McCullers: Canon Fodder?
The history of McCullers's literary reception is a very telling one. Those to whom and for whom her literature speaks love her and have remained devoted long after her death in 1967 at the age of 50. But her detractors are just as willing to pigeonhole McCullers and her work. In her lifetime and subsequently, her greatest supporters have been black or openly gay. Tennessee Williams, one of her closest friends, wrote her a fan letter after reading Heart. He repeatedly described her as "the greatest living writer of our country." Richard Wright, author of Black Boy, reviewed Heart in 1940 in The New Republic:
To me, the most impressive aspect of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude towards life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.
The lesbian novelist and diarist May Sarton wrote in the Boston Evening Transcript that one puts this book down "with a feeling of having been nourished by the truth."
On the other hand, dominant culture critics acknowledged her talent but were deliberate in their efforts to keep her in her place. Basil Davenport of Saturday Review said that McCullers did not comprehend the "bizarrerie" of her own characters. Clifton Fadiman urged her to find "something to laugh at in the grotesque." George Dangerfield called The Member of the Wedding "three really weird people sitting in an even weirder kitchen." He said that her characters were not "quite human" and remind one of faces seen "in a dream perhaps, in a tabloid newspaper possibly or out of a train window." Over and over again, dominant culture critics find her characters "grotesque" or "weird," while black and openly gay critics find her work whole, transforming and great.
In the New York Times obituary for McCullers, Eliot Fremont-Smith wrote that she "paved the way for what became the American Southern gothic genre.... [She] was neither prolific nor varying in her theme." Of course, no one is ever criticized in the New York Times for the crime of "unvarying themes" when their subject matter is white heterosexual romance. And of course, Southern writers are always considered regional, while Northeastern writers are considered geographically neutral. But "gothic" has always been a code word for "Southern," so why its repetition here? True, few white authors wrote such varied and complex black characters, but is that what the critics point to as "grotesque"? And it's not the Communist or Jewish characters in these forties novels that are "weird."
Physical disability is historically pathologized in literature and often appears as an outward sign of a character's inward immorality. McCullers herself was disabled. She suffered the first of three cerebral strokes at the age of 25 and was paralyzed for much of the last decade of her life. Yet her use of the physically disabled dates from "The Aliens," a story that was written in her teens. Like Gertrude Stein's use of blacks in Melanctha as a stand-in for her own Jewishness and homosexuality, McCullers's early use of Jews, and what the critics called "freaks," seems to be more of a projection of her own feelings of singularity than a realist representation.
But what really seems to irk the critics repeatedly are the homosexual tones in many if not most of McCullers's characters. Indeed, most of her creations can be read as homosexual, repressed homosexual, future homosexual or dysfunctionally heterosexual. Albert Erskine (husband of Katherine Anne Porter, whom McCullers essentially stalked when the two women were at Yaddo together) reportedly finished reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and declared, "That woman is a lesbian. I can tell from the author's mind in that novel and by what she makes her characters do and say." And yet there is not a single lesbian moment in the book, unless he counted tomboy Mick Kelly's sexual encounter with a boy named Harry as a coded stand-in. The most overtly homosexual situation in the novel is the mute John Singer's love for his mute friend Antonapoulos. The two share a home together, albeit in separate beds. But even more important, Singer lives for his friend. His love for Antonapolous is the moral center of Singer's life and death. So, is that why the book feels so homosexual? Perhaps it is the absence of the conventional heterosexual narrative of Romance, Marriage, Motherhood. Or perhaps it is the centrality of male and female characters--white, black, young, Communist, disabled--with complex intellectual and emotional lives who never give a thought to heterosexual romance.