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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Carson McCullers: “delicately sensed ironic knowledge”

Carson McCullers died 43 years ago today, at the age of 50, in Nyack Hospital after suffering a stroke.

In 1940, only 22 years old and having published just one story, McCullers burst onto the literary scene with her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Two years earlier, her writing teacher had heard about the new Houghton Mifflin Fiction Fellowship Award and suggested McCullers submit the outline and completed chapters of her novel-in-progress. She didn’t win first prize—but she did win a publishing contract.

When she arrived in New York in June 1940 to promote her book, she found copies stacked in bookstore windows next to her own blown-up image. She was the new sensation. The Chicago Tribune review was typical: “There is not only the delicately sensed need that one might expect youth to know but an even more delicately sensed ironic knowledge.” Reviewing for The New Republic, Richard Wright found something quite unusual in this work by a young writer from a small town in Georgia:
To me the most impressive aspect of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race.
During the next ten years she wrote three major novels. Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding, and Ballad of the Sad Café. She converted Wedding into a popular and critically acclaimed play that launched the Broadway career of Julie Harris, who reprised her role in the 1952 movie.

Some critics pigeonhole McCullers as a master of Southern Gothic. Assessing her career in The New York Review of Books in 1974 Ellen Myers found that too limiting:
No writer of our time worked more seriously with Gothic forms or created more haunting monsters of ambivalence than Carson McCullers . . . It has long been a critical commonplace to explain the Gothic strain in Carson McCullers, who came from Georgia, as belonging to the southern American Gothic school of which William Faulkner is the notorious advertisement. But there is abundant evidence of McCullers’s participation in a tradition at least as feminine as regional.
McCullers could sometimes be notoriously prickly. One of her biographers, Josyane Savineau, describes her as “sickly, paralyzed, alcoholic, and depressed” but in a Washington Post review Jonathan Yardley echoed a judgment held by many of her friends:
McCullers was that true rarity, a born writer. She had to write, and it is reasonable to assume that she came up short in other aspects of her life because they simply didn't matter to her the way writing did.
In 2004, sixty-four years after it was first published, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. For a few weeks in May it was the #1 bestseller in the country with some 700,000 copies in print.

Of related interest:
  • Variety recently reported that Deborah Kampmeier is at work making a movie of Sarah Schulman’s play Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate).
  • Waiting Room Aquarium quotes Charles Bukowski’s poem "Carson McCullers" as part of a recent appreciation.
  • The Carson McCullers Center blog recently announced plans for the February 2011 Carson McCullers Conference.
  • Watch a trailer for Dan Griffin’s work-in-progress documentary about Carson McCullers with reminiscences by Tennessee Williams, Horton Foote, and others.

Related LOA works: Carson McCullers: Complete Novels; Southern Women Writers Set

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