Last reviewed: June 2017
American novelist, short-story writer, poet, playwright, and essayist.
February 19, 1917
September 29, 1967
Nyack, New York
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.
Carson McCullers in 1959.
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.