Authors: Carson McCullers

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American novelist, short-story writer, poet, playwright, and essayist.

February 19, 1917

Columbus, Georgia

September 29, 1967

Nyack, New York

Biography

Lula Carson Smith McCullers is widely regarded as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century, though critics argue over whether her writing should be classified as southern gothic or metaphysical. McCullers, who was born in Columbus, Georgia, on February 19, 1917, did not aspire to become a writer at all. Her parents, Lamar and Marguerite (Waters) Smith, had started her on piano lessons at a very early age, and music was the career forecast for her. A music teacher, Mary Tucker, played a large part in her early life. At the age of seventeen, McCullers was sent to the Juilliard School of Music in New York to become a concert pianist. By the time McCullers had arrived in New York, however, she had already lost her enthusiasm for music and had switched to literature and what would be a lifelong passion, writing. McCullers did not attend Juilliard, perhaps equally as a result of disinterest, ill health, and money problems. Instead, she worked at odd jobs and studied writing at Columbia University and New York University from 1934 to 1936.

In 1935, McCullers met Reeves McCullers, a young serviceman home on leave; they were married on September 20, 1937. She met Reeves in Columbus, where she had returned because of illness. During her senior year in high school, McCullers had suffered a severe bout of rheumatic fever, though it was not diagnosed as such at the time. Whether because of the misdiagnosis or the severity of the disease, the rheumatic fever is thought to have been the cause of McCullers’s later health problems, including the strokes that slowed down her writing after age thirty-one. In 1940, when she was only twenty-three years old, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published. At first entitled The Mute, it was this novel that earned for McCullers sudden but lasting fame and a fiction fellowship from Houghton Mifflin.

Carson McCullers in 1959.

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(Library of Congress)

Soon thereafter, the McCullerses were separated. Carson McCullers’s father was an alcoholic (he died from a heart attack in 1944), and so was Reeves McCullers; his alcoholism and mental instability contributed to the breakup of their marriage. Reflections in a Golden Eye, which McCullers published the next year, was dedicated to her unrequited lover Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach. Reeves McCullers had also taken a homosexual lover meanwhile. The themes of homosexuality and adultery pervade Reflections in a Golden Eye, which made the novel a prime target for censorship and critical disapproval.

In 1942 McCullers was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, but because of her poor health from a stroke suffered the previous year, her writing output had begun to diminish considerably. By this time, the McCullerses were officially divorced. She could not seem to find happiness. In December of 1942, she learned that Clarac-Schwarzenbach had committed suicide while away in Switzerland. McCullers’s career, however, continued to prosper; she received a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters the following year and another Guggenheim Fellowship two years after that. In 1945, she and Reeves McCullers were remarried, and she finished work on the novel The Member of the Wedding, a classic analysis of loneliness that precipitated the second Guggenheim Fellowship. It also won numerous prizes for McCullers, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1950 for her stage adaptation.

McCullers’s writing, according to her own description, centers on "spiritual isolation." In McCullers’s works, physical incapacity symbolizes an inability to give or receive love. This symbolism could certainly have been derived from McCullers’s own experiences. A series of strokes in 1947 left her blind in her right eye and partially paralyzed. She could type with only one hand, decreasing her output to about a page a day. Reeves McCullers’s alcoholism was worsening, and in 1953, while they were living in Europe, he suggested that they make a double-suicide pact. McCullers, who had attempted suicide in 1948 while despondent about her health, was frightened by his insistence and returned to the United States without him. In November of 1953, a few weeks after she had left him, McCullers learned that her husband had committed suicide.

McCullers’s life was growing more and more difficult. Her play The Square Root of Wonderful was neither a critical nor a commercial success, closing on Broadway after forty-five performances. During this period, McCullers was often in residence at the Yaddo writers’ colony in Saratoga, New York. While there she was snubbed by Katherine Anne Porter, whom McCullers had tried to get to know; Porter had made it clear that she was more interested in devoting her time to her protégé Eudora Welty. In 1955, McCullers’s mother died, a great emotional blow for McCullers, since her mother had taken care of her during many of McCullers’s illnesses, and they had spent much time together, especially since McCullers’s father had died. By 1959, McCullers was physically unable to work on serious fiction or drama and began writing children’s verse instead. Her last novel, Clock Without Hands, was not well received, though since her death, it has been reevaluated and more widely praised. During the last years of her life, McCullers worked on film and dramatic adaptations of her previous works. A successful staging of The Ballad of the Sad Café resulted from a collaboration with Edward Albee. McCullers was plagued with ill health throughout this time. In 1962, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy; in 1964, she broke her right hip and spent three months in the hospital having it reset. In 1967, McCullers suffered a final stroke and was in a coma for more than a month before dying on September 29 of that year. Yet despite her tragic and physically painful life, McCullers never let herself be defeated by her problems. She continued to write in at least some form at all times. Intensely personal, often tormented, her works transcend their origins to speak in the universal language of art.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940 Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1941 The Ballad of the Sad Café, 1943 (serial), 1951 (book) The Member of the Wedding, 1946 Clock Without Hands, 1961 Short Fiction: The Ballad of the Sad Café: The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers, 1951 The Ballad of the Sad Café and Collected Short Stories, 1952, 1955 The Shorter Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers, 1972 Drama: The Member of the Wedding, pr. 1950 (adaptation of her novel) The Square Root of Wonderful, pr. 1957 Nonfiction: Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers, 1999 (Carlos L. Dews, editor) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig, 1964 Miscellaneous: The Mortgaged Heart, 1971 (short fiction, poetry, and essays; Margarita G. Smith, editor) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. Carson McCullers. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Essays on McCullers’s novels and major short stories. Includes introduction, chronology, and bibliography. Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1975. This definitive biography provides significant biographical elements that are related to McCullers’s works. The complexity, pain, and loneliness of McCullers’s characters are matched by their creator’s. Includes an extensive chronology of McCullers’s life, a primary bibliography, and many endnotes. Carr, Virginia Spencer. Understanding Carson McCullers. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. A thoughtful guide to McCullers’s works. Includes bibliographical references. Clark, Beverly Lyon, and Melvin J. Friedman, eds. Critical Essays on Carson McCullers. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996. A collection of essays ranging from reviews of McCullers’s major works to tributes by such writers as Tennessee Williams and Kay Boyle, to critical analyses from a variety of perspectives. Most helpful to a study of the short story is Robert Philips’s "Freaking Out: The Short Stories of Carson McCullers." Cook, Richard M. Carson McCullers. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975. A general introduction to McCullers’s novels, short stories, and plays. The book includes chapters on each of the novels, McCullers’s life, and her achievements as well. The book’s endnotes and primary and secondary bibliographies may be useful in finding other sources. Graver, Lawrence. Carson McCullers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. An early extended essay in the University of Minnesota pamphlet series. Complemented by a brief bibliography of primary and secondary sources. James, Judith Giblin. Wunderkind: The Reputation of Carson McCullers, 1940-1990. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995. Examines McCullers’s place in literature as a southern female author. Bibliographical references and an index are provided. Jenkins, McKay. The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940’s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Covers McCullers along with several other writers in a consideration of the role of race and sex in Southern literature. McDowell, Margaret B. Carson McCullers. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A general introduction to McCullers’s fiction, with a chapter on each of the novels, the short stories, and The Ballad of the Sad Café. Also included are a chronology, endnotes, and a select bibliography. Stressing McCullers’s versatility, McDowell emphasizes the lyricism, the musicality, and the rich symbolism of McCullers’s fiction as well as McCullers’s sympathy for lonely individuals. Rich, Nancy B. The Flowering Dream: The Historical Saga of Carson McCullers. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Chapel Hill Press, 1999. An examination of McCullers’s work, including her dramas. Bibliography. Savigneau, Josyane. Carson McCullers: A Life. Translated by Joan E. Howard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. The McCullers estate granted Savigneau access to McCullers’s unpublished papers, which enables her to deepen the portrait painted by previous biographers. Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. In this study, important comparisons are made between these three major southern writers of short fiction and novels. Supplemented by useful endnotes and a bibliography of secondary material. Whitt, Jan, ed. Reflections in a Critical Eye: Essays on Carson McCullers. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008. A collection of essays that discusses McCuller’s first four novels and reveals autobiographical information about the author. Some key topics discussed are her links to feminism, gender identity, race relations and southern culture. Whitt, Margaret. "From Eros to Agape: Reconsidering the Chain Gang’s Song in McCullers’s Ballad of the Sad Café." Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Winter, 1996): 119-122. Argues that the chain gang was a rare visual example of integration in an otherwise segregated South; notes the irony suggested through the song—that the men must be chained together to find harmony.

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