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Thread: The Carson McCullers Project

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    Post Re: The Carson McCullers Project

    (Lula) Carson McCullers (1917-1967) - original name Lula Carson Smith

    American author whose psychological novels and stories examined the secrets of lonely, isolated people. Many of her works are set in the South. McCuller's best known novels are THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER 1940), written at the age of twenty-two, and REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1942), a psychological horror story set in a military base. Both of the books have been filmed. Although McCullers depicted homosexual characters and she has female lover, the theme of homosexuality was set into a broader context of alienation and dislocation in modern culture.

    "I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York. 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 twenties, and had already suffered the first of series of strokes that made her an invalid before she was thirty. 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 affections multiplied, she only grew stronger." (John Huston in An Open Book, 1980)

    Lula Carson Smith (Carson McCullers) was born in Columbus, Georgia, as the daughter of a well-to-do watchmaker and jeweller of French Hugenot extraction. From the age of five she took piano lessons, and at the age of 15 she received a typewriter from her father. Two years later she moved to New York to study piano at Juilliard School of Music, but never attended the school - she managed to lose the money set aside for her tuition. McCullers worked in menial jobs and devoted herself to writing. She studied creative writing at Columbia and New York universities and published in 1936 an autobiographical piece, 'Wunderkind' in Story magazine. It depicted a musical prodigy's failure and adolescent insecurity.

    In 1937 she married Reeves McCullers, a failed author. They moved to North Caroline, living there for two years. During this time she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a novel in the Southern Gothic tradition. It was set in the 1930s in a small Georgian mill town. The central characters are an adolescent girl with a passion to study music, an unsuccessful socialist agitator, a black physician struggling to maintain his personal dignity, a widower who owns a café, and John Singer, the deaf-mute protagonist. He is confidante of people who talk to him about loneliness and misery. When Singer's Greek mute friend goes insane, Singer is left alone. He takes a room with the Kelly family, where he is visited by the town's misfits. After discovering that his mute friend has died, Singer shoots himself - there is no one left to communicate with him.

    The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was well-received when it came out, and it was interpreted as an anti-fascist book. In 1968 it was filmed with Alan Arkin in the lead role. Reflections in a Golden Eye was directed by John Huston (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Some of the film was shot in Nwe York City and on Long Island, where Huston was permitted to use an abandoned Army installation. Many of the interiors and some of the exteriors were done in Italy.

    McCullers's marriange turned out to be unlucky. They both had homosexual relationships and separated in 1940. She moved to New York to live with George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar. McCullers became a member of the art commune February House in Brooklyn. Among their friends were W.H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, and the striptease artiste Gipsy Rose Lee. After World War II McCullers lived mostly in Paris. Her close friends during these years included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.

    In 1945 McCullers remarried with Reeves, and in 1948 under depression she attempted suicide. Reeves killed himself in a Paris hotel in 1953 with an overdose of sleeping pills. McCullers's bitter-sweet play THE SQUARE ROOT OF WONDERFUL (1958) was an attempt to examine these traumatic experinces. THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING (1946) described the feelings of a young girl at her brother's wedding. The Broadway production of the novel had a succesful run in 1950-51.

    Carson McCullers suffered throughout her life from several illnesses - she had contracted rheumatic fever at the age of fifteen and a series of strokes left her a virtual invalid in her early 30's. She died in New York on September 29, 1967, after a stroke and a resultant brain haemorrhage. Her last book, ILLUMINATION AND NIGHT GLARE (1999), McCullers dictated during her final months. Although her oeuvre is often described as "Southern Gothic," McCullers produced her novels after leaving the South. All her novels were written with elegant, plain style. In the grotesque world of McCullers's fiction her eccentric characters suffer from loneliness that she interpreted with deep empathy. In a discussion with the Irish critic and writer Terence De Vere White she confessed: "Writing, for me, is a search for God." This search was not acknowledged by all of her colleagues - Arthur Miller dismissed her a "minor author", but Gore Vidal praised her work as ''one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.''

    For further reading: Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau (2001); Critical Essays on Carson McCullers, ed. by Beverly Lyon Clark et al (1996); Wunderkind: The Reputation of Carson McCullers, 1940-1990 by Judith Giblin James (1995) ; Understanding Carson McCullers by V.S. Carr (1989); Carson McCullers, ed by H. Bloom (1986); Carson McCullers by M.B. McDowell (1980); The Lonely Hunter by Virginia Spencer Carr (1975); Carson McCullers by R.M. Cook (1975); Carson McCullers by D. Edmonds (1969): Carson McCullers by L. Graver (1969)

    Selected works:

    * THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, 1940 -Yksinäinen sydän - film 1968, dir. by Robert Ellis Miller, starring Alan Arkin, Sondra Locke, Laurinda Barrett
    * REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, 1941 - Heijastuksia kultaisessa silmässä - film 1967, dir. by John Huston, starring Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Harris and Brian Keith
    * THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, 1946 - adapted into stage in 1950, won the New York drama Critics Circle Award and two Donaldson Awards - film 1952, dir. by Fred Zinnemann, starring Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, Brandon de Wilde
    * THE BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFÉ, 1951 (dramatized by Edward Albee in 1963) - Surullisen kahvilan balladi - film 1990, dir. by Simon Callow, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Keith Carradine, Rod Steiger
    * THE CLOCKS WITHOUT HANDS, 1961 - Kello käy tyhjää
    * ILLUMINATION AND NIGHT GLARE, 1999 (ed. by Carlos L. Dews)

  3. #3

    Post Re: The Carson McCullers Project

    Carson McCullers (1917-1967)

    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 Café, 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.

    Childhood and Education

    Born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, McCullers was the daughter of Lamar Smith,
    McCullers, considered one of the most significant American
    Carson McCullers
    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 actually 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. Back in Columbus in the fall of 1936 to recover from a respiratory infection, McCullers 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.

    Marriage and New York

    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, near her hometown. The marriage was simultaneously the most supportive and destructive relationship in her life. From the beginning it was plagued by alcoholism, sexual ambivalence (both were bisexual), and Reeves's envy of McCullers's writing abilities. Moving to New York in 1940 when The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published, McCullers and Reeves divorced in 1941, only to reconcile and remarry in 1945.

    During a separation from Reeves in 1940, McCullers 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 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 found in McCullers's short novel The Ballad of the Sad Café 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.

    While living near Paris in the early 1950s, Reeves tried to convince McCullers to commit suicide with him. Fearing for her life, she fled to the United States. Remaining behind, Reeves committed suicide in a Paris hotel room in November 1953.


    In April 1938 Carson McCullers submitted an outline and six chapters of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to Houghton Mifflin and was offered a contract and $500 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 includes the themes of loneliness and isolation that recur in much of McCullers's work. It was an immediate success. Rose Feld's New York Times Book Review was typical of the positive critical response: "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."

    Reflections in a Golden Eye, McCullers's second novel, first appeared in Harper's Bazaar in October and November 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.

    Career and Fame

    During the years 1943 to 1950 McCullers published what many consider her finest creative work. The Ballad of the Sad Café, set in a small southern town, is the lyrical story of jealousy and obsession in a triangular love relationship involving an amazon-like Miss Amelia, a hunchbacked midget, Cousin Lymon, and an ex-convict, Marvin Macy. It appeared in the August 1943 issue of Harper's Bazaar. The work was later published by Houghton Mifflin in an omnibus edition of the author's work, " 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. This adaptation proved to be her most commercially successful work. It was critically successful as well, winning the 1950 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play of the season and the Donaldson Award for best play and best first play by an author.

    Failing Health and Final Wor

    During the final fifteen years of her life, McCullers experienced a marked decline in health and creative abilities. Bedridden by paralysis from a series of debilitating strokes, she was devastated by the failure of her second play, The Square Root of Wonderful, which closed after only 45 performances on Broadway in 1957, and the mixed reception of her final novel, Clock Without Hands (1961). Her final book-length publication was a volume of children's verse, Sweet as a 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. On August 15, 1967, she suffered her final cerebral stroke. Comatose for forty-six days, she died in the Nyack Hospital and was buried in Nyack's Oak Hill Cemetery on the banks of the Hudson River.

    Literary Reputation, Honors, and Awards

    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." 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.

    Suggested Reading

    Harold Bloom, ed., Carson McCullers, Modern Critical Views Series (New York: Chelsea House, 1986).

    Virginia Spencer Carr, The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003).

    Virginia Spencer Carr, Understanding Carson McCullers (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990).

    Beverly Lyon Clark and Melvin J. Friedman, eds., Critical Essays on Carson McCullers (New York: G. K. Hall, 1996).

    Richard Cook, Carson McCullers (New York: Ungar, 1975).

    Dale Edmonds, Carson McCullers (Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn, 1969).

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

    Lawrence Graver, Carson McCullers (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969).

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

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

    Josyane Savigneau, Carson McCullers: A Life, trans. Joan E. Howard (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

    Adrian M. Shapiro, et al., Carson McCullers: A Descriptive Listing and Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1980).

    Louise Westling, Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985).

    Carlos Dews, Columbus State University

    Published 7/30/2002

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