was the success of Edward Albee's 1963 adaptation of The Ballad of the Sad Café, which enjoyed a Broadway run of 123 performances.
McCullers's life was blighted by a series of cerebral strokes caused by her childhood case of rheumatic fever. The first stroke in February 1941 temporarily impaired her vision and caused debilitating head pains. The second and third occurred in Paris in the fall of 1946. These strokes temporarily destroyed the lateral vision in her right eye and permanently paralyzed her left side. Depressed by her declining health and her marital difficulties, Carson attempted suicide in March 1948 and was briefly hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic. On August 15, 1967, McCullers suffered her final cerebral stroke. Comatose for forty-seven days, she died in the Nyack Hospital. McCullers was buried in Nyack's Oak Hill Cemetery on the banks of the Hudson River. A memorial service was held at St. James's Episcopal church in New York City on October 3, 1967.
Assessing McCullers's stature in American arts and letters, 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. 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." 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 her first novel 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 (1950), 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. McCullers was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1952.
A. Work by McCullers (chronological)
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940.
Reflections in a Golden Eye. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941.
The Member of the Wedding. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
The Ballad of the Sad Café: The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951.
The Member of the Wedding. (Play) New York: New Directions, 1951.
The Square Root of Wonderful. (Play) Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.
Collected Short Stories and the Novel "The Ballad of the Sad." Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.
Clock Without Hands. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.
Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964.
The Mortgaged Heart. Edited and Introduced by Margarita G. Smith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.
Collected Stories of Carson McCullers: Including "The Member of the Wedding" and "The Ballad of the Sad Café." Introduced by Virginia Spencer Carr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Ed. Carlos L. Dews. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1999.
B. Work about McCullers (alphabetical)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Carson McCullers. Modern Critical Views Ser. New York : Chelsea House, 1986.
Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers. Garden City: Doubleday, 1975.
Carr, Virginia Spencer. Understanding Carson McCullers. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 1990.
Clark, Beverly Lyon, and Melvin J. Friedman, eds. Critical Essays on Carson McCullers. New York : G. K. Hall, 1996.
Cook, Richard. Carson McCullers. New York: Ungar, 1975.
Edmonds, Dale. Carson McCullers. Austin: Steck-Vaughn, 1969.
Evans, Oliver. The Ballad of Carson McCullers. New York: Coward-McCann, 1966.
Graver, Lawrence. Carson McCullers. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1969.
James, Judith Giblin. Wunderkind : The Reputation of Carson McCullers, 1940-1990. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1995.
Kiernan, Robert F. Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers : A Reference Guide. Boston : G. K. Hall, 1976.
McDowell, Margaret B. Carson McCullers. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Savigneau, Josyane. Carson McCullers: A Life. Translated by Joan E. Howard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Shapiro, Adrian M., et al. Carson McCullers: A Descriptive Listing and Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1980.
Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.
The most extensive collection of McCullers's manuscripts, correspondence, and miscellaneous papers is the Carson McCullers Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas: http://research.hrc.utexas.edu:8080/hrcxtf/view?docId=ead/00089.xml&query=mccullers&query-join=and . There is also a significant collection of materials by or related to McCullers in the Special Collections Library of Duke University: http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/rbmscl/mccullerscarson/inv/ .
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Last Updated: 6/3/11