Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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More about Carson McCullers on this site

Major works (novels and short stories)


  • The Member of the Wedding
  • The Square Root of Wonderful

Biographies and Autobiographies

More Information

Articles, News, Etc.

Film adaptations

Visit Carson McCullers’ Home and Archive

Carson McCullers Quotes

Carson McCullers“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are gone, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.”

“I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen.”

“My advice to you is this. Do not attempt to stand alone …The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone.” (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 1940)

“What are the sources of an illumination? To me, they come after hours of searching and keeping my soul ready. Yet they come in a flash, as a religious phenomenon. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter had such an illumination, beginning my long search for the truth of the story and flashing light into the long two years ahead.”

“There is no stillness like the quiet of the first cold nights in the fall.” (The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories, 1951)

“The theme is the theme of humiliation, which is the square root of sin, as opposed to the freedom from humiliation, and love, which is the square root of wonderful.”

“It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright.” (The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories, 1951)

“All we can do is go around telling the truth.” (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 1940)

“It was better to be in a jail where you could bang the walls than in a jail you could not see.” (The Member of the Wedding, 1946)

“Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.” (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 1940)

“We wander, question. But the answer waits in each separate heart – the answer of our own identity and the way by which we can master loneliness and feel that at last we belong.” (The Mortgaged Heart: Selected Writings, 1971)

Carson McCullers“Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want —I want —I want —was all that she could think about–but just what this real want was she did no know.” (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 1940)

“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? I once wrote a story about a writer who could not write anymore, and my friend Tennessee Williams said, ‘How could you dare write that story, it’s the most frightening work I have ever read.’ I was pretty well sunk while I was writing it.”

“The thinking mind is best controlled by the imagination.” (Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers, 1999)

“The writer by nature of his profession is a dreamer and a conscious dreamer. He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love?”

“How can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?” (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 1940)

“The mind is like a richly woven tapestry in which the colors are distilled from the experiences of the senses, and the design drawn from the convolutions of the intellect.”

“…most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many.” (The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories, 1951)

“She wished there was some place where she could go to hum it out loud. Some kind of music was too private to sing in a house cram fall of people. It was funny, too, how lonesome a person could be in a crowded house.” (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 1940)

“We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.”

Carson McCullers and friend“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.” (The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories, 1951)

“For fear is a primary source of evil. And when the question “Who am I?” recurs and is unanswered, then fear and frustration project a negative attitude. The bewildered soul can answer only: “Since I do not understand ‘Who I am,’ I only know what I am not.”  (The Mortgaged Heart: Selected Writings, 1971)

“The way I need you is a loneliness I cannot bear.”

“I never read my reviews. If they’re good, they might give me the big-head, and if they are unfavorable, I would be depressed. So why bother?”

“Why does one write? Truly it is financially the most ill-rewarded occupation in the world. My lawyer has figured out how much I made from the book The Member of the Wedding, and it is, over the five years I worked on it, twenty-eight cents a day.”

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