Carson McCullers - Exploring the Depths of the Human Heart

Carson McCullers - Exploring the Depths of the Human Heart

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Carson McCullers  - Exploring the Depths of the Human Heart

    "With poignant insight and compassion Carson McCullers (1917-1967) wrote of human loneliness, unfulfilled love, and the frailty of the human heart."


Of all the characters in the work of Carson McCullers, the one who seemed to her family and friends to be most like the author herself was Frankie Addams: the vulnerable, exasperating, and endearing adolescent of The Member of the Wedding who was looking for the "we of me." However, Carson once said that was, or became in the process of writing, all the characters in her work. This is probable true of most real writers who often with pain draw from their unconscious what the rest of us would just as soon keep hidden from ourselves and others. So accept the fact that Carson was not only Frankie Addams but J.T. Malone, Miss Amelia, and Captain Penderton; but familiarity with the work that she was not able to finish would only be only a partial clue to who and what she was. This was not simply because she had not finished what she had to say, but that she was the artist, and as she often quoted, "Nothing human is alien to me."


So many people were unable to acknowledge Carson's constant closeness to death, and many more resented her for trying to make them face it, but she had lived through enough close calls to convince everyone that she was indestructible.


Carson saw her life one way and those intimate with her often perceived it differently. Intentionally or unintentionally, she added to the confusion about herself. An interviewer was more likely to be cannily interviewed than to extract an interview from her. Besides, she simply liked a good story and frequently embellished the more amusing ones of her life. The one person who singled out this quality in a particularly loving way was Tennessee Williams in his unpublished essay "Praise to Assenting Angels":


The great generation of writers that emerged in the twenties, poets such as Eliot, Crane, Cummings, and Wallace Stevens, prose-writers such as Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Katharine Anne Porter, has not been succeeded or supplemented by any new figures of corresponding stature with the sole exception of the prodigious young talent that first appeared in 1940 with the publication of her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

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She was at that time a girl of twenty-two who had come to New York from Columbus, Georgia, to study music.


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 she found the other tenants of the house friendly and sympathetic and had not the ghost of an idea of what illicit enterprise was going on there. One of the girls in this establishment became her particular friend and undertook to guide her about the town, which Carson McCullers found confusing quite imaginably, since even to this day she hesitates to cross an urban street unattended, preferably on both sides. However a misadventure befell her. Too much trust was confided in this mischievous guide, and 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, and when she did finally return to the light of day, it was in Brooklyn when she became enmeshed in a vaguely similar menage whose personnel ranged from W. H. Auden to Gypsy Rose Lee. At any rate, regardless of how much fantasy this legend may contain, the career of music was abandoned in favor of writing, and somewhere, sometime, in the dank and labyrinthine mysteries of the New York subway system, possibly between some chewing gum vendor and some weight and character analysis given by a doll Gypsy, a bronze tablet should be erected in the memory of the mischievous comrade who made away with Carson's money for the study of piano. To paraphrase a familiar cliché of screen publicity-writers, perhaps a great musician was lost but a greater writer was found...


At the age of sixteen, Carson wrote her first novel (believed to have been called A Reed of Pan ---- the manuscript no longer exists). She earned money to come to New York- her dream- by giving a series of lectures on music appreciation to a group of her Mother's friends. Once in the city she gave up music as a career and turned to her other talent- writing. She studied with Sylvia Chatfield Bates and later with Whit Burnett, who with Martha Foley edited the famous Story magazine. She continued writing up until the last and massive brain hemorrhage seven weeks before she dies at fifty on September 29, 1967.


Carson's life was tragic in so many ways that people who did not know her personally have heard of her courage but not of her ingenuousness, her folksy humor, her wit, and her kindness. Margarita G. Smith, Carson's sister, quoted "No two of Carson's friends can be in the same room for long before one of them begins 'Remember the time that Carson...' and off they go with countless stories." There were sorrows and tragedies in Carson's life other than her physical illness: two stormy marriages to the same James Reeves McCullers, his death followed by that of Carson's mother and favorite Aunt, as well as other difficult times. But it is important to note that there moments of joy and anticipation of joy. She had recognition from sources that pleased her and she enjoyed fame from the time she was twenty-three when The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published. There were standing ovations for the magical Broadway production of The Member of the Wedding.


There were invitations to presidential inaugurations and teas with Edith Sitwell and Marilyn Monroe, and her long and constant friendship with Tennessee Williams. Stage-struck like Frankie, she enjoyed having her picture taken with John Huston when she visited him at his castle in Ireland. She had two works in progress before her death and movies of Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter were in production. She had many friends who loved her, but more important a few whom she really loved back.


It is said that Carson loved any kind of occasion, any to-do such as a party or Christmas, and she loved to plan for them. Her sister, Margarita, says she was planning a party when she died. Other women might dread birthdays, but they were big events in her life. With her hair freshly washed, she would put on one of her best robes and wait for the telegrams, flowers, and most importantly, the presents. In the south, of one had no intention of giving a birthday or Christmas present, a card was sent. Carson hated cards because it meant that the sender was not going to give her a present.


There is much courage in this world and most of it we never see. Probably what is important here is not that Carson wrote with such incredible handicaps, but that she wrote was beautiful and real to those of us who are willing to go with her to explore the human heart. What matters about her work is not that is has been difficult for those around her but whether or not readers who admire her work find it rewarding.


Carson McCullers was not just another writer spilling ideas on to paper for the sake of fame and recognition, although the fame and recognition she received was taken without hesitation. Carson was a real person exploring deep into her heart with every word she wrote. One can never be comfortable putting all your problems and thoughts and every little thing you care about on paper for the whole world to read. Carson was just as vulnerable as Frankie  Addams if not more. The pain that could come with the rejection of one's heart is far worse than the pain of your book not selling well. It takes a real person with a real heart to write a bestseller that means something than just to write another good story. It takes a real person with a real heart to able to trust anyone again after her dream was stolen with her tuition money back in the subways of New York. It takes a real person with a real heart to be able to bounce back from an ordeal like the one she experienced, then to write about it to all the world and to become one of the best writers in the twentieth century. It takes that real heart to be all that God asks for from the heavens above- a real person.



Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers. Illustrated. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1975.

Vickery, John. "Carson McCullers; A Map of Love." Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (1960), 1:14-24.

Evans, Oliver. The Ballad of Carson McCullers. New York: Coward McCann, 1966.

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