This Day In Writing History
On June 4th, 1940, the celebrated novel The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter made its debut. Carson McCullers' brilliant first novel, set in the Depression-era American South, told the story of four ragtag misfits whose varied lives have several things in common - loneliness, isolation, and seemingly unattainable dreams.
The four people are Mick Kelly, a restless 14-year-old tomboy with androgynous looks and musical talent forced to be a mother to her siblings and go to work to support her family; Jake Blount, an itinerant, alcoholic laborer whose socialist convictions get him into trouble; Dr. Benedict Copeland, a black physician who suffers from both tuberculosis and his desire to help free his people from racist oppression; and Biff Brannon, a married cafe owner whose masculine appearance masks his inner struggle to come to terms with his bisexuality.
All four characters are connected by a mutual friend, John Singer, an intelligent deaf-mute who can write, sign, and read lips. They all find peace in Singer's kindness, wisdom, and willingness to listen to and understand them. What they don't know is that Singer is just like them and is suffering in silence. His companion of ten years - a big Greek man and fellow deaf-mute named Spiros Antonapoulos - became mentally ill and was institutionalized by a relative. While Singer was there to listen to other people's problems and comfort them, there is no one to listen to Singer and comfort him, which ultimately leads to tragedy.
All the characters in the novel are sad and intriguing, though there is nothing sentimental about their sadness. In fact, one of the novel's main themes is the selfish nature of loneliness and emotional detachment. The most intriguing characters are Mick Kelly and Biff Brannon, with their sexual ambiguity. At first, Mick dresses like a boy and acts like one, too. But after experiencing her first relationship with a boyfriend, (Harry, a Jewish neighbor boy) which results in her first sexual experience, Mick changes her appearance, dressing and acting more like a woman.
Biff Brannon, impotent and emotionally distant from his wife, finds himself sexually attracted to the boyish-looking Mick, but rather than act on it, he keeps his emotional distance. After Mick starts dressing and acting like a woman, Biff loses sexual interest in her, but warms up to her emotionally. After his wife Alice dies, Biff feels little grief - their marriage was loveless - but he starts wearing her clothes and perfume.
There is also a strong homoerotic tone to the relationship between John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos - in the beginning, the two deaf-mute men walk together arm in arm, and later, Singer longs for his institutionalized companion - but they are not specifically described as a gay couple.
Carson McCullers was only 23 years old when The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was published. For such a young novelist to have crafted such a profoundly deep novel is amazing. The book became an overnight success, with rave reviews from critics who admired McCullers' handling of racial issues (Dr. Copeland is angry with his fellow blacks who refuse to stand up for their rights and choose to accept their unequal status in society with aplomb) and the evils of anti-communist hysteria. Her novel would foreshadow the coming of both the civil rights movement and the anti-communist witch hunts that would take place a decade after its publication.
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was adapted as a feature film in 1968, (starring Alan Arkin as John Singer) and as a stage play in 2005.
Quote Of The Day
“The writer by nature of his profession is a dreamer and a conscious dreamer. He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love?” - Carson McCullers
Today's Vanguard Video features an interview with Marielle Bancou, a close friend of Carson McCullers, who talks about the legendary writer. Enjoy!