I think it is not without importance that the all-night restaurant in Carson McCuller’s first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is called The New York Cafe. In the small-sized Southern city in the late 1930’s, when the story takes place, there is little doing at night and none of the people involved in the story is either very contented or very hopeful; the New York Cafe is the only place for them to go, and its forlorn hospitality is indicative of what is barren and joyless about the lives of those who go there. From Columbus, Georgia to New York City is a long way.
Biff Blannon’s restaurant is presumbly called the New York Cafe because of the ironic contrast between what it is and what its name signifies. The name is an attempt at sophistication, at the glamour of the big city, at a greater than provincial importance; New York is the metropolis, where important things happen and ambitions come true and talent is rewarded and all is exciting, rich, romantic. Set in the backwaters of civilization (as Carson McCullers’s imagination saw it, anyway), the pathetic name given the all-night restaurant mocks the romantic dream with its commonplace actuality. The habitues are there because they live in a small city in southwestern Georgia instead of New York, or even Atlanta. It is like the blue hotel in Stephen Crane’s story of that name, set out on the Nebraska prairie and painted a surrealistic blue to signify the exaggerations of its pretension amid the lonely, terribly barren, and empty expanses of a late 19th-century West only recently changed from being uninhabited prairie and now living in the dreary backwash of a crude provincial life. Just so, the inappropriateness of the name New York Cafe is meant by the author to convey a sense of cultural starvation, the provincial dreariness of the kind of city where the side-walks, as they used to say, are rolled up each night at ten o’clock. As well call it the Café de Paris.
Is that what Columbus, Georgia was like? I suppose it depends upon the viewpoint, and Carson McCullers’s view-point at the time she was writing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was not exactly that of the Nashville Agrarians, or even of William Faulkner or Eudora Welty. Frankie Addams’s view of Columbus and her own, she once remarked, were identical. From Virginia Carr’s fascinating and I think horrifying biography, The Lonely Hunter, we know that during those years, the late 1930’s, Carson and Reeves McCullers wanted above all to get to New York City, Carson had had a taste of it as an apprentice writer, and though living on short rations she had no doubt whatever that it was the place for her. There were to be found the writers and artists and teachers and publishers, the people who understood, as she thought, what was really worthwhile in life. New York was the place of art, of culture, of fulfillment, where the dreams of the lonely provincial could come true. She wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter for numerous reasons, and an important one was so that it might make her famous and enable her to move to New York and escape the dreariness of the provinces forever. Which it did—though it cannot be said that ultimately she found what she was looking for there, either.
In this respect, as in several others, she is reminiscent of another Southern author, Thomas Wolfe. In the novel published as You Can’t Go Home Again, Wolfe explains how it was that the townsfolk of Libya Hill got involved in a frantic real estate boom in the 1920’s, resulting in disgrace and disaster when the Depression came on.
As he stood upon the hill and looked out on the scene that spread below him in the gathering darkness, with its pattern of lights to mark the streets and the creeping pin-pricks of the thronging traffic, he remembered the barren nighttime streets of the town he had known so well in his boyhood. Their dreary and unpeopled desolation had burned its acid print upon his memory. Bare and deserted by ten o’clock at night, those streets had been an aching monotony, a weariness of hard lights and empty pavements, a frozen torpor broken only occasionally by the footfalls of some prowler—some desperate, famished, lonely man who hoped past hope and past belief for some haven of comfort, warmth, and love there in the wilderness, for the sudden opening of a magic door into some secret, rich, and more abundant life. There had been many such, but they had never found what they were searching for. They had been dying in the darkness—without a goal, a certain purpose, or a door.
And that, it seemed to George, was the way the thing had come. That was the way it had happened. Yes, it was there— on many a night long past and wearily accomplished, in ten thousand little towns and in ten million barren streets where all the passion, hope, and hunger of the famished men beat like a great pulse through the fields of darkness—it was there and nowhere else that all this madness had been brewed.
Like Carson Smith McCullers, Thomas Wolfe was raised in a small Southern city, of lower middle class origins and status, and yearned to get away. Eugene Gant looked out northward and eastward over the mountains toward the shining city of his dreams; Frankie Addams and Mick Kelly, unlike their creator, are less precise about exactly where they wish to go, but they are sure they want to get out of their imprisoned circumstances. In neither McCullers nor Wolfe is the hold of the Southern community upon characters very real. Neither is very much involved in the kind of historical tradition or community identification that writers such as Faulkner and Welty use for the stuff of their fiction.
A major difference between McCullers’s South and Wolfe’s is that there is no sense of Wolfe himself feeling trapped in it. He is going to leave. Carson McCullers’s people are there to stay, and their yearning for something better and finer and more fulfilling has a kind of painful angst about it. Their yearning for the metropolis, as has often been said, is like that of Chekhov’s provincial Russians for Moscow: for a place of impossible fulfillment that is too far off in time and space to represent anything more than a forlorn hope.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter burst upon the national literary scene in 1940; 37 years later and it is still going strong. Reflections in a Golden Eye followed the year after; of all Mrs. McCullers’s fiction it is probably the most bizarre, the least pleasant. It is a tour de force, a sustained exercise in pure pain, without respite or humor. In 1943 she published The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, one of the most intense short novels of the 20th century, in many ways the essence of her art. In 1946 came The Member of the Wedding, the most enjoyable—if that is a word to be used with any of her work—of all her books, and also, so far as living in the everyday world that most of us must inhabit is involved, the most “normal.” In those books, produced over a period of less than a decade and while the author was still in her twenties, we have a very impressive body of fiction indeed.
That was all. Nothing that she wrote in the remaining two decades of her life adds much to her achievement.Clock Without Hands was an artistic disaster; only her most devoted admirers could say much for it. Whatever it was she had in the way of a gift, she had lost it. When she died in 1967, I doubt that anyone felt that she was leaving good books unwritten.
We are dealing, therefore, with certain works of fiction written and published during a period of intense and often brilliant creativity, by a young writer, a wunderkind as it were, one who did not develop or extend her range afterward. I think it is important to remember that. Whatever the faces and tensions that were central to her life and art, and which ultimately destroyed both, they attained, during this period, an equilibrium that made her fiction possible.
A writer, too, whom I have found can exert a very powerful influence on young people, in particular other young writers. I have taught courses in creative writing for some years, and so do not undervalue the considerable influence she can have on a certain kind of young writer. All in all, it is a benign and valuable influence, for if the young writer is any good the more obvious imitative elements are soon thrown off, while what remains is the sense of the possibility of self-expression. What she has to teach the young writer is the realization, which seems obvious but is not, that the qualities of youthful artistic sensibility, of being “different” and unwilling or unable to conform to the expected patterns of conventional adolescence, are not merely uselessly burdensome and painful, but can be transformed into the insight and awareness of art. The impetus to self-fulfillment involved in that realization can be enormously creative.
Mrs. McCullers’s fiction, in particular The Member of the Wedding, can speak to the adolescent reader in very intense fashion, for what it conveys is the frustration and pain of being more than a child and yet not an adult, with the agony of self-awareness and sense of isolation thereby involved. There is the shock of recognition—something of the same kind of reassurance through identification that books such as Look Homeward, Angel or The Catcher in the Rye have been known to provide. It is fashionable, of course, to outgrow such identification—and also inevitable, if the young writer is to develop his or her own talent—and what it means is that much of the criticism that has been written about Carson McCullers’s work is either pedestrian or else unsympathetic, because the kind of perspective that makes the act of criticism meaningful is something that is possible only when the reader gets beyond the intense, uncritical emotional response that characterizes the youthful impact of a novel such as The Member of the Wedding.
Please understand: I am not saying that only persons without critical discernment can enjoy Carson McCullers’s fiction; clearly that is not so at all. What I am contending, however, is that the way in which her work can speak to the young reader is not susceptible to very much critical analysis, because it comes at a stage at which the reader’s response is based upon intense emotional assent and identification rather than a mere selective discrimination. When the reader subsequently comes to acquire that intellectual discrimination, he can no longer muster the emotional assent in the intense way that was possible when he first read Carson McCullers. Mrs. McCullers’s fiction, in other words, taught him that his feelings were worthwhile and could be given artistic dignity, enabling him to recognize what he must have felt. But having learned that, the reader, if he is to develop his critical talents, goes on to other writers and becomes interested in exploring the quality and nature of his response to works of literature as well as exposing himself to the naïve intensity, and so needs to investigate that response in terms of fiction that yields more to careful discrimination.
In short, Carson McCullers is in certain important ways a writer for young readers, and one has to be young to receive what she offers. She speaks not to the intelligence so much as to the untutored emotions, and with such tremendous intensity that one must either accept it or reject it. There is almost no middle ground. She does not let you think about it, choosing this and suspending judgment on that as you go along; it is all of a piece, and if you like the experience of fiction to be complex and subtle, she is probably not for you.
The McCullers fiction, I believe, has at its center a fundamental premise: which is, that solitude—loneliness—is a human constant, and cannot possibly be alleviated for very long at a time. But there is no philosophical acceptance of that condition, and none of the joy in it that one finds in, say, Thomas Wolfe or even Hemingway, The solitude is inevitable, and it is always painful. Thus life is a matter of living in pain, and art is the portraying of anguish. Occasionally, a character of hers knows happiness, but never for very long. Thus in the Ballad of the Sad Cafe there is a time when Miss Amelia believes she has the love of Cousin Lymon, and so permits her Café to be a place of joy, but it cannot last. Marvin Macy shows up; Cousin Lymon has been waiting for someone like him; Miss Amelia’s happiness disintegrates; you might as well go listen to the chain gang, the narrator tells us.
Mrs. McCullers explains it by her remarks on love, which she says involves the lover and the beloved, who come from two different countries. There is no way that such love can be shared, for one of the two must love and the other be loved; no reciprocal relationship, whereby one both loves and is loved in turn, is possible.
Obviously love in this definition involves possession. The lover, she says, “is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves every possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.” For this reason, she points out, it is much more desirable, and most people wish, to be the lover rather than the beloved, since the “beloved fears and hates the lover” who is trying to possess him. It is something like Frost’s “Fire and Ice”: love can be destructive because it wishes to consume the beloved, or because in reaction it produces the glacial impenetrability of freezing disdain. But Frost was making a different moral entirely. He was speaking against love that involves only possessiveness, or self-protective hate that refuses to open itself to human warmth. Carson McCullers not only declares that it must be that way, but that the very nature of being loved, which is to say, wanted and needed by another, is intolerable.
Such of course is the scheme of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” Singer is the lover, Antonopoulos the beloved. Antonopoulos accepts Singer because it is convenient and comfortable for him to do so, but then he loses his intelligence and also his need for what Singer can provide, since as a vegetable he requires nothing outside himself. So Singer is left, bereft, loveless. As long as he could retain the illusion that Antonopoulos had a place for him in his affections, he could cope; Antonopolous’s very inchoateness and lack of awareness were an advantage, since they permitted Singer to believe in the fiction that his love understood and returned.
Singer’s self-deception in turn makes possible the self-deception of all the others—Biff, Dr. Copeland, Jake, Mick Kelly. So long as Singer will sit and listen to them speak their troubles, they can for a time at least function. Singer understands them only imperfectly; he depends upon lip-reading. The fact that he cannot answer back, cannot carry on a dialogue, is what makes him so satisfactory, for in that way the others are enabled to believe that he understands, sympathizes, and accepts all that they say and feel. In this respect, Singer fills the role of the beloved; he allows himself to be loved, because he is insulated from the demands and the possessiveness of love by virtue of his deafness. If he were not deaf, and thus solitary in a world of talkers, he could never tolerate the others, of course, and this not because he is selfish or mean—he is neither—but because he is a human being. Thus Singer serves the others as the object of their love (which obviously is self-love), while Antonopoulous fills a similar role for him, and the self-deception works—until Antonopoulos dies, whereupon the occasion for Singer’s love collapses and he shoots himself, and the others are left stranded. The artistry is in the pain—Mrs. McCullers has never let us participate in the deception; we have witnessed it at all points for the ruse that it is, and when the arrangements collapse we perceive only the inevitable outcome of what we have seen developing all along. Again, you might as well go listen to the chain gang—which is pretty much what as readers we have been engaged in doing.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was and is a remarkable book—that a 23-year-old woman could write with so much mastery and so much perception about so diverse a range of characters was odd indeed. The talent that was able to observe the variety of experience that went into those characterizations was something close to genius. The capacity for observation, for perceiving and detailing the concerns of the various people, was stunning in its virtuosity. What I find most remarkable, reading the novel over again and in light of those that followed and also from what I have learned from Mrs. Carr’s biography, is that a writer whose imagination is so subjective, whose art is so suffused with emotional coloration and is based upon the capacity to convey the endless sameness of human suffering, could at the same time see and record and catalogue so much, with such clear specificity and concrete objectivity of detail. For one whose view of the human condition is so thoroughly pessimistic to be able to combine that with the kind of knowledge of people and things outside of her that surely stems from a considerable fascination in observing the varieties of experience seems odd, to say the least.
The question that it poses is this: what is the relationship between the obvious fascination with which Mrs. McCullers viewed various kinds of human life and the terrible loneliness and anguish that she felt was hers and everyone’s lot? By all logic one would think that the conviction of loneliness and separateness should involve a closing down of the blinds, so to speak, a withdrawal from what she would say is the impossible attempt ever to reach out to include others. Or conversely, that so rare a talent for observing and understanding and feeling compassion for others would produce something other than the anguished conviction of emptiness and solitude. One thinks of Eudora Welty, whose marvelous gift for observation and insight into many kinds of people goes along with a real joy in the lifegiving mystery of human personality.
With Carson McCullers, it did not work that way, however, and perhaps one avenue toward understanding the apparent contradiction is to think about what Mrs. McCullers has Biff Brannon say about his fondness for freaks:
What he had said to Alice was true—he did like freaks. He had a special friendly feeling for sick people and cripples. Whenever somebody with a harelip or T. B. came into the place he would set him up to beer. Or if the customer were a hunchback or a bad cripple, then it would be whiskey on the house. There was one Fellow who had had his peter and his left leg blown off in a boiler explosion, and whenever he came to town there was a free pint waiting for him. And if Singer were a drinking kind of man he could get liquor at half price any time he wanted it.
Mrs. Carr begins her biography with an incident, which I assume was told her by Mrs. McCullers’s childhood friend Helen Jackson, that demonstrates Carson McCullers’s life-long interest in the freak shows at the Chattahoochee Valley Fair. She remarks rightly that “deeply compassionate, the youngster was becoming increasingly aware that one’s physical aberration was but an exaggerated symbol of what she considered everyman’s “caught” condition of spiritual isolation and sense of aloneness in spite of his intense desire and effort to relate to others.” This is quite true. The physically grotesque is a way of exaggerating the everyday by making it all-important and inescapable. But perhaps there is more to it than that, even. I recall a remark of Flannery O’Connor’s when asked why so many Southern novelists tended to describe grotesques. The South, she said, was the last section of the country where you could still recognize a freak when you saw him. What Miss O’Connor was suggesting, I suppose, with her customary wit and hyperbole, was that the Southern experience was still very much an affair of the complex patterns of community life, with the comings and goings of individuals taking place within a clearly recognized set of expectations and assumptions. In that kind of established social context, individual behavior ran along expected forms, so that there were certain agreed-upon limits and standards of human conduct. Anything truly deviant, genuinely aberrant, would therefore stand out, since there was something against which it could be measured and identified. I’m sure Flannery would have been the first to insist (after laughing at any such pompous interpretation of her remark) that it was no stifling conformity that was produced, but a kind of set of agreed-upon manners and formalities that made social experience convenient and tolerable, with a minimum of abrasiveness and considerable respect for privacy. She would also, I believe, insist that the implicit but firmly defined set of social forms went along with a set of similarly defined moral assumptions and values, so that moral freakishness—i.e., deviation from what is agreed upon and expected—was also and equally recognizable.
This is the context, I think, within which so much of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction operates, and Carson McCullers’s, too. The difference is in the use of the freakishness— i.e., of the characters and the conduct that deviates from the accustomed and comfortable. Miss O’Connor uses her Hazel Moteses and Misfits and Francis Marion Tarwaters and the like to comment upon the moral and spiritual evasions and shortcomings of the supposedly “normal” community; they appear freakish because in their exaggeration they dramatize moral ultimates, and refuse to abide by the comfortable evasions of a too complacent, too secular society. Their apparent grotesqueness is actually spiritual consistency: the true freakishness is the secular materialism of the everyday, which Miss O’Connor felt was spiritually grotesque. Thus in Wise Blood, when Hazel Motes takes to wrapping barbed wire about his chest to mortify himself for his sins, his landlady tells him that people have quit doing that a long time ago, whereupon Hazel replies that people haven’t quit doing it so long as he is still doing it.
By contrast, Carson McCullers focuses upon her maimed, misfitting, wounded people not as a commentary upon the complacent “normality” of the community which would term them freakish, but as exemplars of the wretchedness of the human condition. It isn’t that freaks are commentaries or criticisms on normality; they are normality. Their physical grotesquery merely makes visible and identifiable their isolation and anguish; “normal” people do not confront these on quite such immediate and inescapable terms, perhaps, but they are really no better off, no happier. Everybody that is human is on the chain gang; on some the stripes and chains are merely more readily visible.
The particular vision of Carson McCullers, the capacity for recognizing and portraying and sympathetically identifying with pain and loneliness, could arise only out of a social situation in which the patterns and forms and expectations of conduct and attitude are very firmly and formidably present, so that the inability or failure to function within those patterns seems crucial. If everything is permitted and expected, then there is no need to feel pain or frustration because one’s own behavior and inclinations are different from those of others. But if there is a strong set of expectations, and one is unable to fulfill them and yet be oneself, then one searches out for kindred sufferers, in order to feel less lonely through assurance of their pain as well, Thus the portrait gallery of Carson McCullers’ “freaks”—i.e., of those who must accept being set apart. And the conviction that this is the way the world goes, and no genuine human sharing is possible.
The appetite of Mrs. McCullers for viewing and identifying the details of human life, and the accuracy with which she was able to create so many sharply delineated people, then, was not exactly a joy in the richness and variety of experience, so much as a hunger for possession. It wasn’t enough to see and identify; she had to demonstrate that, despite the varied surfaces and individually realized characterizations, they were really all alike, and what lay at the core of each was suffering and pain deriving from loneliness. One is reminded of a writer that Mrs. McCullers very much admired: Marcel Proust— significantly, a homosexual, as Mrs, McCullers was a lesbian. In that brilliant and profound panorama of men and women who appear in the seven volumes of the Recherche du Temps Perdu, each individual struggles to possess and to use others. Charles Swann, Gilberte, Saint Loup, the Baron Charlus, Morel, Bloch, the Due and Duchesse de Guermantes, Albertine Simonet, above all, the narrator himself, who calls himself Marcel—at the core of each one is the unsatisfied desire to possess, to use, to pleasure oneself through or upon (never with) others, and it is all doomed, for life in human time is meaningless, since everything changes and nothing remains. Only the art that derives from personal, involuntary memory can achieve meaning; art is not life, but its subjective recreation in the possessive imagination of the artist,
Something like this, I imagine, is what the writing of fiction was for Carson McCullers; art was a way of possessing. It was the creative act of taking what she saw and molding it, transforming it beyond identifiable shape into the form of art, so that it represented her kind of world. And I am tempted to say that, in the tension between the observed authority of the recalcitrant materials she drew upon and the powerful, possessive will to shape them to her desired meaning, the artistic equilibrium came that made her best work possible. Her first book, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, produced the most convincing and richest of all her characters, Dr. Benedict Maby Copeland, the black physician, and this is because, more so than with any of the others, there was a kind of palpable and inescapable social integrity in the material itself. With the other characters in the novel (and all have their individual integrities), the pain and loneliness were personal, subjective; with Dr. Copeland, there was added a specific and very formidable social deprivation. We may not quite believe in Jake Blount’s outrage over the victimization of the proletariat—not that the victimization does not exist, but that Jake’s outrage seems motivated less by social injustice than by his own thwarted desire for violence. The social consciousness seems to be something of an excuse for Jake to use for his own personal needs. Biff Brannon’s loneliness is believable, but it seems insufficiently anchored. As for Mick Kelly, ancestor as she is of Frankie Addams, it is adolescence, not the eternal misery of the human condition, that gives her loneliness its authority, and when the author seeks to insure its permanence through family economics and misfortune, it seems somehow gratuitous, excessive; I can’t really see her job in the five-and-ten as any kind of permanent entrapment. But Dr. Copeland is an educated, talented black man in the segregated society of southwest Georgia; any chagrin, mortification, rage he feels requires no dependence upon personal, subjective sensibility. Thus the kind of sensibility with which Mrs. McCullers invests him—the loneliness and anguish—blends so completely with the social outrage that the one gives body to the other. Each time I reread The Heart is a Lonely Hunter I am the more impressed with the characterization of Dr. Copeland. He is masterful, one of the reasons I share David Madden’s feeling that the first novel is the best of all her full-length works.
I say this despite my admiration for so much of The Member of the Wedding. Frankie Addams is the most appealing of Mrs. McCullers’s people; I like her better than Mick Kelly because she is less strident—less written, I think, to a thesis. She is what Mick Kelly would perhaps have been, had there been room for her to have a whole book of her own. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the “Mozart” motif always seemed a bit incongruous and sentimental to me, as if it were somewhat forced upon the characterization, Frankie Addams has the same sensibility without the extraneous element, as I see it, and her struggles with pre-adolescence are entirely convincing and wondrously done—up to a certain point. That point is reached when, two-thirds of the way through, Frankie’s sensibility moves beyond that inherent in her situation and becomes something bizarre and genuinely distorted—when the piano tuner goes to work and Frankie and Berenice have some kind of surrealistic, mystic vision of pain and misery. After that point, I cease to believe fully in the meaning Mrs. McCullers is (as it now seems) forcing upon Frankie. That’s not Frankie as we have known her, and she never recovers. The novel, in other words, goes beyond the pain of pre-adolescent awkwardness and becomes truly aberrant; it drops off the deep end into distortion for the sake of distortion, The death of John Henry, for example: he seems to be killed off gratuitously, in order to provide more misery. And in the epilogue, when Frankie enters full adolescence, becomes Frances, and is made into a “normal” teenager, it seems too arbitrary, too pat. That isn’t Frankie, either.
It is interesting, and particularly in light of the revelations in Mrs. Carr’s biography of Carson McCullers’s adult sexual ambivalence, that her two important artist figures, Mick and Frankie, cannot go beyond the point of incipient sexual awakening and yet remain consistent with their characterizations. These young girls, both with masculine names, remain fixed in pre-adolescence; when they have to become women, as they must, they are, as characters, all but destroyed, Mick seduces Harry Minowitz; her initiation accomplished, she wants nothing whatever to do with him, and gladly lets him run away. Frankie, more innocent, smashes the vase over the head of the soldier, dreams of escaping into a world of snow and wintry calm, then becomes Frances and is Frankie no more. I think of those photographs in Mrs. Carr’s biography, of Carson at Yaddo looking like a boyish pre-adolescent girl, and of what she did to poor Reeves McCullers.
The psychology of the artist is a complex matter, and I have no intention of trying to work it out as it involves Carson McCullers. I shall suggest only this. Those seven years, from the time she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter up through The Member of the Wedding, must have represented, in Mrs. McCullers’s career, a period during which the confusion, chaos, and contradiction that characterized most of her adult life could be made into art because the issues that were involved still seemed capable of solution. She could, in other words, embody the contradictions in language; they could evolve into a counterpoint, which she as an artist could see as significant. The quarrel within herself was genuine, and she could make poetry out of it. But the time came when she capitulated, ceased as a writer to struggle against the confusion of her life by attempting to give it order and form through language, as she had been doing, and let the subjective, ultimately destructive element have full sway. This is the impression I get from Mrs. Carr’s biography. The creative tension was relaxed. The personal suffering continued, but no longer could she approach it with the assumption that the suffering represented a deprivation, a frustrated yearning for a more beautiful and happier situation outside herself which was, at least theoretically, attainable in this world. Instead, the pain became itself the objective; there was nothing more to be discovered through and with it. Now she knew physical pain as never before; her life revolved around it. It seems clear that, in some strange but powerful way, the mental anguish becomes physical, and is henceforth made permanent and acceptable. In Marcel Proust’s explanation, “the life of the writer does not end” with the work of art he makes out of it, and “the same temperament which caused him to undergo certain sufferings which have been incorporated in his work will continue to exist after the work is completed. . . . Viewed as an omen of misfortune the work should be regarded solely as an unhappy love which is the forerunner of others and will end in the poet’s life resembling his work, so that he will scarcely have any more need to write, such a faithful forecast of what is to come will he be able to find in what he has already written.”
I was struck by the way in which, as evidenced in Mrs, Carr’s biography, Proust’s dictum was borne out in Mrs. McCullers’s life. She herself noted, with more than a little satisfaction, that everything that happened to her characters either had been or would eventually be experienced by her in her own life. David Madden has stressed the intensity of this imaginative relationship between her art and her own life: “One might say that all her work is autobiographical in the sense that whatever she read and whatever she conjured up in her imagination really happened to her.” This is something more, I believe, than what is usually signified by autobiography: i.e., than Flaubert’s famous remark that he was Emma Bovary. Instead of her characters representing aspects of Carson McCullers’s sensibility, they seem to have become her sensibility. Not only was the gap between life and art erased; the fantasy, and the suffering it embodied, were allowed to become the reality. Whatever anchor to everyday life had existed before, in the form of her childhood identity, her early experience, the necessity of having to fit into and live in a world beyond and outside her emotional needs, ceased to hold. The pain, the suffering, the yearning, no longer a commentary upon experience, were now the experience itself. Were the crippling illnesses that increasingly ravaged her psychosomatic in origin? Her friends suspected as much; perhaps she too knew it, as Mrs, Carr notes. She was caught up in her pain, and did not struggle to escape it because the pain was, as she saw it, her art and her identity.
Again the profound insight of Marcel Proust into the nature of suffering and sexual abnormality is instructive: “When life walls us in, our intelligence cuts an opening, for, though there can be no remedy for an unrequited love, one can win release from suffering, even if only by drawing from it the lessons it has to teach. The intelligence does not recognize in life any closed situations without an outlet.” But this, Carson McCullers was unable to do; she is each of her suffering characters, in turn, but the next, ultimate step, which enabled Proust to create his great apologia, she was ultimately unable to take. She could not draw from the pain and loneliness the truths that, in Proust’s words, “take the place of sorrows,” since “when the latter are transformed into ideas, they at once lose part of their noxious effect on the heart and from the very first moment the transformation itself radiates joy.” For Carson McCullers this never happened.”She was never an intellectual,” a onetime friend said of her; “she only felt.” If so, she had reached a stage at which the perception of pain was not enough, if she was to go beyond the early fiction. But that was all she knew. There was, for her, no Recapture of Lost Time, but only Clock Without Hands.
Like certain other of her contemporaries, Carson McCullers, it seems to me, constructed her art out of the South, but not out of its history, its common myths, its public values and the failure to cherish them. What is Southern in her books are the rhythms, the sense of brooding loneliness in a place saturated with time. Compare The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or The Member of the Wedding with, say, Winesburg, Ohio, and the relationship with the region is obvious. Sherwood Anderson’s grotesques are more simple; a few clear, masterful sentences and we get their essential quality. Carson McCullers must show her misfits, whether spiritual or physical, in an extended context; there is plenty of time for everything. The Southern quality is unmistakable, in the unhurried fascination with surfaces, the preoccupation with the setting in which the characterization reveals itself. Character is not for McCullers, any more than for Eudora Welty or William Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe, an idea, but a state of awareness. To repeat, there is plenty of time ., , and when the violence comes, as it so often does, it erupts in a place and a context, and it jars, queerly or terribly or both, the established and accustomed patterns. Before and after, there is lots of waiting, lots of time to think about everything.
Robert Penn Warren, in his novel Flood, has a Southerner explain to a friend from the North that the key to the Southern experience is lonesomeness.”It is angry lonesomeness. Angry lonesomeness makes Southerners say the word South like an idiot Tibetan monk turning a broken-down prayer wheel on which he has forgotten to hang any prayers,” No Southerner, he continues, “believes that there is any South. He just believes that if he keeps on saying the word he will lose some of the angry lonesomeness.” Warren was writing fiction, not an essay on the South, but if we discount the metaphysical hyperbole that is proper for the particular characterization, the remark makes sense. What is involved, I think, is the same contrast between the formidable community patterns and social context mentioned earlier and the solitude of the private individual confronting these. Southern literature is filled with depictions of characters who, set for one reason or other on the outside, contemplate the intense coming and going of a community life from a private distance. The Reverend Hightower, Jack Burden, Eugene Gant, most of Eudora Welty’s people—this is an essential element in Southern fiction, and in no other Southern author’s work is it more essential than in the fiction of Carson McCullers.
Surely this situation lies at the heart of her relationship with the South, and nowhere is it given more pathetic rendering than by her. This is what one takes away, most of all, from Carson McCullers’s people in their time and place: the way that it feels to be lonely.
That is why her people do and say what they do. That is the source of the pain. That is why the New York Cafe keeps open all the time: “the only store on all the street with an open door and lights inside.” And that is why her best work may survive.
Louis D. Rubin
Louis D. Rubin, Jr., in his long and distinguished career, has had an immeasurable impact on Southern writing—as novelist, essayist, teacher, and founder of Algonquin Books. His most recent books include the memoirs My Father’s People: A Family of Southern Jews (LSU, 2002) and An Honorable Estate: My Time in the Working Press(LSU, 2001). In 2003 he received the Library of Virginia Lifetime Achievement Award.
Carson McCullers’s first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, immediately received praise from many reviewers who commended her insights into the human condition. They lauded the work as one of a few truly distinguished first novels in American literature. Other critics have written of the text’s failures, particularly focusing on weaknesses in plot and style. Despite these criticisms, the novel continues to receive a great deal of scholarly attention.
Some critics have focused on the allegorical qualities of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. They interpret the novel as a parable and the characters as abstractions of ideas more than as representations of real and complex individuals. The plot and characters, such scholars argue, dramatize McCullers’s viewpoints about love and teach the audience how to avoid isolation.
In addition to these analyses, many scholarly commentaries have centered on The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter as an example of southern gothic fiction. Critics have compared this and other texts by McCullers, such as The Member of the Wedding (1946) and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1943), to works by Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and William Faulkner. Like these twentieth century writers, McCullers is praised for portraying the painful realities of southern life. Realistically depicting small-town dullness and meanness, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter highlights the social landscape of human desperation and separation. McCullers reflects the intolerance, poverty, and isolation of the South. Revealing the vast contrasts of the region, the novel exposes a cultural system that proliferates racial fear and hatred, rigid gender roles and expectations, and class division and conflict. McCullers also translates the general symptoms of this society into intersecting narratives of individual lives. The characters of the novel, with their peculiar incapacities and deformities, embody themes common to southern grotesques: violence, disease, mutilation, and death. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers presents a harsh society in which oppression pervades human existence. Despite the actualities of southern repression, McCullers also offers glimpses of the noble human struggle to create meaning and to connect.
The residents of the novel’s small southern town are engaged in a lonely search for love. They are frustrated by rigid gender roles, inequalities in race and class, failed personal relationships, and their inability to communicate with one another. Mick Kelly, Biff Brannon, Jake Blount, and Dr. Copeland are acutely aware of their isolation. These muted characters, in revolt against their loneliness, strive fruitlessly to share their dreams and desires. They fail in their attempts to express themselves.
At the center of the novel is a mute man, John Singer. He and his exceedingly overweight Greek friend, Antonapoulos, are cut off from everyone except each other. Although Singer was taught to speak in school, speech...
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