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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.
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. She was quoted as saying that she was “much too young to understand what happened to me or the responsibility it entailed.”
See also: Best-Loved Quotes by Carson McCullers
Successful plays, 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. She adapted The Member of the Wedding herself and collaborated with Edward Albee on The Ballad of the Sad Café.
Her second play, The Square Root of Wonderful, didn’t 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.
Insights from a biography
The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers, offered these insights on the enigmatic McCullers: Carson McCullers wrote a strange, powerful kind of fiction, tender and grotesque at the same time, and peopled with characters who bore some mark of deformity, physical or psychic. This tiny, boyish author, who burst on the literary scene sensationally at the age of twenty-three, was every bit as eccentric in real life as any of her vibrant, Gothic creations.
Capable of the wildest infatuations for members of either sex, she lived all her life in a world of her own making, a world where fact and fancy were indistinguishable, and where her truest, deepest friends were often the colorful, outlandish characters she conjured up in her writing.
It was a life marked constantly by tragedy, exemplified in her stormy marriage to Reeves McCullers … she was herself paralyzed and crippled in later years by a series of violent strokes, which left her an invalid, on and off, for the rest of her life.
Her story, too, is of a great artist who overcame these handicaps to produce stunning literary works: poetry, plays, and especially novels. And it is the story of her friends, Tennessee Williams, Dame Edith Sitwell, and countless others who loved her, and sometimes hated her, too but always stood in awe of the courage, vitality, and indestructible genius which gave meaning to the oddly isolated inner life of Carson McCullers, the loneliest hunter of all.
Final years and legacy
McCullers’ September 29, 1967 obituary in the Associated Press, filed from Nyack, NY, stated that she described herself as the “’holy terror’” of the early 1940s literary scene, despite a series of crippling strokes that kept her in a wheelchair most of the time, and established herself as one of the top American writers of the twentieth century.
In the course of her career, she won two Guggenheim fellowships and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A film version of her novel Reflection in a Golden Eye, released the month after her death, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, and Julie Harris.
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 put her in a coma for about a month and a half. It was one of many strokes she had suffered throughout her life. Carson McCullers was fifty years old at the time of her death.
More about Carson McCullers on this site
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
- Member of the Wedding (1952)
- Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968)
- Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991)
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