Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917– September 29, 1967) was an American author of novels and short stories. Born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, on February 19, 1917. Like the adolescent girl Frankie in her novel, The Member of the Wedding, McCullers renamed herself at age thirteen, dropping her first name in favor of her middle name.
Her parents, Lamar Smith, a jeweler, and Marguerite Waters Smith, provided their three children with a comfortable middle-class life. Carson was their first born child, and they considered her an artistic genius and encouraged her interests, especially music. Lynne Greeley, writing in Theatre History Studies, refers to Carson McCullers as “the preferred child” in her family.
Writing across genres
McCullers is known primarily for her novels, but she also wrote two plays, a number of short stories, children’s poetry, and other works. Most of her work is set in the American South and involves people struggling with loneliness and feelings of isolation. Many critics place her among the best southern writers, along with William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams.
A lonely and mediocre student
McCullers felt that she was an outsider and a loner. Her school days were marked by mediocre grades and the stares of fellow students at her eccentric dress and gangly height of nearly five feet, nine inches. When she was fifteen, she contracted rheumatic fever. From that point on, her life was a constant struggle with illness and physical discomfort.
A move to NYC
As soon as she graduated from high school, McCullers left Columbus and moved to New York City. She had plans to attend the Juilliard School of Music. Because of a lack of money—sources differ on whether her funds were mismanaged by a family friend or stolen—she ended up working various day jobs and attending night classes first at New York University and then at Columbia University during 1935 and 1936. In 1936, one of her professors at Columbia helped get her first short story, “Wunderkind,” published in Story magazine.
A troubled marriage
During a trip back home in 1935, McCullers met Reeves McCullers. They were married in 1937. Their relationship “was not a traditional marriage,” as Sara Nalley notes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and they lived together only on occasion. Historians have noted the author’s deep and passionate friendships with other women as an inhibiting factor in her marriage. Others have described a marriage fraught with tension, violence, and substance abuse.
According to McCullers in the introduction to her play The Square Root of Wonderful, her husband’s disappointment in his own attempt to launch a literary career is echoed in the play’s portrayal of Phillip Lovejoy. The couple divorced in 1941 but remarried in 1945. Reeves McCullers committed suicide in 1953.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940. McCullers became the toast of the literary scene. The novel was wildly successful, as were her next three works, all published before her thirtieth birthday. These were Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Ballad of the Sad Café, and The Member of the Wedding.
See also: Best-Loved Quotes by Carson McCullers
A successful play, and a flop
McCullers adapted The Member of the Wedding for the stage in 1951, winning that year’s New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Her second play, The Square Root of Wonderful, did not fare as well. Produced in 1957 for Broadway, it played for only forty-five performances and received nearly unanimously poor reviews. The failure of this play crushed McCullers. Her health continued to diminish, and she never published another play.
Her final novel, Clock Without Hands, received favorable reviews, but her great successes were behind her. She died on September 29, 1967, in Nyack, New York, after a stroke—one of many she had suffered throughout her life.
— adapted from Encyclopedia.com
More about Carson McCullers on this site
- Carson McCullers obituary (1967)
- 12 quotes from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
- Best-Loved Quotes by Carson McCullers
Major works (novels and short stories)
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
- Reflections in a Golden Eye
- The Ballad of the Sad Café: And Other Stories
- The Member of the Wedding
- Clock Without Hands
- The Member of the Wedding
- The Square Root of Wonderful
Biographies and Autobiographies
- Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography
by Carson McCullers and Carol L. Dews
- The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers by Virginia Spencer Carr
- Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau
- Carson McCullers on Wikipedia
- The Carson McCullers Project
- The Carson McCullers Center at Columbus State University
- Carson McCullers Society
- Reader discussion of Carson McCuller’s books on Goodreads
- Carson McCullers page on Amazon.com
Articles, News, Etc.
- Carson McCullers vs. Thomas Pynchon
- Lunch with Carson McCullers, Isak Dinesen, and Marilyn Monroe
- Carson McCullers Understood Human Nature
- Nyack Sketch Log: Celebrate Carson McCullers
Visit Carson McCullers’ Home and Archive
- The Smith-McCullers House Museum – Columbus, GA
- Carson McCullers’ Archives – Columbus State University, Columbus, GA
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