The Poet of Freakiness

Complete Novels

by Carson McCullers, edited by Carlos L. Dews
Library of America, 827 pp., $35.00
Magnum Photos
Carson McCullers, Nyack, New York, 1947; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

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…

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