A Fresh Perspective on Carson McCullers

Review by Joseph B. Rosenberg

Carson McCullers: A Life

by Josyane Savigneau
Translated from French by Joan E. Howard
Houghton Mifflin, 2001

Lula Carson, an awkward teenager like her characters Mick Kelly and Frankie Addams, blossomed into one of the most influential writers of the past century, Carson McCullers.

Savigneau uses McCullers’ correspondence and interviews to assemble her depiction of this writer’s brief (1917-1967) but meaningful life.

Starting with her early works, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye, McCullers explored alienation and sexuality in a way that inspired other writers to explore these issues—including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and probably 99 percent of women taking American literature courses in the 1940s through 1960s.

Like many true artists, McCullers had her vices and foibles. Married twice to Reese McCullers, the couple’s drinking and bisexuality led to the husband’s suicide and a series of strokes for McCullers. In frail health, McCullers wrote two short stories: “The Ballad of the Sad Café” and “The Member of the Wedding,” which cemented her place in literature. The latter is her most sustaining work, and has been staged as a great play and a so-so movie.

In “Member” and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the author is a quiet advocate for what was called, at the time, civil rights, showing strong African-American characters.

There is an excellent version on video of “The Ballad of the Sad Café” with Vanessa Redgrave that captures the dysfunction of the characters of that book. John Huston’s movie version of Golden Eye also stays true to the weirdness of that work. Only the movie of The Lonely Hunter disappoints because, although Alan Arkin is wonderful, this 1967 film buries the sexual ambivalence of the deaf mute, Mr. Singer, and other characters as well as the racial tensions. A man everyone confided to, Singer’s suicide is a shattering event, eerily presaging the death of Reeves McCullers 15 years later.

All this is discussed in 329 sensitively-written pages.

There are over two dozen books about Carson McCullers—most are scholarly tomes. It has taken this Frenchwoman to bring the artist to life. And it is indeed a life to be celebrated.

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This story was published on December 4, 2002.