The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940)

The heart is a lonely hunter by Carson McCullers

From the 1940 edition, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston: Carson McCullers was only twenty-three whenThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published, but her insights into human nature showed wisdom beyond her years. The novel was acclaimed as the work of a prodigy by critics and fellow writers.

Through its unforgettable characters, the story delves into their struggle to build bridges between their separate islands of loneliness. The people who we come to know in the book all, in some odd way, seek some answer to their confused desires from to extract from Singer, a deaf mute.

The characters move around Singer, a man of mystical understanding, in an intricate dance of hope and despair: Mick, and adolescent ardently longing to express herself in music; Jake Blount, a wild, blundering reformer; Dr. Copeland, the African-American patriarch. Their appeal to Singer is the appeal of all humanity to a silent, cryptic universe.

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The heart is a lonely hunter by Carson McCullers

12 Quotes from the Heart is a Lonely Hunter
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In a sense The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was ahead of its time. No writer in the past twenty years has stated America’s racial dilemma so simply and dramatically. Richard Wright, reviewing the novel in 1940, wrote:

“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.”

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The heart is a lonely hunter by Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter on Amazon
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A 1940 review of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was almost universally well received when it was published; here’s one such review:

From a review by Dorothea P. Radin of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, The Oakland Tribune, July 1940: Loneliness, not despair, is the theme: Young author’s novel keeps human balance despite tragic tale.

This fine and feeling novel is of a kind to make writing seem important. It is a picture of life in a Southern mill town of 30,000 inhabitants, and the characters of the story are poor. None of them is completely educated, and they are all caught in the circumstances of a society which make decent life impossible.

But although they are engaged in an unequal struggle, they have no inner lack of vitality, and it is this fact which makes the book not simply sad, but of the moment. For these puzzled, ill-directed Americans are people to rouse our interest, to like, and to respect.

An idiom for each character

In Carson McCullers’ writing there is an individual note, and her idiom is one over which she has complete control. It is not merely the contemporary manner, it is her own. Her trick of writing about each character in the words that character uses is especially successful.

Sometimes these words are coarse or indecent, but they are necessary in describing what she intends to make us see; and if the effect they produce is less of being hit by a sledgehammer than of being doused by a bucket of water, it is probably just this variety of shock that is required to stir so self-satisfied a society as ours.

So the speech of the black characters — Portia, Willie, Highboy — though new in our literature, as a truthful ring; and the precise words Portia’s tragic, educated father uses are equally revealing of his strained idealism.

Unhappy characters

Of the rather unusually large number of clearly drawn characters, four stand out: Mick, the gifted child with the passion for music and for life, the brightest creation in the book; Biff, the humane, puzzled restaurant-keeper; Jake, the drunken, violent Marxist, made ineffectual by his feeling of inferiority; and Benedict Copeland, the black doctor struggling harshly and without chance of success to uplift his race.

They are all fascinated by the deaf-mute, Singer. His remoteness makes him in their eyes a kindly god, already possessed of the secret of living.

They never guess his own utter loneliness and lack of understanding of the world, and when, heartbroken over the death of his one friend, another deaf-mute in an asylum, Singer commits suicide, the others lose their last connection with happiness.

Dr. Copeland, dying of tuberculosis and knowing all his aims defeated, is carried off into the country by his family. Jake, after taking part in a riot, has to escape from the town. Biff has a brief vision of what life means in perhaps the least successful passage of the book, but he has lost the first strength of his feeling for people.

And Mick, an unforgettable figure, a creature of her environment and of her day, but all warmth and spirit, we last see at fifteen already a dime-store drudge, too tired by night to get out her secret music notebook.

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Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers - cover 1951

See also: The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers
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Young author of twenty-two

The publishers make a good deal of the astonishing fact that the author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a girl of twenty-two.

There is little evidence of her youth in the depth and maturity of the novel, only perhaps in the extreme gravity with which she writes, and in a slight tendency to pile up tragedies … selection might make the truth appear more true. We cannot agonize over Job’s hundredth affliction.

Yet so powerful a hold does the book have over us that we rush to defend it against even such faint criticism. If Carson McCullers is nowhere gay, she has nevertheless a balance that is very near humor. Portia trying to get closer to her father by cooking him collards in his austere kitchen is both tender and very near funny.

And if the tragic events heap high, still they do not produce the effect of a frustrated world. The theme is loneliness, but the book is not pessimistic. The large tenderness for a portion of our society little seen in our literature and the lack of squeamishness in dealing with it are noble and courageous.

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Carson McCullers

Learn more about Carson McCullers
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The member of the wedding by Carson McCullers

See also: The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
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