This Day In Writing History
On February 19th, 1917, the famous American writer Carson McCullers was born. She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia. Her mother was the granddaughter of a Confederate war hero, her father a watchmaker and jeweler.
As a child, Carson McCullers was a musical prodigy. She began taking piano lessons at the age of ten. For her fifteenth birthday, her father gave her a typewriter. Nevertheless, she aspired to become a concert pianist.
In September of 1934, when she was seventeen years old, McCullers left home on a steamship bound for New York City, where she planned to study piano at Julliard. Unfortunately, she lost her tuition money and was unable to attend the school.
McCullers then worked menial jobs while she taking creative writing classes at both Columbia University and New York University. By 1936, at the age of nineteen, her first short story, Wunderkind, was published in Story magazine.
She'd found a new passion and decided to become a writer. A year later, in 1937, she married her husband, Reeves McCullers, an ex-soldier turned aspiring writer. They would separate in 1940. That year, Carson McCullers published her breakthrough debut novel, which established her as one of the greatest writers of her generation.
Set in the Depression-era American South, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter told the story of four ragtag misfits whose varied lives have several things in common - loneliness, isolation, and seemingly unattainable dreams.
Mick Kelly is 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 is an alcoholic itinerant laborer whose socialist convictions get him into trouble.
Dr. Benedict Copeland, a black physician, suffers from both tuberculosis and his desire to help free his people from racist oppression. Biff Brannon is a married cafe owner whose masculine appearance masks his inner struggle 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, 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, but 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 romantic relationship with Harry, a Jewish neighbor boy, which results in her first sexual experience, Mick changes her appearance, dressing and acting more like a lady.
Biff Brannon, impotent and emotionally distant from his wife, finds himself sexually attracted to the boyish-looking Mick, but rather than act on his impulses, he keeps his emotional distance.
When 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 deep and profound novel is amazing. The book became an overnight success, receiving rave reviews.
Critics 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, conducted by Joseph McCarthy, the notoriously corrupt Republican Senator from Wisconsin.
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter would be adapted as a feature film in 1968, (starring Alan Arkin as John Singer) and as a stage play in 2005.
In 1946, McCullers published another classic novel, The Member of the Wedding. It told the story of Frankie Addams, a lonely and alienated 12-year-old tomboy who dreams of running away to join her brother and his new wife on their honeymoon in Alaska.
The semi-autobiographical novel was based on McCullers' childhood. It explores the nature of racial and sexual identity, as Frankie is close to her family's black maid and wishes that people could "change back and forth from boys to girls." She would later adapt her novel as a Broadway play.
The issues of sexual identity raised in The Member of the Wedding came from the fact that McCullers was bisexual and had struggled with her own identity. Her volatile marriage didn't help matters.
After her separation, she moved in with George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar, but ended up remarrying Reeves McCullers in 1945. Three years later, while suffering from depression, she attempted suicide.
Five years after that, in 1953, Reeves tried to convince Carson to commit suicide with him. She left him and he killed himself with an overdose of sleeping pills. Her 1957 play, The Square Root of Wonderful, was an attempt to come to terms with these painful experiences.
Carson McCullers was sickly throughout her life; she suffered strokes since childhood and contracted rheumatic fever when she was fifteen. By the time she was 31, strokes had paralyzed her left side completely.
She died of a brain hemorrhage in 1967 at the age of fifty. Her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, which she dictated during the last few months of her life, was published posthumously in 1999.
Quote Of The Day
"The thinking mind is best controlled by the imagination." - Carson McCullers
Today's video features a rare 1956 interview with Carson McCullers. Enjoy!