Carson McCullers’ Mick Kelly: The Tomboy Author & Heroine
By Francis Booth | On January 26, 2021 | Updated March 17, 2023 | Comments (0)
This literary musing on Mick Kelly, the complex yet lovable tomboy character in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, is excerpted from Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in mid-20th Century Women’s Fiction by Francis Booth. Reprinted by permission.
Carson McCullers (1917–1967) was born Lula Carson Smith but chose to use the gender-neutral Carson; she was the epitome of the literary tomboy: as tall as a man, with long, lanky limbs, short, bobbed hair, boyish dress, and elfin face – the ideal author to create fictional tomboys.
McCullers had intended to be a musician rather than a writer, and at one time thought she might become a professional pianist. She was never academic and did not enjoy school; she was beaten up during her first week in high school and, as she says in her autobiography:
“I still wanted to be a concert pianist so my parents did not make me go every day. I just went enough to keep up with the classes. Now, years later, the high school teachers who taught me are extremely puzzled that anyone as negligent as I was could be a successful author. The truth is I don’t believe in school, whereas I believe very strongly in a thorough musical education. My parents agreed with me. I’m sure I missed certain social advantages by being such a loner but it never bothered me.”
Though her piano teacher encouraged her, McCullers “realized that Daddy would not be able to send me to Juilliard or any other great school of music to study.’ So she told him that she had ‘switched professions,’ and was going to be a writer. “That was something I could do at home, and I wrote every morning.”
. . . . . . . . .
Literary Tomboys in Classic Coming-of-Age Novels by Women Authors
. . . . . . . . .
In “Wunderkind,” McCullers’ first published story (1936) — she was only nineteen years old and a wunderkind herself — the teenage Frances is a precocious piano student, as McCullers herself was before she turned to writing; we will see shortly how for Mick Kelly in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, having a piano would be the most wonderful thing in the world.
In ‘Wunderkind’ Frances has a negative kind of coming of age when she is suddenly unable to face the piano.
‘She felt that the marrows of her bones were hollow and there was no blood left in her. Her heart that had been springing against her chest all afternoon felt suddenly dead. She saw it gray and limp and shriveled at the edges like an oyster.’
McCullers became even better known as a wunderkind when her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940. She took the literary world’s breath away at the age of twenty-two; in the publicity photo, she looks even younger, like an eager, doe-eyed, chipmunk-faced teenager, though she is holding a cigarette in a very adult manner, as she nearly always is in photos.
Mick Kelly— at the heart of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
A gangling, towheaded youngster, a girl of about twelve, stood looking in the doorway. She was dressed in khaki shorts, a blue shirt, and tennis shoes – so that at first glance she was like a very young boy.
This is very much in line with descriptions of typical tomboys, as well as contemporary descriptions of McCullers herself. Mick – we are not told her birth name – is part of a large cast of strange characters, including two deaf-mutes, in a poor, isolated southern town that could easily be a setting for a Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor story but could also be Columbus, Georgia where McCullers was born.
One of the characters is Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Cafe, with “two fists and a quick tongue,” who has “a special friendly feeling for sick people and cripples,” including Mick – especially Mick. She is certainly an outsider even though she is not sick or crippled.
“He thought of the way Mick narrowed her eyes and pushed back the bangs of her hair with the palm of her hand. He thought of her hoarse, boyish voice and her habit of hitching up her khaki shorts and swaggering like a cowboy in the picture show. A feeling of tenderness came in him. He was uneasy.”
Although Mick is described as being like a young boy, she’s rather tall for her age, as was McCullers herself, and completely fearless, as McCullers wasn’t. “Five feet six inches tall and a hundred and three pounds, and she was only thirteen. Every kid at the party was a runt beside her.”
Despite her tomboyishness and rough clothes, she has the pretensions and dreams of any teenager – any teenage boy, anyway.
McCullers’ sympathetic portrayal of African Americans
Another character who is fond of Mick is Portia, the daughter of the town’s Black doctor, a wise and almost saintly figure. McCullers’ sympathetic portrayal of African Americans and the way her Southern characters show no prejudice was quite shocking for 1940, though probably helped with her critical reception by the East Coast literary elite.
Portia’s Shakespearean name and the fact that her father is a doctor imply her parents had an education way beyond what would be expected of Southern Black families of the time, though she does talk in a kind of dialect. Portia works as a maid in the Kelly household but complains to her father that she is not being paid properly.
Reviewing Lonely Hunter in 1940, Black author Richard Wright had remarked upon “the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race.”
. . . . . . . . .
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
. . . . . . . . .
Mick’s passion for music
But the biggest thing in Mick’s life in music, especially classical music; she walks around the streets of the town in the evenings listening to the radios in the houses playing different stations.
“There was one special fellow’s music that made her heart shrink up every time she heard it. Sometimes this fellow’s music was like little colored pieces of crystal candy, and other times it was the softest, saddest thing she had ever imagined about.”
The composer turns out to be Mozart, though she cannot at first spell his name and has no idea who he is. She also listens to music by someone who turns out to be Beethoven; it makes her face her own littleness – big as she is she does not contain multitudes.
“Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.”
The thing Mick wants most in the world is a piano: “If we had a piano I’d practice every single night and learn every piece in the world.”
She also wants to write music, and notes down snatches of songs, “but she didn’t feel satisfied with them. If you could write a symphony!” In the private box that, like most teenage girls, she has under her bed, Mick has a notebook; she draws five lines across a test page.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Girls in Bloom by Francis Booth is available on Amazon US & UK
Girls in Bloom in full on Issuu
. . . . . . . . .
Odd girl out in the family
Mick is in the middle of her family: her eldest sibling is Bill and she also has younger brothers, including Bubber. Mick also has two older sisters, Hazel and Etta, with whom she shares a room and who are “O.K. as far as sisters went.” The older girls complain about Mick’s “silly boys clothes,” but it is exactly because she has older sisters that she wears them.
“I wear shorts because I don’t want to wear your old hand-me-downs. I don’t want to be like either of you and I don’t want to look like either of you. And I won’t. That’s why I wear shorts. I’d rather be a boy any day, and I wish I could move in with Bill.”
An unexpected coming of age
Mick’s coming of age, such as it is, begins with a party she decides to hold at her house and the clothes she decides to wear for it.
“She stood in front of the mirror a long time, and finally decided she either looked like a sap or else she looked very beautiful. One way or the other… she stuck the rhinestones in her hair and put on plenty of lipstick and paint. When she finished she lifted up her chin and half-closed her eyes like a movie star. Slowly she turned her face from one side to the other. It was beautiful she looked – just beautiful. She didn’t feel like herself at all. She was somebody different from Mick Kelly entirely.”
The party gets out of hand and many people come uninvited, though nothing especially bad happens to her or anyone else. It ends with her and the others running around playing in ditches outdoors like children. But Mick is no longer a child by the time she gets home.
“Her old shorts and shirt were lying on the floor just where she had left them. She put them on. She was too big to wear shorts any more after this. No more after this night. Not any more.”
Contemplating Mick maturing, McCullers uses the character of Biff to rehearse a rather bizarre but obviously highly personal and deeply heartfelt meditation on intersexuality.
Mick had grown so much in the past year that she would be taller than he was. She dressed in the red sweater and blue pleated skirt she had worn every day since school started. Now the pleats had come out and the hem dragged loose around her sharp, jutting knees. She was at the age when she looked as much like an overgrown boy as a girl.
Mick never seems to have any feelings for other girls, and there aren’t any in the novel. But she does get quite close to the boy Harry, who is very passionate about fascism and world events.
They take a trip out to the lake to have a picnic one day; taking off their bathing suits, “they turned towards each other. Maybe it was half an hour they stood there – maybe not more than a minute,” before Harry says they ought to get dressed.
But then it happens, or at least it seems to: McCullers draws an impressionistic veil over it but shows how Mick’s coming of age is advanced by it.
An uneasy segue to young womanhood
Mick’s coming of age does not turn out the way she hoped: she goes directly from tomboy schoolgirl to overworked, overtired, and defeated mature woman when, to help the family’s disastrous finances, Mick leaves school to work in a shop, her dreams and ambitions unrealized.
While she was still at school, when she came home “she felt good and was ready to start working on the music. But now she was always too tired.”
Then things get even worse: John Singer dies; he is the deaf mute at the center of Lonely Hunter. Singer has been a lodger at the Kelly house and been very sympathetic to Mick, who had become quite obsessed with him (though not in a sexual way). “There were these two things she could never believe. That Mister Singer had killed himself and was dead. And that she was grown and had to work at Woolworth’s.”
“She was the one who found him. They had thought the noise was a backfire from a car, and it was not until the next day that they knew. She went in to play the radio. The blood was all over his neck and when her dad came he pushed her out the room. She had run from the house. The shock wouldn’t let her be still. She had run into the dark and hit herself with her fists. And then the next night he was in a coffin in the living room.”
All this changes Mick irrevocably. Biff notices the changes more perhaps than Mick herself. Mick has never had any idea of Biff’s feelings for her, which in any case have evaporated with her coming of age. Biff preferred Mick as a tomboy to Mick as a grown woman. By the end, Mick grows philosophical about her new womanhood.
More literary tomboys to explore in Girls in Bloom
- Charlie Laborde (“Charlie” by Kate Chopin, 1900)
- Peggy Vaughan (A Terrible Tomboy by Angela Brazil, 1904)
- Irene Ashleigh (A Modern Tomboy: A Story for Girls by LT Meade, 1913)
- Petrova Fossil (Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, 1932)
- George Fayne (The Secret of Red Gate Farm by ‘Caroline Keene’, 1931)
- George Kirrin (Five On a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton, 1942)
- Frankie Addams (The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, 1946)
Contributed by Francis Booth, the author of several books on twentieth century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938; High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England.