The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, her debut novel of desolate southern lives, made McCullers an instant star – something she never fully recovered from
“She found me a cheap boarding house somewhere on the west side, where there, cut off and lonely, I passed the day my first book was published,” wrote Carson McCullers in her memoir Illumination and Night Glare, describing the day her classic novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published.
Then 23, McCullers and her husband Reeves McCullers were penniless, awaiting the last portion of the advance on the book so that they, both aspiring writers, could move to New York City. Reeves had gone off to work on a boat on Nantucket island and McCullers had little premonition of the literary sensation the book would become – or how completely it would transform her life.
‘Cut off and lonely’ Carson McCullers, pictured around 1955. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Turmoil was in the air that fervid summer in 1940.
Despite Roosevelt’s New Deal, the depredations of the Great Depression had sucked hope from America’s bones, birthed a generation that had only known want and that was sceptical of the possibility of change.
In small crowds around newsstands on city corners, uncertain Americans read about the war raging in Europe, but remained unsure as to whether it was “their” problem. Everyone, it seemed, wanted change and no one seemed to know how to hasten it, direct it or evaluate it. In this last sense, and possibly many more, America then was not so different from America now.
Where truth fails, fiction flourishes. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers, who would have turned 100 years old on Sunday, distilled all of these consternations, enabling in literature the self-reckoning that had been avoided in reality. Set in a southern mill town much like her own Columbus, Georgia, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter traces the hapless lives of five townspeople, all of whom are inexplicably drawn to a deaf-mute named John Singer.
There is the young Mick Kelly, a teenage girl who dreams of making it big; Biff Bannon, the middle-class owner of a local cafe; Jake Blount, the most overtly political character and Dr Benedict Copeland, the town’s African American doctor who rails against the inequities of a racist society, but is helpless against them. As they all interact with Singer, they fail to notice his pain or that he is mourning a loss of his own: the banishment of his friend Spiros Antonapoulos to an insane asylum.
It is a mad mix, but also an ingenious one. Some, like critic Nancy Rich, writing a decade after McCullers’s death in 1967, have declared it a political parable. Singer represents government and its ineffectuality, the vague dimensions of his character permitting the projections of all the rest. It’s a sad little bunch, each an iteration of the insoluble problems of that time: race, inequality, gutless conformity and the apathy of a silent and self-centred majority.
Can all of this come together to make up a country, a polity? The answer seemed elusive then, as it is in the US’s riven present, but The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter posed the questions, presented the problem.
McCullers was rewarded for her ingenuity. The glamour of becoming an overnight literary phenomenon brought with it new and famous friends – among them a Swiss heiress whose face, McCullers declared, “would haunt her for the rest of her life”. Not long after the book’s publication, McCullers moved in to the famous February House: a Brooklyn brownstone that became a salon and refuge for a gaggle of literary celebrities.
Parking her husband elsewhere – he had blossomed into an alcoholic – McCullers became housemates with the likes of WH Auden, Salvador Dali, Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis and burlesque performer and author Gypsy Rose Lee.
The war had not yet begun, but McCullers had arrived. Everyone wanted to know her, to talk to her, to live with her. All the magazines – Harper’s, the New Yorker, Story and scores of others who had once rejected her work – now clamoured to see what she would produce next.
Great success births great expectations and it may well have been this burden that shattered McCullers. She kept writing, but none of her ensuing works would parallel the acclaim of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Some would be painful disappointments. Her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, was set in a military base in peacetime and toyed with voyeurism and implied homosexuality.
While eagerly awaited, it met the fate of many second novels and was deemed an unworthy successor of a brilliant first. McCullers’ health also failed; the afflictions of her youth, among them misdiagnosed rheumatic fever, left her susceptible to strokes that eventually paralysed her. The writer could write no more but she persevered, dictating her autobiography until, in August 1967, the last stroke killed her. She was only 50 years old.
The glib and ruthless pronouncements of her lost literary genius were likely not an easy burden to bear. The pages of McCullers’ unfinished memoir are laden with accounts of her associations with celebrities (including Marilyn Monroe) – a small antidote, perhaps, to the torment of being labelled a one-hit wonder.
The sharp girl who had cast such an unforgiving eye on the world around her became a woman imprisoned by her own initial success and her inability to replicate it. The transformation from an outsider who cast her acid gaze on ordinary America and squeezed from it caustic truths, to a member of New York’s literati, came at too dear a price.
McCullers, who had so adeptly captured the desolation of her moment and constructed from a grim reality a distinctly American political parable, was left a famous author but a lesser writer.