"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."
There is no question that Carr's detailed account of McCullers's decline, with its seemingly endless list of transgressions, makes for dismaying reading, but to accuse Carr of puritanism seems excessive. At one point Savigneau appears to lump Carr with all those who have mistakenly regarded McCullers's craving for physical affection as a promiscuous bisexuality or lesbianism. Yet when one looks at The Lonely Hunter, one sees something very different. Carr wrote,
Carson wanted and needed warmth and tenderness. It could simply be the warmth of a touch, either a man's or a woman's—and she had to be touching always, sometimes to the disquietude of her female companions—whether it was the brush of a hand, the pat of a knee, an embrace on the cheek ... She wanted as much closeness as she could get from a beloved, but consummation rarely was a part of it.
Has something been lost in translation? Or has Savigneau willfully misread the text?
In an introduction to Carr's book Tennessee Williams wrote of how he "knew at once that this lady from Georgia, Carson's native state, was someone who valued the spirit and the writing of Mrs. McCullers as deeply as I did." At the time of their meeting Carr was living in Columbus. If nothing else, Williams could count on her understanding of the town and the people that had helped to form his friend. Writing from Paris, McCullers's new biographer enjoys no such advantage. Inevitably this leads to some assertions surprising to an American audience. At one point Savigneau states that in America The Member of the Wedding—not The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—"is the book most strongly identified with Carson McCullers." (She provides no documentation for this statement.) And she tells us, "Carson remained a girl of the Deep South, awkward, shy, unsociable, and withdrawn." At what age, one wonders, does she think southern belles get their start?