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Carson McCullers and Her Crowd

By (April 1, 2010) No Comment

Carson McCullers wanted to be a musician, but either because of the poor health that bedeviled her throughout her short life or because she lost her Julliard tuition money – accounts vary – she had to return to Georgia and settle for being a writer. She earned fast fame and critical praise for her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), but later lost her high-brow backing, either because of her limitations as a novelist or because of the vagaries of literary fashion, and got saddled with exclusively middle-brow endorsements.

For all her interest in loneliness, McCullers has plenty of company among mid-century regional writers with shifting critical fortunes. She is usually grouped with Southern Gothic writers such as Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor, but while McCullers and Capote were far more famous than O’Connor while alive, O’Connor’s “reputation has steadily increased in the intervening years [since her death in 1964],” Joyce Carol Oates reports, “while those of McCullers and Capote have dramatically shrunk.” Gore Vidal accused Capote of stealing his writing style from McCullers. Although McCullers’s “The Ballad of the Sad Café” was picked for Best American Stories in 1944, not one of her stories made the cut when John Updike assembled The Best American Short Stories of the Century. (Updike passed over Capote as well; he did choose one of O’Connor’s stories.) Writing in The New York Review of Books in 2009, Oates says: “McCullers may be remembered as a precocious but unevenly gifted writer of fiction for young adults whose work has failed to transcend its time and place.”

Fellow writers judged McCullers quite differently just a few decades earlier. Indeed, her friend Richard Wright believed she accomplished exactly what Oates says she may have failed to do. He praised her for slipping the strictures of her racist environment in her tender depictions of black and white people. Another friend, Tennessee Williams, favorably compared her prose to Herman Melville’s. She also won praise and friendship from the likes of W.H. Auden as well as fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Guggenheim Foundation. In the middle of the twentieth century, Vidal designated McCullers “the best American woman novelist.” Regarding the gender qualification, he explains in Palimpsest: “such divisions were made in those oh so vile, sexist days.” Of course, such divisions continue to be made in the twenty first century, albeit under the pretext that making them somehow rights a past wrong rather than perpetuates it. The editors of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, third edition (2007), for instance, view her greatest authorial accomplishments as involving conflicts about identity. Despite Updike, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar include “The Ballad of the Sad Café” in their collection and claim her “most famous characters,” including The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter’s Mick Kelly, “dream of being wedded to a new world where the children, the blacks, and the homosexuals of their hometowns would no longer be misbegotten mutes or loners.”

Perhaps, but this makes McCullers sound like a civil rights activist rather than a writer, and while she does weave political and social issues into her work, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter dramatizes how looking at others through ideological lenses obscures vision and impedes understanding between individuals. Like Biff Brannon, owner of the New York Café, McCullers could be said to “like freaks.” The owner of the New York Café, where the deaf-mute John Singer takes all of his meals and the rabble-rouser Jake Blount takes many drinks, “had a special feeling for sick people and cripples. Whenever somebody with a harelip or T.B. came into the place he would set them up to a beer. … And if Singer were a drinking kind of a man he could get liquor at half price any time he wanted it.” Brannon and Blount are not the only residents of the Georgia mill town drawn to Singer. Someone who takes a professional interest in sick people, at least black ones, Doctor Copeland, believes Singer differs from other white men, while Mick becomes infatuated with him. McCullers peoples the novel with alienated, frustrated individuals who wish more than anything for someone who could understand them. They think they’ve found such a person in Singer, who seems as though he’s understanding, simply because he doesn’t tell them otherwise. Singer can read their lips but can’t make sense of what they say. He writes regularly to Spiros Antonapolous, the queenly deaf-mute prone to episodes of drunken violence whom he lived with until a relative had him committed to a sanatorium, to express his inability to understand the ceaseless talkers who visit him in his room. “The fact that Antonapolous could not read did not prevent Singer from writing to him,” McCullers writes.

The misfits orbiting the silent Singer can’t comprehend each other either. Copeland, who gives a Christmas speech urging the town’s black people seek their betterment by transferring their allegiance from Christ to Karl Marx (his own son’s namesake), and Blount, advocate of revolutionary overthrow of “rotten and corrupt” capitalism, cannot see what they have in common. Copeland always only looks at the world through the prism of race, while Blount, insofar as he has a coherent outlook, insists that class struggle provide the organizing principle. Both claim to agree that people – whether all of the exploited or Southern black ones only – can overcome oppression once they “know the truth,” they disagree about how to tell them. Indeed, they can’t hear each other anymore than Singer can hear them. Brannon, who after his wife’s death takes to wearing her perfume and indulging an interest in interior decoration, also nurtures an affection for the androgynous Mick, who thinks Brannon hates her. The restaurateur at least senses the peculiarity of their faith in their unhearing confessor, whose suicide leaves Brannon musing about “the puzzle of Singer and the rest of them.”

While ultimately none of her characters can overcome feelings of isolation, McCullers way of telling the story holds out the promise of hope for the lonely. Her “characters reach out to one another for sympathy and understanding,” Lev Grossman writes in Time, “but not all of them can complete the connection, and their isolated thoughts form a choir of amazing, transcendent poignance – music only the reader can hear.” If readers can hear their thoughts, that’s because McCullers can. Her method of narrating her characters’ disappointments suggests that the sort of understanding they seek is possible after all.

McCullers develops a sort of selective omniscience. Though third-person perspective is used throughout The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the narrator clearly has direct access to the characters’ thoughts and feelings. This roving intelligence concentrates only on the outcasts, not on those who cast them out. “The class had been fun, though,” the narrator relays as adolescent Mick looks at drawings she’d made in a free, government-sponsored art class. “But she had just drawn whatever came into her head without reason- and in her heart it didn’t give her near the same feeling that music did. Nothing was really as good as music.” She attempts to make her own instrument with a cracked ukulele and strings from a violin, a guitar and a banjo.

Mick was making herself a violin. She held the violin in her lap. She had the feeling she had never really looked at it before. Some time ago she made [her brother] Bubber a little play mandolin out of a cigar box with rubber bands, and that put the idea into her head. Since then she had hunted all over everywhere for the different parts and added a little to the job every day. It seemed to her she had done everything except use her head.

She soon abandons the clumsy contraptions, but McCullers uses it – and the contents of Mick’s head – to show how her character thinks and feels: “It seemed to her as she thought back over the last month that she had never really believed in her mind that the violin would work. But in her heart she had kept making herself believe.”

This scene from early in the novel typifies the dynamics of McCullers’s approach. On the one hand, it becomes apparent that Mick won’t realize her dreams of pursuing a musical career. An injury limits her father’s job opportunities, and the Kelly family’s boarders can’t be relied upon to pay the rent. Gulled into taking a position as a department store clerk, she no longer has the time or energy to practice music, and what she earns goes to supporting the household and not toward the piano she once hoped to own. “What good was it? That was the question she would like to know. What the hell good was it. All the plans she made, and the music. When all that came of it was this trap – the store, then home to sleep, and back to the store again.” Even before she surrenders her youth and her aspirations, her naïve efforts to share her love of music with a deaf man are obviously doomed to failure. On the other hand, however, McCullers imaginatively solves precisely the problem her characters cannot, implying that their sad fates might be avoidable after all. After Singer’s funeral, Brannon, “saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor” but then experiences a moment of terror in which he foresees “a future of blackness, error, and ruin.” He feels “suspended between radiance and darkness,” but it’s no surprise which way he turns. McCullers ends the novel with him composing himself “to await the morning sun.” Like Mick, he finds a way to believe.

This fundamental optimism belying the thematic gloom no doubt explains part of the novel’s lasting appeal among readers. In 2008, Oprah Winfrey selected The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for her television talk show book club. Three years earlier, Time had declared it one of the best English-language novels since 1923 (when the magazine began to publish). Time was not immediately convinced of her skill. When The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter first appeared, the magazine conceded that the “Georgia girl” had talent but concluded: “As a writer of words, she is never distinguished, never in one glint verbally original.” The unadorned clarity of her prose, unlike the more demanding modernist experimentation of predecessors like William Faulkner, might also contribute to her ongoing popularity. Yet McCullers is also more subtly sophisticated than Oates’s one-sentence summation suggests. Her sly complexity has to do with her polyphonic technique. She conducts a choir of distinct voices. Oates says McCullers deserves to be shelved in the young adult section and the readers’ guide prepared for Winfrey’s viewers trots out clichés about her novel’s “emotional rollercoaster” and looks for autobiographical origins (“You can feel her fall in love with her eclectic band of misfits, fashioned after people she knew as sure as she knew her own blood.”) In her best known book, however, McCullers produced something better than both her most prominent detractors and proponents perceive: a deeply sympathetic depiction of a group of ordinary people cleverly realized without stylistic grandstanding.

John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s Fighters & Writers, a collection of essays, is forthcoming from Mongrel Empire Press in 2010. He lives in Portland, Oregon.