Literature’s Lonely Hunter: On the “Sad, Happy Life” of Carson McCullers


June 4, 1940. Publication day of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Carson McCullers, twenty-three years old, was alone in a cheap boardinghouse on New York’s West Side. Her husband of almost three years was elsewhere, on a sailboat with a friend; a new note seemed to be sounding in her marriage since her book was, after more than two years of writing, finally seeing the light of day.

She knew almost no one in New York except the kindly older woman acquaintance who had found her the room. She was nearly penniless, but she had to scrape together enough money to buy something to wear to a meeting with her editor the next week. June 4 was a pause. On one side were Carson’s years growing up in provincial Columbus, Georgia, and the succession of Southern towns to which her husband’s job had called them. On the other side, she assumed, would be the exciting life of an author, living glamorously in New York City, meeting the writers, artists, and musicians who had peopled her fantasies.

Her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, had enjoyed significant pre-publication notice. The response to the advance copies that her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, had sent out was very promising, and its sales staff were enthusiastic about selling it. The firm had been eager for her to arrive in the city to promote her book. People inside and outside the publisher’s offices reminded each other that Carson’s editor, Robert Linscott, almost invariably picked winners.

She seemed sui generis, unique, and as it turned out, as odd as some of her characters.

But the novel itself was an outlier. It did not fit any of the accepted and expected categories of mainstream fiction. It was neither a love story nor a bildungsroman, it did not have characters whom readers could recognize as like themselves, it did not have a happy ending, and it did not have a single strong narrative line. Instead, it followed a striking group of oddballs and misfits, the inhabitants of a small Southern city who individually take their hopes and fears to another oddball and misfit.

Ironically named Singer, the listener is a deaf-mute who is in love with another man, also a deaf-mute, and his strange silence provides a kind of moral center, or anticenter, for this outlier community. Besides homosexuality, alcoholism, cross-dressing, and mental illness, the improbable range of difficult if not taboo subjects that Carson took on in this singular novel included Communism, poverty, racism, suicide, and adolescent sex.

What struck almost everyone was the writer’s youth. Readers were flabbergasted to learn that this tour de force was the work of someone so young and, despite her gender-ambiguous name, a woman. It was hard to believe she knew so much about the “lonely hearts” of others, said one critic. She seemed sui generis, unique, and as it turned out, as odd as some of her characters. But to find an explanation for something new, critics turned to comparison, and Carson was quickly likened to Hemingway and Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Dostoyevsky, and Gertrude Stein. While some of the comparisons were valid, they didn’t capture what was unique about her book—and about Carson herself.

On the alert for anything new on the horizon, or what Clifton Fadiman in The New Yorker called the “unique accent in first novels that critics have been searching for,” reviewers enthusiastically welcomed The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. It was not a novelty by a precocious child-woman, however, but a mature achievement: “One cannot help remarking,” said Ray Redman in The Saturday Review of Literature, “that this is an extraordinary novel to have been written by a young woman of twenty-two; but the more important fact is that it is an extraordinary novel in its own right.”

Some readers fretted. The New York Times reviewer said she dreaded McCullers’s second novel: “So high is the standard she has set, it doesn’t seem possible that she can reach it again.” The poet May Sarton lamented that it would be “another year or two” before there would be another book by “this extraordinary young woman.” But Fadiman said he’d “place a small bet on her future.”

She looked like a teenage boy. Tall and gangly, with what Ray Bradbury called “ploppy ways,” she cut an unconventional figure in fashion-conscious literary Manhattan. All coltish legs, she sometimes wore abbreviated tennis shorts and sweatshirts, heedless of city customs. (Her husband used to tell her she could be a champion sprinter.) Otherwise, once she could afford them, she favored crisp white men’s dress shirts with trousers or a suit, and she almost always wore oxfords, sometimes men’s brogans, and favored knee socks, often white.

Her brown hair hung straight to her shoulders, cut in short bangs across her forehead, strictly wash-and-wear. Her cropped hair and childish pout (when she wasn’t convulsed with laughter) gave her the look of a child swimming in adult clothes. But the clothes themselves were carefully chosen and expensive; she loved fashion and never overlooked anyone’s clothing. She did like to add a personal touch, sometimes unfortunately—the white knee socks were but one example—but as soon as she arrived in New York, she sought out distinctive, stylish clothes.

The first time Truman Capote met Carson, he noted that “she was a tall, slender wand of a girl, slightly stooped and with a fascinating face that was simultaneously merry and melancholy.” She had large, liquid, deep brown eyes and spoke in the accents of the Deep South. Capote noted that her eyes glowed warmly and that “her voice had the same quality, the same gentle heat, like a blissful summer afternoon that is slow but not sleepy.” Yet it was wise to listen closely, for she had a lively, mordant wit and spared no one. Some years later she looked back: “I became an established literary figure overnight and I was much too young to understand what happened to me or the responsibility it entailed. I was a bit of a holy terror.”

Carson’s early marriage was not in her press packet, so to speak. She had married at nineteen, to a good-looking Alabama-born charmer who had most recently been a credit investigator in a string of small Southern cities. Like Carson, Reeves McCullers—she vastly preferred his last name to her own family name, Smith—was determined to get out of the South, for he was also smart and ambitious. Both seemed to know that New York was a good place for anyone who was in some way different, who did not quite fit in: that there they could find, if not a home, then similarly inclined souls with whom they might feel less alone.

But their marriage was strained by the time The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter made its dramatic appearance. The reasons reached beyond Carson’s imminent success. Within a month of her arrival, she fell madly in love with a beautiful and talented Swiss writer who was visiting friends in New York. “She had a face,” Carson said, “that I knew would haunt me to the end of my life.” Annemarie Schwarzenbach soon returned to her travels, dying tragically two years later after a bicycle accident in the Alps. She reciprocated Carson’s passion only briefly.

But Carson’s love for Annemarie established a pattern that would continue almost to the end of her life: falling in love with older, more worldly women who sometimes returned her affection but who, despite her feverish pursuit, seldom wanted the passionate physical relationship she sought.

Reeves within a year began an affair with another man, a composer who had initially fallen in love with both him and Carson; the resulting triangle brought pain to all three. Reeves’s love for Carson was never in question. It was a central fact of her young life, and for Reeves, she was quite literally the reason he was alive. But he came slowly to understand that his love for other men would not go away; it was only one of what he saw as his many problems, which included alcoholism and a desperate search for a vocation.

What she left to us is her art and the example of what she called “her sad, happy life.”

Carson, by contrast, was entirely comfortable as a bisexual—although largely lesbian—woman, as comfortable and open about her desires as the still very repressed America of the 1940s and ’50s permitted her to be. Gender fluidity is a thread through her major works and is fundamental to the strangeness, the difference that marked the remarkable cast of characters who people her novels and stories.

Besides Singer, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter gives us Biff, the popular owner of the café that is the meeting place for the other principal characters, who is also a cross-dresser; and Mick Kelly, the adolescent girl who has sex with a boy for the first time and wants to be a composer. In The Member of the Wedding, twelve-year-old Frankie—another sexually ambiguous name—wants to be part of something else, her brother’s wedding: what she calls “the we of me.” Captain Penderton in Reflections in a Golden Eye is a married man tortured by his repressed homosexuality, who becomes obsessed with a young soldier doing work around his house, fueled by a vision of the private riding on a horse, naked. Miss Amelia, the heroine of The Ballad of the Sad Café, is an independent, self-sufficient giantess married to a criminal, who falls in love with Lymon, a hunchback who claims to be her distant cousin. A lot of Carson went into Miss Amelia, but she understood Cousin Lymon very well, too.

With the exception of the captain, however, none of these characters, not even those to whom it brings the most grief, are tortured by their sexuality; they simply are who they are. Something was changing in 1940s America, however repressed; gay artists and writers were finding each other, cracking the code that would allow them to create work they could successfully offer to mainstream America.

Out of this complex of circumstances came writers like Carson, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, Allen Ginsberg, and some of the other Beats. While still very young, Carson had found this nurturing community on a small scale in her family’s living room in Columbus, where her mother had convened a salon of young people of whatever sexual stripe who were passionate about art and their creative futures.

Soon after The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter came out, Carson moved into a Brooklyn brownstone filled with an “assortment of geniuses,” a transatlantic cross-section of sexual nonconformists including W.H. Auden, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and Gypsy Rose Lee. For the rest of her life, most of Carson’s closest friends, supporters, and occasionally protectors would be gay men.

The geniuses, oddballs, and occasional psychopaths in Carson’s fiction fit well into the literary category that the Virginia novelist Ellen Glasgow was already calling “Southern Gothic,” which included Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner. But her characters’ complex sexuality was always up front; they also reflected, much more than do other practitioners of the genre, Carson’s attempts to understand the cruel racial politics of the time. And they were drawn from life, many specifically from her life.

In all her major works can be found a version of herself: from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter’s Mick Kelly, the unhappy musical adolescent, to Jester Clane in Clock Without Hands, a white man muddling through his competing desires for the light-skinned, openly gay Sherman Pew and his passion for his dead father’s cause, racial justice. But even in rough outline, her autobiographical characters do not represent or explain the often delightful but steadily more troubled Carson McCullers. At times the figure she cut could have been straight out of a play by her friend Tennessee Williams: a sensitive Southern woman, emotionally naked, alive to beauty, ill equipped to bear the harshness of the modern world, but capable of toughness and drive when she needed to be.

Illness made cruel inroads. Two major strokes by the age of thirty left Carson just twenty more, increasingly painful years. On top of that, she drank to excess, which made life a struggle and creative life nearly impossible as she grew more dependent on a crew of enablers and a husband who was himself slipping into alcoholic self-destruction. Beneath illness and alcoholism, however, was a remarkably resilient and uncannily talented artist who proceeded as if she were on a mission to make sense of her existence and express it in her work.

In the process, she created what may be American literature’s most detailed, carefully observed picture of what it means to be an outsider. It is perhaps not constructive to imagine the characters and fictions—What magnificent heroines! What imaginatively constructed novels, plays, and stories!—that Carson might have created had she lived the usual span of years. All we know is she would have drawn from the same rich wells of inspiration that produced The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter at twenty-three, and Clock Without Hands, a coming to terms with race and racism, scant years before her death. What she left to us is her art and the example of what she called “her sad, happy life.”

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Carson McCullers

From Carson McCullers: A Life by Mary V. Dearborn. Copyright © 2024. Available from Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.



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