No Apologies Necessary

An unsure effort to rescue the reputation of Carson McCullers

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.

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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?

Savigneau, whose biography of Yourcenar manages to be at once passionate and judicious, graceful and fluent, seems to have strayed into terrain where her footing is not always sure. The same might be said of her translator. A reader will be startled to learn that "John Singer [the deaf mute of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter] is a hyperbolic figure of isolation." Or to hear that the newly famous Carson McCullers "drank gin in orangeade glasses." Or to discover that on their first trip abroad Reeves was hoping to introduce his wife "to the charming little ports of Brittany and to the strange magic of the French countryside, with its dozens of contrasting landscapes paradoxically assembled on a land mass smaller than the state of Texas." These are not fatal, but they are a bit disconcerting in a book about a writer who always chose her words with care.

Savigneau does have something Virginia Spencer Carr never had, and that is permission to quote from certain letters and unpublished work. She had access to two incomplete memoirs, which McCullers wrote at the suggestion of Mary Mercer, and a cache of tender letters exchanged by Reeves and Carson when Reeves was overseas. The letters serve to remind us that these two did actually love each other. And the memoirs give us a chance to see certain significant events from Carson's perspective.

Still, it could be argued that the letters and the memoirs are not of a quality to merit their being quoted at great length. Nor are they necessarily as reliable as Savigneau would have us believe. The letters were written in wartime, when a certain degree of posturing is to be expected even from men and women who have no bent for self-dramatization. And the memoirs inevitably reflect a perfectly natural inclination to smooth over incidents that caused the writer pain.

If nothing else, the mere fact that McCullers was able to dictate these memoirs helps to buttress the case Savigneau hopes to make for her subject's resilience and staying power as a writer. That Savigneau makes full use of the memoirs is not surprising. And it is not surprising that she relies heavily on Mary Mercer. After all, Mercer eventually chose to break decades of silence and grant Savigneau an exclusive interview—an interview to which Savigneau was permitted to take no pad and pencil or tape recorder and to which she resorts for an ending to her book.

"She was ageless, Carson was," Savigneau quotes Mercer as saying. "All she had was a mad desire to stay alive. To live and to write. To live in order to write." The interview, which is more like a monologue than a conversation, concludes with a ringing tribute: "She was ... yes ... a magnificent writer and, I was going to say 'obviously,' a magnificent being. A natural. A person. That is what people must see." English is not Savigneau's first language, but she claims to have had no difficulty in recalling Mercer's exact words. All the same, one can't help noticing that at times she and this American psychiatrist sound uncannily alike.

Sixty-one years have passed since the publication of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Read again, Carson McCullers's first book proves to be richer and more ambitious than one remembered. There was very little that its young author was unwilling to grapple with—be it Christianity or communism or simply a loss of youth. Thus her first book may well be McCullers's best, but that is to say a good deal. All her books portray the sadness and isolation she saw as endemic to the human condition. And all are of interest. For instance, one need not share Savigneau's opinion that Reflections in a Golden Eye is the "most provocative," the "most controlled," the "most tight-lipped," and the "most serenely merciless" of McCullers's books in order to find disturbing its tale of an adulterous affair that leads to an unlikely obsession, an untimely death, and a brutal murder. And one need not go along with those readers who cherish The Member of the Wedding as McCullers's "masterpiece of masterpieces" to be touched or beguiled by its lonely twelve-year-old heroine, who makes up her mind to join her brother and his bride on their honeymoon, forcing herself on a couple she believes to be "the we of me."

Precisely what happened to Carson McCullers, a writer of enormous talent, will always remain a mystery. But there may be clues to be found in the life. Anyone wishing to get a fresh sense of that life may want to take a look at this new biography, keeping in mind certain words of caution from McCullers's old friend Tennessee Williams: "When physical catastrophes reduce, too early, an artist's power, his/her admirers must not and need not enter a plea nor offer apology."