Carson McCullers, who once loomed large in the mid-twentieth-century literature of the South, now seems the smallest bird on the branch that holds William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, Richard Wright, and McCullers’s close friend Tennessee Williams. Her precocious talent survived her turbulent marriage, her fragile health, and her drinking (she carried a thermos of spiked tea to her desk each morning), but her pace slowed. Two disabling strokes when she was thirty almost ended her career. Many surgeries followed. It took McCullers over ten years to complete her final novel, Clock Without Hands (1961). She died six years later at fifty. “She was a tragic figure in a way,” recalled Edward Albee, “but she was very, very good at being a tragic figure. I think that amused her, too, in part.”
Loneliness, isolation, and obsessive love: McCullers never buried her central themes. “Certainly I have always felt alone,” she wrote in a preface to one of her plays. A connoisseur of yearning, attuned to its quirks and variations, she realized that love itself—the subjective experience of love—is so transporting that, for some, the longed-for mutual connection can be almost beside the point. Her own great loves—always women—tended not to return her devotion: “I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen,” she added.
The passionate oddballs in her fiction fasten almost randomly on others. In her debut, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), four Georgia townspeople cling to a polite deaf-mute jewelry repairman named John Singer, about whom they know almost nothing. One at a time, they visit his boarding house room and talk at him for hours, resenting the occasional overlap in visitors. His silence is no impediment; in fact, it helps. Their sense of intimacy with Singer sustains their private dreams. The town’s black physician, Doctor Copeland, for instance, burns with purpose—his mission is no less than the moral and intellectual awakening of his race in the South—while thirteen-year-old Mick, whose family struggles for every dime, listens outside her neighbors’ windows at night until their radios go silent, plotting her career as a composer. Singer’s visitors consider him their one friend—the ideal listener—while Singer himself pines for his deaf-mute companion, Antonapoulos, who cannot sign or read:
Sometimes he thought of Antonapoulos with awe and self- abasement, sometimes with pride—always with love unchecked by criticism, freed of will. When he dreamed at night the face of his friend was always before him, massive and gentle. And in his waking thoughts they were eternally united.
If Antonapoulos loved him back, this would not be a Carson McCullers novel. Severely limited emotionally and intellectually (McCullers never spells out his disabilities), Antonapoulos has eyes only for booze and sweets.
When The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter appeared…
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