Ballad Of The Sad Café by Carson McCullers (1951)

Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers - cover 1951

The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers was first published in 1951. The original book (shown at right) included, in addition to the title novella, Carson’s other major works of fiction. In later editions, the title novella is presented with six short stories, as follows:

  • “The Ballad of the Sad Café”
  • “Wunderkind”
  • “The Jockey”
  • “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland”
  • “The Sojourner”
  • “A Domestic Dilemma”
  • “A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud”

The title story, written in the genre of Southern Gothic, concerns Miss Amelia, a masculine and eccentric woman (who is also a moonshiner), her purported cousin Lymon (a hunchback), and Marvin Macy, a recently released convict two whom Miss Amelia was briefly married.

The story takes place in an isolated small town in rural Georgia in the 1930s. Lymon, a stranger to the area, approaches Miss Amelia, claiming to be her cousin. Uncharacteristically, she takes him into her home, setting rumors swirling. What has Lemon got in his suitcase? Is that what Miss Amelia is after?

Eight of the town’s men enter Miss Amelia’s store to figure out what might be going on between Miss Amelia and the hunchback. Suddenly feeling hospitable, she serves everyone crackers and booze, thus starting a tradition of Sunday meetings in the café.

It seems that Miss Amelia fallen in love with Lymon — could that be why she’s suddenly a softer, kinder version of the hard-edged woman the townspeople thought they knew? Complications arise when Marvin Macy returns to town after serving time for a string of felonies.

Gaining Lymon’s trust and admiration, Macy uses him to take revenge on Miss Amelia, who had broken his heart before he was incarcerated. When Macy and Miss Amelia come to physical blows, Lymon jumps her, allowing Macy to gain the advantage. The two men ransack the café, steal all the money and valuables, and flee.

And so goes another strange Southern Gothic tale by Carson McCullers. Bizarre as this plot line might seem, the story was made into a stage play by noted playwright Edward Albee (1963).

It was also adapted to a 1991 film of the same name starring Vanessa Redgrave and Keith Carradine. The film version of The Ballad of the Sad Café got mostly negative reviews, with critics calling it “murky nonsense,” “majestically wrongheaded,” “a stock catalogue of clichés,” and the like.

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The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

Photo by Anna Fiore
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The original review from the year of the book’s publication concerns itself only with the title story:

An original 1951 review of Ballad of the Sad Café

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.

Miss Amelia

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 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.

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Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

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Quotes from The Ballad of the Sad Café

“A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lillies of the swamp.”

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“There is no stillness like the quiet of the first cold nights in the fall.”

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“First of all, 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.”

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“… 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 beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

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“But no value has been put on human life; it is given to us free and taken without being paid for. What is it worth? If you look around, at times the value may seem to be little or nothing at all. Often after you have sweated and tried and things are not better for you, there comes a feeling deep down in the soul that you are not worth much.”

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“By the moonlight he watched his wife for the last time. His hand sought the adjacent flesh and sorrow paralleled desire in the immense complexity of love.”

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The heart is a lonely hunter by Carson McCullers

See also: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
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