Carson McCullers, Author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The lonely hunter - a biography of Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917– September 29, 1967) was an American author of novels and short stories. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (published when she was just twenty-three) is arguably her best-known work. Many of her short stories have retained a prominent place in the American canon.

Born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, her parents, Lamar Smith, a jeweler, and Marguerite Waters Smith, provided her and her two siblings with a comfortable middle-class life.

Lula Carson was their first-born child. Her parents 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.

Young Lula Carson 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.

Like the adolescent girl Frankie Addams in her novella The Member of the Wedding, She renamed herself at age thirteen, dropping her first name in favor of her middle name, thereafter known as Carson.

At the age of fifteen, she contracted rheumatic fever, and from that point on, struggled with frequent illness and physical discomfort.


Writing across genres

Carson 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.

Her work is primarily associated with the genre known as Southern Gothic, which is defined by the Oxford Research Encyclopedia:

“Characteristics of Southern Gothic include the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation.”

She has earned a place among classic southern writers, along with William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams.


A move to New York City

Upon graduating from high school, Lula Carson Smith left Columbus and moved to New York City with 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 to Reeves McCullers

During a trip back home in 1935, McCullers met Reeves McCullers. They were married in 1937, and she adopted his last name. We’ll refer to her from this point as “McCullers.”

The relationship of Reeves and Carson McCullers “was not a traditional marriage,” Sara Nalley noted 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.

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Carson McCullers the Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Quotes from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

McCullers’ first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940 and she became the toast of the contemporary literary scene. The novel was wildly successful. Later, she said that she was “much too young to understand what happened to me or the responsibility it entailed.”

The novel displayed wisdom far beyond her years as an examination of individual loneliness and as a statement on class and race in America. Richard Wright, the noted Black author, could be a tough critic, but he had only praise for this debut novel in his review in The New Republic (August, 1940):

“To me the most impressive aspect of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle African-American characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race.

This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”

Her next three works, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), The Member of the Wedding (1946), The Ballad of the Sad Café: and Other Stories (1951), and Clock Without Hands  (1961) have stood the test of time as influential works in the Southern Gothic genre.


Successful plays, then 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.”

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Final years and legacy

McCullers’ September 29, 1967 obituary in the Associated Press, filed from Nyack, NewYork, 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 Member of the Wedding (1950)
  • The Square Root of Wonderful (1958)

Biographies, memoir, and miscellany

  • The Mortgaged Heart (1972; various unpublished writings edited by her sister Rita)
  • The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers by Virginia Spencer Carr (1975)
  • Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography
    by Carson McCullers and Carol L. Dews (1990)
  • Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau (1995)
  • Carson McCullers in the 21st Century, edited by Alison Graham-Bertolini (2016)

More Information

Film adaptations

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