Too readily classified, or dismissed, as a Southern Gothicist, Carson McCullers (1917–1967) is one of the most radical writers of the American mid-twentieth century. Among, for instance, her female contemporaries, a remarkable gathering that includes Jean Stafford, Mary McCarthy, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, and Shirley Jackson, it is McCullers who dared to take on sexual taboos, violated heterosexual conventions, and refused to punish her characters for their sexual deviancies. (Though her characters might be cruelly punished for other reasons.) A precocious writer, McCullers wrote several of her most moving short stories (“Sucker,” “Wunderkind”) in her late teens, having no idea how daring and subversive she was.
In an era of fiction writing in which the height of sexual transgression might be an adulterous affair between heterosexual adults, as in blockbuster macho novels like James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, McCullers lavished intimate, warmly detailed attention upon what we now call same-sex relationships; with a passionate sympathy unmatched in twentieth-century American literature she explored the bisexual psyche not as seriocomic grotesquerie (as O’Connor might have done) or satirically (as McCarthy might have done), but as an altogether natural bond—“a joint experience between two persons” as McCullers defines love in “The Ballad of the Sad Café.” The increasing attention given to transgender issues in recent years would have been an irresistible subject for her—to explore from the inside. Indeed, McCullers seemed to have identified with whatever is trans- in the human psyche, seeing it as the very fuel of desire:
[Captain Penderton’s] personality differed in some respects from the ordinary. He stood in a somewhat curious relation to the three fundaments of existence—life itself, sex, and death. Sexually the Captain obtained within himself a delicate balance between the male and female elements, with the susceptibilities of both the sexes and the active powers of neither…. He had a sad penchant for becoming enamoured of his wife’s lovers.
McCullers’s rebellion against sexual and gender constrictions, her particular contrariness, seems to have been nourished rather than stifled by the Victorian-era mores of her small-town southern background; she was born in Columbus, Georgia, and returned to her middle-class home, and her doting mother, for solace and comfort intermittently through her life. Unlike her younger contemporary Flannery O’Connor, who grew up in a small Georgia town and lived (as an invalid) with her mother for most of her adult life, McCullers spent as much time in the North as she could, in New York City and the writer’s colonies Yaddo and Bread Loaf; unlike O’Connor, who remained a devout, conservative Catholic with a puritanical distaste for sex, McCullers was inquisitive and open to experimentation, and married romantically young in 1937.
In the posthumously published memoir Illumination and Night Glare, McCullers recalled her naive eighteen-year-old self from the vantage point of her late forties:
When I asked my mother about sex she asked me to come behind the holly tree and said with her sublime simplicity, “Sex, my darling, takes place where you sit down.” I was therefore forced to read sex textbooks, which made it seem so very dull, as well as incredible.
In fact, there are no “sex” scenes in McCullers’s fiction, nor even passages of erotic intensity. There is plenty of passion but there are no characters whose passionate feelings for others are reciprocated. Transcribed with hallucinatory vividness are solitary introspective episodes in which an individual—a “lover”—fantasizes, often with mounting despair, about the “beloved.”
The initial note is struck in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, published when McCullers was twenty-three and had been married for several years—indeed, the very title suggests isolation, aloneness. “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” Though McCullers allegedly knew nothing about deaf-mute persons, she spins out of her imagination a parable-like tale conjoined with a more conventional coming-of-age novel centered upon the epicene Mick Kelly. Hunter is an evocative tragedy of adult dissociation linked, at times awkwardly, to a young adult novel that resists a happy ending: “There were these two things [Mick] could never believe. That Mister Singer had killed himself and was dead. And that she was grown and had to work at Woolworth’s.”
The deaf-mute who is the focus of Mick Kelly’s admiration is named John Singer, a jeweler’s assistant who, in his silence, possesses a mysterious charisma; in Singer’s apparent placidity others in the small Georgia town find comfort as they confide in him. (Singer can read lips.) He is a Christ figure, perhaps. (It is even suggested by an observer that “Mr. Singer is a Jew…. I recognized his race the first time I saw him. From his eyes.”) But he is a savior who cannot save himself. It is his fatal obsession with his companion deaf-mute that destroys him—the secret he can’t confide even to his friend Mick Kelly that he is hopelessly in love with the obese, unattractive, seemingly mentally retarded Antonapoulous, who never reciprocates Singer’s feeling for him.
McCullers’s insistence upon portraying Antonapoulous as unworthy of Singer’s friendship, let alone his devotion, gives the novel a willful, perverse quality; if the reader is baffled by Singer’s devotion, it is possible that, like Christ, he loves without qualification and with infinite forgiveness. It is enough to love; one cannot expect to be loved in return. In the colorful clothes Singer has given him, Antonapoulous resembles an icon, a Buddha:
Antonapoulous was more enormous than [Singer] had remembered. The great pulpy folds of his abdomen showed beneath his silk pajamas. His head was immense against the white pillow. The placid composure of his face was so profound that he seemed hardly to be aware that Singer was with him.
When Antonapoulous dies of Bright’s disease Singer is stricken with grief and kills himself with a pistol, to the astonishment and sorrow of the townspeople.
Reflections in a Golden Eye is another tragic tale of obsessive and unrequited love set in a small Georgia town. McCullers’s more willfully grotesque and self-consciously Gothic second novel lacks the luminous voices of Hunter, as well as its verisimilitude; it is related in a curiously Olympian tone that makes little effort to be poetic and is often heavy with the irony of foreboding:
An army post in peacetime is a dull place. Things happen, but then they happen over and over again…. At the same time things do occasionally happen on an army post that are not likely to re-occur. There is a fort in the South where a few years ago a murder was committed. The participants of this tragedy were: two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse.
The “murder” is rather more an impulsive act of self-defense, when the distraught Captain Penderton discovers an enlisted man crouching by his wife’s bedside in the night; the enlisted man, Private Williams, has been mesmerized by the captain’s voluptuous wife and has stolen into their house numerous times simply to observe her sleeping: “He squatted in the moonlight, his eyes half-closed and a wet smile on his face.” (Of the wife, Lenora, the narrator says bluntly: “Like all very stupid people she had a predilection for the gruesome.”)
But the primary obsession of Reflections in a Golden Eye is that of Penderton himself with the young private, with whom he has had puzzling encounters that leave him frantic with an indefinable emotion. Penderton feels no desire for his wife but rather contempt and revulsion for her female physicality; he cannot acknowledge his desire for the young soldier. Private Williams is a taciturn young man who “did not smoke, drink, fornicate, or gamble,” a tabula rasa that McCullers tries to inscribe with meaning, to account for the deeply repressed homoerotic yearnings he has stirred in his superior officer. The novel’s most striking image is a vision the captain has as he sinks into a sleep induced by Seconal, an anticipation of
a unique and voluptuous sensation; it was as though a great dark bird alighted on his chest, looked at him once with fierce, golden eyes, and stealthily enfolded him in his dark wings.
The “golden eye” would seem to be the all-seeing eye of fate, reflecting an individual’s deepest, unacknowledged desires.
Though it contains strongly written set pieces, including ecstatic descriptions of horseback-riding, Reflections in a Golden Eye is a curiously lifeless work of fiction, populated by zombie-like individuals who, on a US Army base, seem to have nothing to do but interact with one another in shrill melodramatic scenes. Virginia Spencer Carr’s excellent biography of McCullers tracks the young writer’s emotional instability at the time of the composition of this second novel, much of which was written at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, itself a literary hotbed of unstable emotions. McCullers worried, with justification, that her second novel would be a disappointment to the many admirers of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; she could not seem to summon the inspiration she’d felt for Hunter, perhaps because Reflections was prompted by an anecdote she’d heard about a voyeur at a southern army base, and McCullers knew (and cared) little about the actual lives of military officers, in contrast to her familiarity with the townsfolk of Hunter.
By this time too McCullers, although still married, had fallen precipitously in love with a Swiss woman named Annmarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, to whom Reflections is dedicated. Susceptible to sudden, ill-advised infatuations, including one with the coolly disdainful Katherine Ann Porter, McCullers appears to have been gratingly immature and self-absorbed; she was also drinking heavily in her early twenties, and would continue to abuse alcohol for the remainder of her life. It is impossible to determine if McCullers was naturally prone to illnesses (flu, pleurisy, infections, blinding headaches) or whether her drinking shortened her life. She would suffer her first stroke at twenty-four; her final, fatal stroke at fifty.
After the publication of Reflections, which received mixed reviews, McCullers immersed herself in another anecdotal tall tale told in an Olympian voice, perhaps her most idiosyncratic work of fiction—the novella “The Ballad of the Sad Café” (1951). Here, the impossible, obsessive love is that of the moonshiner Miss Amelia, “a powerful blunderbuss of a person more than six feet tall,” for her cousin Lymon, “a weakly little hunchback reaching only to her waist.” If there is something forced and arbitrary about Miss Amelia’s infatuation, which seems less probable even than that of John Singer for his mute, mentally retarded companion, McCullers explains:
Love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself…. It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved…. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved.
It’s as if “The Ballad of the Sad Café” is an illustration of McCullers’s notions about love rather than a work of art in itself.
Handicapped by the detached all-knowing voice, the tale strains credulity; we lose our sympathy for Miss Amelia, who’d been at the outset a brave and audacious “freak” in her community but who becomes, in the end, a humbled and ridiculed figure when Lymon cruelly betrays her with her obtuse ex-husband Marvin Marcy. What might have been lyric tragedy becomes a sort of rural slapstick, ending abruptly with an ungenerous summary of life in the small southern town from which the hunchback has fled: “The soul rots with boredom.”
McCullers’s most fully realized and heartrending work of fiction is The Member of the Wedding (1946), published when the author was twenty-nine and at the height of her imaginative powers. This short lyrical novel is a masterpiece of American vernacular prose—a valentine to the loss of innocence and the resolve to survive that loss. Though saturated with the minutiae of small-town southern life in “the summer when Patton was chasing the Germans across France,” The Member of the Wedding is not sentimental but toughly realistic. The opening plunges us into the restive mind of the prepubescent Frankie Addams:
It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old…. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.
Desperately Frankie wants to be someone—anyone—else: “I wish I was somebody else except me.” Beyond a fear of loneliness she is in terror of her own body:
It was the summer of fear, for Frankie, and there was one fear that could be figured in arithmetic…. This August she was twelve and five-sixths years old. She was five feet five and three quarter inches tall, and she wore a number seven shoe. In the past year she had grown four inches…. If she reached her height on her eighteenth birthday…she would grow to be over nine feet tall…. She would be a Freak.
McCullers is the poet of freakiness—the feeling of being in a body not your own, neither female nor male, but some indefinable, teasing mixture of both that is most keenly felt in adolescence. What more appropriate image of desire than the wedding—the public ritual binding lonely individuals together. Frankie falls helplessly in love with her brother and her brother’s fiancée and with the wedding itself, in this beautifully precise passage:
She stood in the doorway, coming from the hall, and the first sight of her brother and the bride had shocked her heart. Together they made in her this feeling that she could not name. But it was like the feelings of the spring, only more sudden and more sharp.
Like John Singer, Captain Penderton, and Miss Amelia, Frankie Addams has happened upon the object of her romantic yearning seemingly by chance. Though she scarcely knows her older brother Jarvis and doesn’t know his fiancée at all, she projects upon the charismatic young couple her own neediness, not for sexual contact (which, oddly, if not very convincingly, Frankie seems to have had, just one time, with a neighborhood boy, and found repulsive: “The sin made a shriveling sickness in her stomach, and she dreaded the eyes of everyone”) but for an emotional or spiritual redemption. Naively, embarrassingly, Frankie pleads with the astounded couple: “I love the two of you so much and you are the we of me. Please take me with you from the wedding, for we belong to be together.” Titled The Bride during the several years that McCullers was working on it, The Member of the Wedding seems to have shifted its focus from an identification with the bride to an identification with the wedding and the marriage more generally: “The wedding was like a dream outside her power, or like a show unmanaged by her in which she was to have no part.”
Inevitably, Frankie must be disillusioned, humbled by the adult world. She cannot be a “member” of the wedding—she is the freak left behind when the young couple departs. But by the novella’s end Frankie has matured into “Frances”: “Frances was never once to speak about the wedding. Weathers had turned and it was in another season.” There follows the excruciating death of Frankie’s six-year-old cousin John Henry, as if to underscore the irrevocable nature of her experience; Frankie cannot quite believe that the child is dying, that the child dies, of meningitis after ten days of horrific suffering. She hears
in a spell of horror, but a part of her could not believe. John Henry had been screaming for three days and his eyeballs were walled up in a corner, stuck and blind. He lay there finally with his head drawn back in a buckled way, and he had lost the strength to scream. He died the Tuesday after the Fair was gone, a golden morning of the most butterflies, the clearest sky.
That “weathers turn” and life continues after the wedding, and after the death of John Henry, is a fact of life that Frankie, that’s to say, Frances, will learn to accept with a “shock of happiness.”
By this time in her personal life McCullers had become intimately acquainted with grief. Her father had died (in 1944) and her marriage to James Reeves McCullers Jr., allegedly idyllic at the outset, had gradually deteriorated as a result of heavy drinking on the part of both McCullers and Reeves. The two were involved in an intense relationship with the bisexual composer David Diamond that did not end happily. Reeves was jealous of McCullers’s success and of her friends; he pilfered money from their household as early as 1940 (“At that time we’d been married for four years and I could not believe that he would do evil,” she wrote in Illumination and Night Glare) and he forged checks with her name. Susceptible to bouts of delirium tremens, Reeves threatened to commit suicide, and several times tried to coerce McCullers into committing suicide with him. He and McCullers often lived apart; they separated numerous times, were divorced, and (unwisely, as she might have surmised) remarried; their relationship was always stormy, verging upon the psychopathic. Reeves’s alarming and destabilizing presence in McCullers’s life seems certainly to have exacerbated her ill health, as she described in her memoir, referring to a stroke she suffered in Paris in 1946:
In all of his talk of wanting to be a writer, I never saw one single line he’d ever written except his letters. Reeves’ temper became more violent, and one night I felt his hands around my neck and I knew he was going to choke me. I bit him on his thumb with such violence that the blood spurted out and he let me go. The disappointment and the dreadfulness of those days might well have caused the last and final stroke from which I suffered.
In 1953 the unhappy Reeves killed himself by taking an overdose of barbiturates with liquor and Antabuse; as Tennessee Williams observed, “Reeves died, ultimately, out of great love for Carson. His was a desperate loneliness. Without her, he was an empty shell.”
In “The Crack-Up,” Scott Fitzgerald famously acknowledged that he had been “a poor custodian” of his talent. In her emotional and alcoholic excesses, Carson McCullers proved even more reckless with her own: for all of her fame, and the brilliance of her strongest writing, she produced a relatively small body of work, collected here in admirably compact Library of America editions, very capably edited by Carlos L. Dews. An earlier volume includes the five novels, but the more recent volume brings together remaining work, including the outstanding short fiction that brought McCullers to literary prominence in the early 1940s (“Wunderkind,” “The Jockey,” “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud”) with reprints in The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Awards. Here too are essays and poems of varying degrees of quality, as well as McCullers’s stage adaptation of the highly successful The Member of the Wedding, and the plaintively appealing and disjointed memoir-fragment Illumination and Night Glare, which was dictated to an array of different people in the final months of McCullers’s life.
“Illumination” is McCullers’s term for inspiration, epiphany, sudden insight that comes “in a flash, as a religious phenomenon”; “night glare” is her term for her illnesses and bad luck. It was an “illumination” that allowed McCullers to realize, for instance, that John Singer, the symbolic core of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, is a deaf-mute; it was an “illumination” that allowed her to see how the work-in-progress titled The Bride was really about an entire wedding. As McCullers humbly acknowledges:
There were so many frightful times when I was totally “un-illuminated,” and feared that I could never write again. This fear is one of the horrors of an author’s life. Where does work come from? What chance, what small episode will start the chain of creation?…
To come back to “non-illuminations,” the soul is flattened out, and one does not even dare to hope. At times like these I’ve tried praying but even prayers do not seem to help me. I remember the fallow times of other authors and try to draw comfort from them.
I want to be able to write whether in sickness or in health, for indeed, my health depends almost completely upon my writing.