Lula Carson Smith McCullers (1917-1967)
She called herself “the holy terror of American literature,” having largely achieved the aim she and her mother shared when she a child, declaring to a friend that she intended to be “rich and famous.” Her father ran a watch repair shop in Columbus, Georgia; her mother was of antebellum gentry stock, reduced in stature by the late conflict among the states.
Mrs. Smith considered her a prodigy, only in music, and the whole family tended to cock a snook at social convention. In The New Yorker's, Hilton Als wrote of them,
Unlike their neighbors, the Smiths weren’t very interested in religion, and promoted social awareness instead—a Yankee sensibility that was at odds with the town’s conservatism. Marguerite enjoyed tweaking the townspeople with such remarks as the now famous “Oh, yes, my daughter Lula Carson”—then a teen-ager— “and I have such a good time smoking together. We do almost everything together, you know.”
After a teenage bout with rheumatic fever, McCullers had doubts about possessing the stamina her mother saw in her future as a concert pianist, but Mrs. Smith was a hard one to argue with. So Lula Carson sailed off from Savannah to New York’s Juilliard School at seventeen, five hundred dollars sewed into her underwear. She was the classic rube gone to town, wrote Tennessee Williams:
According to the legends that surround her early period in the city, she first established her residence, quite unwittingly, in a house of prostitution, . . . and had not the ghost of an idea of what illicit enterprise was going on there. One of the girls in this establishment . . . undertook to guide her about the town. . . . While she was being shown the subway route to the Juilliard School of Music, the companion and all of her tuition money, which the companion had offered to keep for her, abruptly disappeared. Carson was abandoned penniless in the subway, and some people say it took her several weeks to find her way out.
It wasn’t the sort of story with which one returned in triumph to Columbus. Carson Smith, as she styled herself, hunkered down, working all kinds of jobs- real estate office clerk, dog walker- and taking writing classes at Columbia. She published her first story in 1936.
In 1937, She married Reeves McCullers, whom she’d met when he was a soldier at Fort Benning and she was home for a visit in 1935. They settled in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he aimed to quit being a debt collector and become a writer. His wife, however, was beating him to the punch, which was contra plan and the cause of much discord.
In 1940, McCullers- she, not he- published a sensational novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. It was true Southern Gothic at a time when Pollyannaish wartime optimism was the norm:
The book is set in an unnamed Southern town, and each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective. There is Mick Kelly, a teenage girl who lives in a boarding house run by her parents, where the deaf-mute, renamed John Singer, rents a room. There’s Jake Blount, a Communist alcoholic driven half mad by the local provincialism; Dr. Copeland, a black doctor who is dying of tuberculosis; and Biff Brannon, who runs the local diner and is erotically fixated on Mick. As the long, mean days of summer go by, the Depression grinds the town down, and the hopes that sustain the characters turn to dust. Mick is forced to give up her dream of becoming a concert pianist and goes to work in a department store. Dr. Copeland dies. Jake is more or less run out of town. Biff descends into sexual confusion. And John Singer commits suicide. Only after Singer dies does it occur to the others that they had never asked him anything about himself. None of them knew where he’d lived before. None of them knew that he had loved someone once—an “obese and dreamy” Greek named Spiros Antonapoulos, who had been committed to an insane asylum. Talking does not make a difference, McCullers seems to say in this book. We are all in our own cells, writing messages to the world which that world cannot read. Those messages, the stories within the story of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” include some of the most beautiful writing McCullers ever produced. The simplicity and lyricism here reveal the influence of Isak Dinesen, a writer to whom McCullers returned again and again for inspiration.
The couple moved to New York, where her androgynous charm and ability to shock put them in the best literary circles. Reflections in A Golden Eye followed in 1941, the tale of a closeted Army officer. It was out there, theme-wise, even for a writer of the grotesque. The literary critics of the Ku Klux Klan denounced it for denigrating the white Southern male.
McCullers cultivated her own eccentricities with a will. She took up chasing after older women. At Yaddo, the writers’ colony, she threw herself at the feet of the august Katherine Anne Porter, whose hardscrabble rise to fame left little time for histrionics:
Miss Porter demanded that Carson leave. She shouted from within that she would not come out until Carson vacated the hall. It was 6:30 p.m., however, and time for dinner. . . . After a brief interval the elder woman cautiously opened the door and stepped out. To her astonishment, there lay Carson sprawled across the threshold. “But I had had enough,” said Miss Porter. “I merely stepped over her and continued on my way to dinner.”
McCullers had a stroke in 1941 and divorced McCullers. He re-enlisted, was wounded on D-Day, and returned to remarry her in 1945. While neither seemed to be able to bear the other for long, they couldn’t seem to find anybody else. The Member of the Wedding (1946), a story of a returned-home soldier’s nuptials as seen from the kitchen by his much younger sister and the family maid, was a success and led to a well-received Broadway play. She won two Guggenheim fellowships in four years.
In the postwar bohemia of New York, the McCullers- both bisexual, and he envious of her success as a writer- drank and brawled their way through endless affairs with other men and women and women and men. Carson tried suicide in 1948; in 1953 Reeves proposed they make it a double. She declined. He killed himself in a Paris hotel room.
She wore on some people, and charmed others with her mix of neediness, vainglory and bouts of neurasthenia. Gore Vidal, who seldom kept friends long, wrote,
Carson spoke only of her work. Of its greatness. The lugubrious Southern singsong voice never stopped: ’Did ya see muh lovely play? Did ya lahk muh lovely play? Am Ah gonna win the Pew-litzuh prahzz?’
After Reeves’ death, McCullers retreated to a house in Nyack, above New York City, and remained there, increasingly disabled by a series of strokes, smoking, and drink, until she died in 1967. Her best work was done before she was thirty-four. Her last major work, a novella called The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, was published in 1951. Like the rest of her work, it dealt with the world as seen by outsiders to its norms- blacks, gays, a hunchback dwarf, a drunken Communist. They explained life from its margins.
Through the Fifties McCullers remained an international celebrity, her writing praised by the first ranks of Literature. A 1959 chance meeting led to one of the more exotic early manifestations of jet age celebrity culture. Eve Goldberg explained it in The Rumpus:
In 1959, Isak Dinesen had been invited by the Ford Foundation to travel to the United States to read and discuss her work as part of a film series on “the world’s greatest living writers.” Despite her failing health – the frail seventy-four-year old weighed just 80 pounds and suffered from advanced syphilis and anorexia nervosa – she accepted the invitation.
New York’s cultural elite feted this illustrious grand dame of literature. Socialite “Babe” Paley, Truman Capote and Cecil Beaton took her to lunch at the St. Regis. Sidney Lumet and Gloria Vanderbilt had her to dinner. She joined John Steinbeck for cocktails; and Leo Lerman took her to the Met to see Maria Callas in “Il Pirata.” Dinesen’s appearances at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center were, by all accounts, the place to be in January, 1959. A cartoon in the New York Times Book Review shows two beat poets at a Greenwich Village coffee house talking. “Did you catch Isak Dinesen at the Y?” one asks the other.
Dinesen had told her hosts that the four Americans she most wanted to meet were Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, Carson McCullers and Marilyn Monroe. Hemingway was out of the country, but it was arranged that Cummings would escort her to the annual dinner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters where, as the guest of honor, Dinesen was to deliver the keynote speech.
On a snowy Manhattan night, the consummate raconteur delivered her Academy talk. Entitled “On Mottoes of My Life,” she divided her life into five stages with their attendant mottos. “Like the eagle I shall grow up” told the story of Dinesen as a young girl, casting about for direction in life. “It is necessary to set sail, it is not necessary to survive” told the story of Dinesen as a young artist in rebellion against bourgeois life and values. In “I Respond,” Dinesen the colonist, wife, farmer and lover in Africa discovers that “my daily life out there was filled with answering voices.” In the fourth stage, “Why Not?,” a woman in despair returns to her native country and finds hope in her heart as she begins to write. And finally, “Be Bold” explicated her life as an aging woman with deteriorating health, and death clearly on the horizon.
After the speeches, Dinesen was seated next to Carson McCullers for dinner. The two women discovered immediately that they shared a decades-long mutual admiration. Just as Dinesen admired The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and had read it many times, McCullers considered Out Of Africa to be her favorite book. “I was so dazed by the poetry and truth of this great book that when night came I continued reading Out Of Africa with a flashlight,” wrote McCullers. “The burning deserts, the jungles, the hills opened my heart to Africa. Open to my heart also, were the animals and the radiant being, Isak Dinesen.” McCullers would ritualistically re-read the book every year, finding comfort and support in its “luminous, sulphuric glow.”
When McCullers heard of her literary hero’s New York visit, she noted: “I hesitated to meet her because Isak Dinesen had been so fixed in my heart, I was afraid that the actual would disturb this image.” Image-busting fears aside, McCullers did go to considerable effort to attend the Academy event.
Though only forty-two years old, she was every bit as frail as Dinesen. A series of strokes had left her paralyzed on one side. She walked with a cane, her left hand curled like a hook, and she required assistance to dress herself, to walk up and down stairs, even to eat. But the effort was worth it; the two writers hit it off, and when Dinesen spoke of her desire to meet Marilyn Monroe, Carson was happy to oblige. Marilyn’s husband, playwright Arthur Miller, was seated at the next table, “So, I had the great honor of inviting my imaginary friend, Isak Dinesen, to meet Marilyn Monroe, with Arthur Miller, for luncheon in my home.”
Four of McCullers’ five novels were made into movies, each hobbled- as were the film versions of Tennessee Williams’ plays in the same era- by the felt need to scrub them up for mainstream, straight, audiences. She started her memoirs and was pleased by a successful Broadway run of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter in the early ‘60s. When she died in 1967, McCullers was eulogized on the front page of The New York Times:
It is not so much that the [The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter] paved the way for what became the American Southern gothic genre, but that it at once encompassed it and went beyond it.... The heart of this remarkable, still powerful book is perhaps best conveyed by its title, with its sense of intensity, concision and mystery, with its terrible juxtaposition of love and aloneness, whose relation was Mrs. McCullers's constant subject.... Mrs. McCullers was neither prolific nor varying in her theme.... This is no fault or tragedy: to some artists a vision is given only once. And a corollary: only an artist can make others subject to the vision's force. Mrs. McCullers was an artist. She was also in her person, an inspiration and example for other artists who grew close to her. Her books, and particularly "The Heart," will live; she will be missed.
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