What makes an American writer? In today’s narrow, backlashed literary market the chain of command is quite clear. The “greats” are Updike, Pynchon, Mailer, Bellow and Roth. Now that they are nearing the end of their careers, a new generation of emblematic American writers has been anointed: DeLillo, Banks, perhaps Auster. The up-and-coming greats are also clearly delineated: Moody, Eugenides, Antrim, Foster Wallace.
The rest of us are “special interest.” Even Toni Morrison, a Nobel laureate, is as likely to be called “the great African-American writer” as the “great American writer.” We are endlessly treated to lists of present and future greats by The New Yorker that usually include one black, one East Asian, one South Asian, one closeted lesbian and six white heterosexual males. Then we are blithely told that these people are the future of “American” writing. “American” implying neutral, objective, natural and value-free. In the meantime there are brilliant, invigorated artists relegated to the qualified margins. Caryl Phillips, who I believe is the most exciting writer in the English language, is “Caribbean”; Dale Peck is “gay”; Rebecca Brown is “a lesbian experimentalist”; Carla Harryman is “a Language writer.”
It should be clear to anyone who has done time in the world of publishing that there is little relationship between merit and Americanization. A great book may be widely praised, but often not because it is great. Behind-the-scenes matters like wealth, family and MFA programs make a huge difference, and the way an author is cast in the public eye is also hugely important. But even more influential today is the caste of the protagonist in the work. Who an author chooses to inhabit, fictionally, is hugely loaded in today’s culture wars and is a primary determinant of the reception of one’s work. As powerful as these prejudices are currently, they have a long tradition in the history of canon-building.
Thanks to the diligent work of Carlos Dews, editor of Carson McCullers’s final manuscript, Illumination and Night Glare, and the University of Wisconsin Press, we are given another opportunity to look at this exceptional fiction writer, and especially what it was about her and her work that created her career and reputation. Her case delineates where literary history puts geniuses whose protagonists are considered “special interest.”
Dictated from her sickbed, the autobiographical portion of the manuscript is plainly stated and does not reflect McCullers’s mastery of language. It is a fascinating document for one already fascinated, but not a good place to start. However, accompanying the text, Dews has wisely included “The Mute,” McCullers’s outline for her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and a collection of letters between Carson and her estranged husband, Reeves McCullers, when he was stationed in Europe during World War II. The hidden treasures and juxtapositions of text reveal the complexities of McCullers’s life and work and help us understand the construction of her contested place in the literary canon today.
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Lula Carson Smith was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917. “By the time I was six,” she said, “I was sure that I was born a man.” Luckily, her mother treated her like one. The girl had free intellectual rein, she could read or discuss anything, received extensive lessons in classical piano and began writing prodigiously in her early teens. By 16 she had produced two novels and a play, which she brazenly mailed to Eugene O’Neill under her new, more gender-appropriate name, “Carson.” Her mother, Marguerite, was convinced that Carson was a genius and organized the family around her development. An heirloom was sold to finance Carson’s piano studies at Juilliard, but she used the trip to take writing courses at Columbia and NYU. Returning to the South because of a misdiagnosed illness, later recognized as rheumatic fever, she published her first piece, “Wunderkind,” in Story Magazine at the age of 19.