This Day In Literary History
On May 24th, 1951, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works, the classic short story collection by the famous American writer Carson McCullers, was published. It included the title novella and five other stories.
Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, exploded onto the literary scene in 1940, with the publication of her classic debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Critics were floored by her sad and surreal tale of an intelligent, compassionate deaf-mute man who touches the lives of several unhappy people at the expense of his own happiness. McCullers was only 23 years old when she wrote the profound and moving novel.
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works, her classic short story collection, was most famous for its title novella. Set in a small Southern town, it told the story of Miss Amelia, a shopkeeper whom the townspeople believe to be a cold and calculating woman who never acts without reason.
Miss Amelia is also known for being masculine, bullying, confrontational, and greedy, and for wanting nothing to do with love, thanks to a rotten marriage that lasted only ten days.
One day, a hunchbacked man called Lymon arrives in town, carrying all of his belongings in one suitcase. He claims to be Miss Amelia's cousin, and has an old photograph that he says proves his claim. When Miss Amelia takes him in, the townspeople are shocked.
Assuming that she has ulterior motives, after not seeing Lymon in town for a while, they suspect that Miss Amelia murdered him for his meager belongings. Then they find him safe and sound in her store.
What the townspeople don't realize is that the lonely Miss Amelia's relationship with her long lost cousin has changed her for the better. Caring for him has opened her heart. She becomes more hospitable to her customers and even serves them food and liquor, turning her store into a cafe.
Lymon the hunchback is kind and grateful for the hospitality shown by Miss Amelia, but he also has faults. He has a dependent personality, he craves attention, he's a gossip, and he enjoys baiting people against each other and then watching them fight.
When Miss Amelia's ex-husband Marvin Macy suddenly shows up, Lymon comes to admire him greatly, not realizing that the handsome, charismatic Marvin is a cruel sociopath out for revenge against Miss Amelia, whom he blames for breaking his heart and unleashing the rage inside him that led to his crime spree and subsequent incarceration.
Marvin manipulates Lymon into helping him carry out his revenge against Miss Amelia, which culminates in the sacking of her store and the theft of her curios and money. Then in a final, crushing blow, Marvin invites Lymon to leave town with him, taking away the only one who ever really loved Miss Amelia.
Carson McCullers got the idea to write The Ballad of the Sad Cafe while out drinking with her friends George Davis (editor of Harper's Bazaar magazine) and British poet W.H. Auden. They were at a bar one night when Carson noticed two particular customers walk in - a very tall, masculine woman accompanied by a small, hunchbacked man.
Around this time, McCullers had been living in a famous boarding house in Brooklyn run by George Davis. In addition to McCullers and Auden, the boarding house had been home to some of the era's greatest bohemian writers, artists, and actors.
Some of Davis' other tenants included Paul and Jane Bowles, Richard Wright, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee. When McCullers lived there, they held evening gatherings where George Davis played piano - in the nude - while a gallon jug of wine was passed around. W.H. Auden loved to play housemother to what he called "our menagerie."
With the publication of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works, Carson McCullers once again established herself as one of the greatest writers of her generation. The title novella would be adapted as a stage play by the legendary playwright, Edward Albee.
Albee had intended for Carson to play the role of the narrator, but by the time the play opened in the fall of 1963, her chronically poor health had deteriorated severely. She did attend the play's opening night, but had to do so in a wheelchair. She died four years later at the age of 50.
In 1991, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film by producer Ismail Merchant of the Merchant-Ivory film production company. It starred Vanessa Redgrave as Miss Amelia, Cork Hubbert as Lymon, and Keith Carradine as Marvin Macy.
Quote Of The Day
"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are gone, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing." - Carson McCullers
Today's video features a complete reading of A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud., a short story from Carson McCullers' collection, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works. Enjoy!