The American poet Robert Lowell is quoted as saying that if a writer lives long enough, he will see his reputation rise and fall – twice. In the case of Carson McCullers, an American writer of the deep South, Lowell’s thesis was never proved because she didn’t live long enough.
McCullers (born Lula Carson Smith) celebrated a double anniversary last year, 2017 – she was born 100 years ago – February 19, 1917 – and died 50 years ago on September 29, 1967 – and it’s probably a measure of her reduced standing now that not much has been written on this significant anniversary. Not least by me, an avid fan, who failed to post in time on this milestone!
McCullers is often twinned with Flannery O’Connor (a fellow Georgian, and close contemporary, born 1925) though O’Connor’s reputation has survived much better, particularly among the writing fraternity. Despite the fact they were contemporaries, O’Connor was scathing about McCullers – in a 1963 letter, she declared how “intensely” she disliked McCullers’ work and she greeted the publication of her final novel, Clock Without Hands (1961) as “the worst book I have ever read. It is incredible. . . It must signal the complete disintegration of this woman’s talent”.
That said, McCullers had a meteoric literary trajectory. Her first and most celebrated novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, came out in 1940 when McCullers was only 23. She followed up with Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Member of the Wedding (1946). She wrote a play – The Square Root of Wonderful – and produced a novella and short stories – The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. She also dictated an unfinished autobiography – Illuminations and Night Glare – which was published in 1999.
All of her major works were filmed which added to her “starry” quality. It was the 1968 film of Hunter, starring Alan Arkin as John Singer, a deaf mute who becomes a pivotal figure in the lives of a group of misfits in a small and segregated Southern town and Sondra Locke (future squeeze of Clint Eastwood who appeared with him in those chimp movies – Trivia Department) as teenager Mick Kelly who befriends Singer, that brought me first to McCullers’ work when I was in my late teens.
The age is significant – I was wide open to be carried away by McCullers’ brand of southern Gothic and I was totally enchanted. Superstitiously, I have never revisited McCullers’ novels because I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have the same “mind-blowing” effect on me now.
The young adult tag is often used to denigrate McCullers’ oeuvre, perhaps because she was so young herself when literary fame came knocking. Joyce Carol Oates has remarked that “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”.
But her work has always divided critics. Gore Vidal, usually not an easy man to please, described McCullers’ work as “one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-hand culture” while Graham Greene rated her over that other giant of southern writing, William Faulkner.
Other film adaptations of McCullers’ work include Reflections in a Golden Eye directed by John Huston and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando and Fred Zinnemann brought The Member of the Wedding to the screen in 1952 with Julie Harris and Brandon de Wilde (the boy actor from Shane – Trivia Department again). Vanessa Redgrave appeared in a Simon Callow-directed version of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in 1991.
Like many writers – including her nemesis Flannery O’Connor – McCullers suffered ill-health throughout her adult life. Rheumatic fever when she was 15 led to a number of severe strokes in her 20s and by the age of 31, she was paralyzed on the left side of her body.
Despite this she smoked and drank heavily and lived a colourful and varied sexual life, including several rumoured relationships with women, including Gypsy Rose Lee and the Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (formerly the lover of Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann). She counted among her friends Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
There’s also an Irish connection – through Carson’s mother, Marguerite Waters. McCullers visited Ireland twice, firstly in 1950, where she stayed at Bowen’s Court, the Cork ancestral home of Elizabeth Bowen, another of her unrequited lesbian attachments. (Earlier, she’d had a crush on Katherine Anne Porter.) McCullers admired Bowen’s reserve, but Bowen reportedly found her a “handful”. McCullers was similarly disappointed in Bowen’s Court – its heating and general comfort and her reception there fell well below her expectations.
She returned to Ireland in April 1967, months before her death, to visit film director John Huston’s Connemara home. By this stage, she was severely paralyzed and had to be transferred by ambulance from Shannon. Huston later said the trip had probably shortened her life, but she was determined to come. During this time she was interviewed by Irish Times literary editor, Terence de Vere White, who was granted a bedside audience with McCullers. She smoked while talking to him and, like others, he was impressed at the contrast between her physique and personality. He had never met anyone “so frail and alive”.
She was married twice to the same man, Reeves McCullers, who committed suicide in the Paris hotel where they lived, in 1953. After her first divorce from Reeves in the early 1940s, McCullers moved into a celebrated commune in Brooklyn called the February House. In its time it attracted luminaries like fiction editor George Davis, W H Auden, Chester Kalman, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul and Jane Bowles.
This is perhaps the curse of McCullers’ life. Any description invariably peters out into a who’s who catalogue of the famous and influential. But her sexually-fluid identity, her androgynous pen name, her love affair with fame, her “wunderkind” early career, make her seem like an early prototype of a 21st century literary celebrity.