Ballad Of The Sad Cafe (1951) by Carson McCullers – A Review
The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers was first published in 1951. The original book included, in addition to the title novella, Carson’s now-classic Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding, and even the heftier novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. In later editions, the title novella is presented with six short stories: “Wunderkind”, “The Jockey”, “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland”, “The Sojourner”, “A Domestic Dilemma” and “A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud”.
The original review from when the book came out in 1951 concerns itself only with the title story:
From The Daily Plainsman (Huron, South Dakota) · Sun, Sep 16, 1951: Since we do not attempt to make a living by writing about books, fortunate circumstance, it may be confessed that we have previously read nothing by Carson McCullers. It is further acknowledged that we dipped into this one because of the title.
Anyone who can contrive a title as interesting as The Ballad of the Sad Cafe deserves a special prize. We put it in our list of best titles, someplace between For Whom the Bell Tolls and Joe, The Wounded Tennis Player. Curiosity was rewarded for The Ballad of the Sad Café is a fine and sensitive piece of writing.
There is an old building in a sleepy little Southern town. It is boarded up and silent. “On the second floor there is one window which is not boarded: sometimes in the late afternoon when the heat is at its worst a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town. It is a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams–sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief.”
This is Amelia. But once her building was a bustling store where the mill workers came to buy their meal and sorghum: and once it was a cafe, the social center of the town, and Amelia, who operated a fine distillery out in the country, served liquor to her friends.
The Ballad of the Sad Café on Amazon
The hunchback and the ex-husband
Then one day a little old hunchback came to town. The tough Amelia is fascinated and curious affection develops between the two. Once long ago Amelia had been married. It was an unsatisfactory, then-day affair, and her husband, a shiftless sort, drifted into the penitentiary. After his release he returns to Amelia, strumming his old guitar and causing trouble all around.
Rivalry is now created among the three which ends in a public fist fight between Amelia and her ex-husband. But the hunchback assists the husband; they smash up the cafe and leave town. For three years Miss Amelia sits on her front steps waiting for the hunchback who never returns.
“A little glance of grief and lonely recognition”
In the fourth year she boards up the premises, and in those darkened rooms she still lives. “Miss Amelia let her hair grow ragged, and it was turning gray. Her face lengthened, and the great muscles of her body shrank until she was thin as old maid are thin when they go crazy. And those gray eyes–slowly day by day they were more crossed, and it was as though they sought each other out to exchange a little glance of grief and lonely recognition.”
Mrs. McCullers with the fine hand of a craftsman and the insight of a poet explores the emotions of jealousy and loneliness in the troubled depths of abnormal personality. She leads us “down by the dim lake of Auber in the misty mid region of Weir.” After only fifteen years of writing this young author has secured a place of eminence in American letters. We are ready to climb on the bandwagon for surely here is some of the finest writing in current literature.
You might also like this review of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
More about The Ballad of the Sad Café
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- Ballad of the Sad Café stage play (1963)
- Film version on IMDB (1991)
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