Books April 2001

No Apologies Necessary

An unsure effort to rescue the reputation of Carson McCullers
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In 1940 Carson McCullers—born Lula Carson Smith, in Columbus, Georgia—dazzled the New York literary world with the publication of her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The novel's title captures the theme of virtually all of McCullers's fiction. The author was twenty-three years old. That she was gifted there was no question: almost everywhere the book received excellent notices. Moreover, McCullers herself made for excellent copy. At once shy and forthcoming, diffident and brazen, with her cropped hair and long legs, her marked southern accent and her fondness for wearing shorts or men's trousers, she could easily pass for her novel's adolescent heroine—or for a sixteen-year-old boy. As it happened, she was married to Reeves McCullers, a man far better looking than she was, who had moved with her from the South to New York. Already her marriage was showing signs of strain. There were public fights and a shared taste for flirtations with members of both sexes and a growing dependence on alcohol. Soon the couple would be officially separated. But McCullers would always be indebted to Reeves for his early support and encouragement and for a surname that suited "Carson" far better than "Smith" did. (She had dropped the Lula long before.)

Over the next several years Carson and Reeves would separate—going so far at one point as to obtain a divorce—and reunite with astonishing frequency. Some friends believed that Reeves was jealous of his wife's success. Others believed that Carson was impossible to live with—too insistent on being the center of attention and too quick to play the part of an invalid. In fairness, Carson's health was not all that it might have been. Furthermore, she was accustomed to being coddled by a doting mother who early on had declared her to be a prodigy.

Although this troubled couple couldn't manage to live happily together, they could never seem to find partners that suited them better. Certainly there was a bond. If the protestations of devotion in their letters are to be credited, the high point of their relations may have been during World War II, when Reeves served for an extended period with the Army. On his own overseas, he proved to be something of a hero. On her own, Carson managed to get by—in her fashion. When her father died, in 1944, the doting mother moved north and set up a home for Carson in Nyack, within easy commuting distance from New York.

Before long Carson McCullers was an international celebrity—read and admired by everyone from Isak Dinesen and Elizabeth Bowen to Edith Sitwell and Louis Untermeyer. By 1946 she had written not only an impressive number of stories and articles but also three highly regarded short novels (Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and The Member of the Wedding), the last of which she later turned into an award-winning play. That fall she and Reeves decided to go to Paris. There she suffered two severe strokes, leaving her partially paralyzed on her left side. In Nyack the following March she slit her wrist and ended up in Payne Whitney, a psychiatric hospital. Five years later Reeves managed to kill himself, succumbing to a lethal dose of barbiturates and alcohol.

Although Carson went on to live for another fourteen years, her best work was behind her. Despite her increasing infirmity she managed to travel, to attract exciting new friends, and to write a Broadway play and even a best-selling novel. But owing to the strokes and to alcohol, the appealing adolescent came more and more to resemble a gargoyle. A succession of surgeries did little to help matters. In time she was relying on a wheelchair and spending long hours in bed. One of the few bright spots in her life was Mary Mercer, a local child psychiatrist, who first saw McCullers as a patient and then went on to become a dear friend—encouraging her to dictate her memoirs once she could no longer lift a pen. McCullers was working on those memoirs in September of 1967, when she was felled by a severe cerebral hemorrhage. She was fifty years old.

From the archives: Sadly, thirty-four years after her death one doesn't hear much about Carson McCullers. Part of the reason is the fickle nature of literary fashion. (One doesn't hear much about William Faulkner, either, or about Katherine Anne Porter.) Part of it has to do with the fact that her largest audience has always been younger readers, who nowadays tend to seek out the work of their contemporaries. Certainly it hasn't helped that Truman Capote and Harper Lee, two southern writers who came along soon after McCullers, gave readers tales that take place in a setting that bears more than a passing resemblance to the small-town-Georgia world she evoked in her most celebrated fiction. (Of Harper Lee, McCullers saw fit to write to a cousin, "Well, honey, one thing we know is that she's been poaching on my literary preserves.") Nor has it helped that the first thorough examination of her life—Virginia Spencer Carr's 1975 biography, The Lonely Hunter—can leave a reader with the sour feeling that McCullers showed a reckless disregard for the abundant gifts manifest in her early work.

"The Never-Ending Wrong" (June 1977)
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Katherine Anne Porter describes the Sacco-Vanzetti verdict as the event that destroyed her idealism.

With Carson McCullers: A Life, Josyane Savigneau, the acclaimed biographer of Marguerite Yourcenar and the editor of the cultural pages of Le Monde, sets out to rescue the reputation of both the woman and the writer. In the process she does her best to undercut what she regards as a "banal" view of McCullers—one that is incapable of appreciating what it means to live the life of an artist—and to dispel the notion that her subject's later years were marked primarily by physical infirmity and unfulfilled promise. Consequently, she never portrays McCullers as selfish or demanding but, instead, celebrates her as a "strange woman-child" who, for all her brilliance, "never really grew up."

In short, Savigneau gives readers a portrait that is very different from the one to be found in Carr's biography (a scrupulously researched volume at least 200 pages longer than this new book), to which she is far more indebted than she sometimes chooses to acknowledge in her notes. In her introduction Savigneau is quick to tell us where she believes Carr went wrong.

Despite an appearance of neutrality often found in American biographies—never a conjecture on points that are obscure or unexplained but a piling up of details, particulars, and testimonials as if all were of equal importance—Virginia Spencer Carr's work creates a rather negative image of Carson McCullers.

No one could fault her for neutrality as she goes on to state with great assurance, "Virginia Spencer Carr shows little warmth—much less tenderness or compassion—for her subject, who, visibly, shocks her puritanism and moralism."

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