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.
Grace Paley has noted that writers choose their themes quite young and often grow old with them. That’s why we read so many different kinds of writers. “Wunderkind” is the prototype of McCullers’s most common fictive structure. The plot involves a 15-year-old female concert violinist who is studying with a Jewish teacher, Mr. Lafkowitz. As his oddly spelled name implies, Carson had no direct experience of Jews but they were tremendously important to her symbolically. In the story, the girl wonders why the Jewish musicians play with so much feeling while her own performances are thin and disappointing. Of course, in 1936 the Jewish metaphor for pain and its subsequent depth and passion was widely available. But it was here that McCullers began a lifelong investigation of Jews, blacks, the physically disabled and homosexuals as reflections of an overly self-aware adolescent girl stepping out of her own traditional gender role. This paradigm was both her doing and her undoing. In fascinating ways it equally placated and violated the caste requirements of a rigid but unaware literary establishment and enabled her content to be accepted as American literature with mitigated and diminishing parameters.
In her next story, this Jew is headed south on a segregated bus, and soon he reappears with the name Singer in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. There he is a deaf-mute, living with the man he loves, in a small Southern town where all the other outsiders come to tell him their sorrows. The black Communist doctor, the lonely union organizer, the young tomboy, the sexually confused bar owner–all come to Singer, the man who cannot hear or speak. McCullers published Heart in 1940 at the age of 23, to wild acclaim. Professionally, her entitled upbringing and seductive, needy personality helped her exploit every career opportunity. Within two months of publication she had befriended Erika and Klaus Mann and gone to Bread Loaf, where she ingratiated herself with the powerful Louis Untermeyer. Two months after that she left her husband of three years, Reeves McCullers, to move into a collective house in Brooklyn with W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Richard Wright, and befriended Gypsy Rose Lee. In the fall and winter of that transformative year she did significant work on her next novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and “The Bride and Her Brother,” which would later become The Member of the Wedding.
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.
Because the homosexual shadings are ever-present but impossible to isolate, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter passed as “gothic,” not as gay. Her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, was far more overt and faced an entirely different kind of reception. This novel has two openly gay male characters, a married Army sergeant and a Filipino houseboy. It also involves voyeurism and female sexual mutilation, and though nothing happens that doesn’t really happen, McCullers’s bold honesty cost her a great deal of public approval. In fact, Tennessee Williams felt compelled to defend Reflections in his introduction to a later edition, and it remains the only McCullers book currently out of print.
In the thirties, when Heart was being written, books with unambiguous and primary lesbian content were already well-known. Of course, there was Radclyffe Hall’s notorious The Well of Loneliness, but also Dorothy Richardson’s Dawn’s Left Hand, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel, among many others. Carlos Dews bestows a great gift by including “The Mute” in his edition of Illumination and Night Glare, for this outline of Heart was previously to be found only in Oliver Evans’s compendium The Ballad of Carson McCullers (1965).
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Here we learn a startling truth about McCullers’s volition and choices in her depiction of homosexuality. In “The Mute” McCullers delineates a major character, Lily Mae Jenkins, the only person to appear in the outline who was later cut from the novel. Lily Mae is an “abandoned, waifish Negro homosexual.” He is a carnival worker, skilled in music and dancing, and a friend of the novel’s other black characters. As Portia, the Kellys’ cook, explains to her father, Dr. Copeland, “Lily Mae is right pitiful now. I don’t know if you ever noticed any boys like this but he cares for mens instead of girls. When he were younger he used to be real cute. He were all the time dressing up in girls’ clothes and laughing. Everybody thought he were real cute then. But now he getting old and he seem different. He all the time hungry and he real pitiful…. He dances for me and I gives him a little dinner.” Of course, we cannot know why Carson chose to cut the only overt homosexual in the novel, or why she dared to depict two in Reflections. Perhaps it is because, despite the overwhelming homosexual content and sensibility in all of her work, McCullers’s own homosexuality held the same imbalance of blatancy and subduction.
McCullers married Reeves at 20, left him at 23 and remarried him after his return from World War II. In the interim he had a love relationship with the composer David Diamond, and the two lived together in Rochester. Reeves, an alcoholic, finally committed suicide in a Paris hotel room in 1953. Aside from her long, fraught, gin-soaked relationship with her husband, Carson never had another serious sexual partner. She fell in love with a number of women and pursued them sexually with great aggression, but seems not to have succeeded in having sex with any of them. Her most documented and extended love obsession was with a wealthy European, Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, with whom, she reports in her autobiography, she shared one kiss. There is the infamous obsession with Katherine Anne Porter and a much-implied ongoing “friendship” with Gypsy Rose Lee. But if Carson ever actually had sex with a woman, even Tennessee didn’t hear of it. According to McCullers’s brilliant biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, Carson did brag to her male cousin that she’d had sex with Gypsy once. But if that was the case, she never mentioned it to any of her gay friends. In the absence of reciprocated lesbian love and the inability to consummate lesbian sex, McCullers still wore a lesbian persona in literature and in life. She clearly wrote against the grain of heterosexual convention, wore men’s clothes, was outrageously aggressive in her consistently failed search for sex and love with another woman, and formed primary friendships with other gay people.
In contrast to the condition of the lesbian writer today, who may be out publicly but must closet her content in order to achieve literary neutrality, McCullers was in quite the other boat. Because she yearned to live out her homosexuality but could never find a willing partner, its expression came through her literature. When that expression was coded her books were better received, and when it was less oblique the enthusiasm was diminished. And so her failure in life to connect intimately with another woman was transformed into a charged yet coded literary expression that spoke to many readers who identified as Other. Her work gives us the opportunity to be the moral center of at least one author’s vision of an American literature and therefore achieve the elusive neutrality of citizenship.