A riff on rereading Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

  1. I’m not really sure what made me pick up Carson McCullers’ 1940 début novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to read again.
  2. Actually, writing that sentence makes me remember: I was purging books, and the edition I have is extremely unattractive; I was considering trading it in. But I started reading it, realizing that I hadn’t reread it ever, that I hadn’t read it since I was probably a senior in high school or maybe a college freshman.
  3. So it was maybe two decades ago that I first read it. I would’ve been maybe 18, about five years younger than McCullers was when the novel was published (and not much older than its protagonist Mick Kelly). The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter never stuck with me like The Ballad of the Sad Café or her short stories did, but I remember at the time thinking it far superior to Faulkner—more lucid in its description of the Deep South’s abjection. (I struggled with Faulkner when I was young, but now see his tangled sentences and thick murky paragraphs are a wholly appropriate rhetorical reckoning with the nightmare of Southern history).
  4. And of course I preferred Flannery O’Connor to both at the time—her writing was simultaneously lucid and acid, cruel and funny. Maybe I still like her best of the three.
  5. O’Connor, in a 1963 letter: “I dislike intensely the work of Carson McCullers.”
  6. O’Connor again:

    When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.

  7. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is at its best when it is at its most grotesque, which is to say, most realistic.
  8. Here’s a sample of that grotesque dirty realism from very late in the book, as Jake Blount (an alcoholic and would-be revolutionary) departs the small, unnamed Georgia town that the novel is set in—and the narrative:

    The door closed behind him. When he looked back at the end of the black, Brannon was watching from the sidewalk. He walked until he reached the railroad tracks. On either side there were rows of dilapidated two-room houses. In the cramped back yards were rotted privies and lines of torn, smoky rags hung out to dry. For two miles there was not one sight of comfort or space or cleanliness. Even the earth itself seemed filthy and abandoned. Now and then there were signs that a vegetable row had been attempted, but only a few withered collards had survived. And a few fruitless, smutty fig trees. Little younguns swarmed in this filth, the smaller of them stark naked. The sight of this poverty was so cruel and hopeless that Jake snarled and clenched his fists.

  9. The passage showcases some of McCullers’ best and worst prose tendencies. Her evocation of the South’s rural poverty condenses wonderfully in the image of “a few fruitless, smutty fig trees” — smutty!—but there’s also an underlying resort to cliché, into placeholders — “stark naked”; “clenched his fists.”
  10. (Maybe you think I’m picking on McCullers here, yes? Not my intention. I’ll confess I read a career-spanning compendium of Barry Hannah’s short stories, Long, Last, Happy right before I read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and McCullers simply can’t match sentences with Our Barry. It’s an unfair comparison, sure. But).
  11. But McCullers was only 23 when The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published. Stock phrases must be forgiven, yes? Yes.
  12. And there are plenty of great moments on the page, like this one, in which (McCullers’ stand-in) Mick Kelly tries her young hand at writing:

    The rooms smelled of new wood, and when she walked the soles of her tennis shoes made a flopping sound that echoed through all the house. The air was hot and quiet. She stood still in the middle of the front room for a while, and then she suddenly thought of something. She fished in her pocket and brought out two stubs of chalk—one green and the other red. Mick drew the big block letters very slowly. At the top she wrote EDISON, and under that she drew the names of DICK TRACY and MUSSOLINI. Then in each corner with the largest letters of all, made with green and outlined in red, she wrote her initials—M.K. When that was done she crossed over to the opposite wall and wrote a very bad word—PUSSY, and beneath that she put her initials, too. She stood in the middle of the empty room and stared at what she had done. The chalk was still in her hands and she did not feel really satisfied.

    Who is ever really satisfied with their own writing though?

  13. We’re several hundred words into this riff and I’ve failed to summarize the plot of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. There really isn’t a plot per se, actually—sure, there are a development of ideas, themes, motifs, characters—yep—and sure, lots of things happen (the novel is episodic)—but there isn’t really a plot.
  14. The point above is absurd. Of course there is a plot, one which you could easily diagram in fact. Such a diagram would describe the sad strands of four misfits gravitating toward the deaf-mute, John Singer, the silent center of this sad novel. These sad strands tangle, yet ultimately fail to cohere into any kind of harmony with each other. Even worse, these strands fail to make a true connection with Singer. The misfits all essentially use him as a sounding board, a mute confessional booth. They think they love him, but they love his silence, they love his listening. They don’t learn about his own strange love and his own strange sadness.
  15. Or, if you really want to oversimplify plot: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is about growing up. In a novel with a number of tragic trajectories, it’s somehow the ending of the Mick Kelly thread that I found most affecting. She still dreams of making great grand music, of writing songs the world would love—but McCullers leaves her standing on her feet working overtime in Woolworth’s to get her family out of the hole. This is the curse of adulthood, of grasping onto dreams even as the world flattens them out into a big boring nothing. The final lines McCullers gives her, via the novel’s free indirect style, strike me as ambiguous:

    …what the hell good had it all been—the way she felt about music and the plans she had made in the inside room? It had to be some good if anything made sense. And it was too and it was too and it was
    too and it was too. It was some good.
    All right!
    O.K!
    Some good.

  16. Is Mick’s self-talk here a defense against disillusionment—one haunted by the truth of life’s awful boring ugliness—or a genuine earnest rallying against the ugliness—or perhaps a mix of both? “Some good” can be read both ironically and earnestly.
  17. Its navigation of irony and earnestness is where I find the novel most off balance. There’s a clumsy cynicism to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—a justified cynicism, to be sure, given its themes of racism, classicism, modern alienation—but McCullers’ approach to sussing out her big themes is often heavy-handed. Too often characters’ speeches and dialogues—particularly those of the working-class socialist Blount and Dr. Copeland, a black Marxist—feel forced. Entire dialectics that seem lifted from college lecture notes are shoved into characters’ mouths. Still: if I sometimes found such moments insufferable, McCullers nevertheless reminded me that she was pointedly addressing suffering.
  18. The earnestness there is mature, but the cynicism isn’t. I’m not quite sure what I mean by this—the cynicism isn’t deep? The cynicism is a pose, a viewpoint not fully, but nevertheless freshly, lived in. The cynicism is the cynicism that some of us like to try on when we’re 18, 19, 20, 21.
  19. And re: the point above—that’s good, right? I mean it’s good that McCullers channeled this pure and very real anger into her novel. Maybe I failed the novel, this time, in rereading it twenty years later and thinking repeatedly, But that’s the way the world is: Often awful and almost always unfair. Blount and Copeland are interesting but essentially paralyzed characters; they howl against injustice but McCullers can only make them act in modes of ineffective despair.
  20. Despair. This is a sad novel—a realistically sad novel, a grotesquely sad novel—sympathetic but never sentimental. (We Southerners love sugar and sentiment; bless her heart, McCullers cuts any hint of the latter out. And if Mick Kelly enjoys an ice cream sundae for her last dinner in the novel, note that she chases it with a bitter beer that gets her just drunk enough to keep going).
  21. But some of us like to laugh at and with despair, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter serves up a big bitter brew without a heady or hearty laugh to help you swallow it down. The novel’s humorlessness was perhaps by design—these characters dwell in absurd abjection. But absurdity often calls for a laugh, and laughter is not always sugar sweetness, but rather can be a reveling in bitterness—perhaps what I mean here, is that laughter is a sincere and deep reckoning with mature cynicism.
  22. I quoted O’Connor above, in point six; in the same lecture, she warned against writers (particularly Southern writers) giving into the need of the “tired reader…to be lifted up.” O’Connor often forced her characters into moments of radical redemption, moments that complicate her “tired reader’s” desire to have his “senses tormented or his spirits raised.” This modern reader, according to O’Connor, “wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.” For O’Connor, the modern reader’s “sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.” Restoration in O’Connor’s fiction is always purchased at a heavy cost—many readers can only see the cost, and not the redemption in her calculus.
  23. And restoration in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? Perhaps the novel’s greatest strength is its lack of sentimentality, its unwillingness to restore its characters to a mythical Eden. Indeed, McCullers’ setting never even posits a grace from which her characters might fall. Instead, the novel’s final moments leave us “suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith.” Any restoration is impermanent, as the final line suggests: “And when at last he was inside again he composed himself soberly to await the morning sun.” If the morning sun promises a new tomorrow, a futurity, that futurity is nevertheless conditioned by the need to repeatedly “compose” oneself into a new being, always under the duress of “bitter irony and faith.” McCullers’ plot might side with bitter irony, but her belief in her characters’ beliefs—belief in the powers of art, politics, and above all love—point ultimately to an earnest faith in humanity to compose itself anew.
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Flannery O’Connor on Carson McCullers

All of the times that Flannery O’Connor mentions Carson McCullers in her letters collected in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor:

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I read in the paper that Carson McCullers is going to have a play shortly to be called The Square Root of Wonderful—a title that makes me cringe. (8 Oct. 1957)

…Paul Levine [is] preparing a book on 6 writers—McCullers, Capote, Buechner, Bellow, Salinger, and me… (25 June 1960)

I haven’t read [Frederick] Buechner myself, but if I was writing it I would throw out Capote in favor of Malamud and Carson McCullers in favor of [J.F.] Powers. (9 July 1960)

Last week Houghton Mifflin sent me a book called Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers. This long-awaited-by-the-faithful book will come out in September. I believe it is the worst book I have ever read. It is incredible…It must signal the complete disintegration of this woman’s talent. I have forgotten how the other three were, but they were at least respectable from the writing standpoint. (26 July 1961)

If you ever go to the Albee-McCullers [play] let me know what you think about it? … Did you ever consider Wise Blood as a possibility for dramatizing? If the times were different I would suggest that, but I think it would just be taken for the super-grotesque sub-Carson McCullers sort of thing that I couldn’t stand the sight or sound of. (5 Nov. 1963)

I was interested in the reviews of the Carson McCullers adaptation. I dislike intensely the work of Carson McCullers but it is interesting to see what is made of it in the theatre, and by Edward Albee at that. (28 Nov. 1963)

 

Three Books

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Mass market paperback by Bantam, 10th ed., 1986. No designer credited, but the cover illustration is a 1981 painting by Doug Johnson, and it is the sole reason that I’ve held onto this copy for over a decade now, since I first used it as part of a class set for an eleventh grade English class I used to teach. Perhaps from a technical standpoint, I stole this book.

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Chimera by John Barth. Mass market paperback by Fawcett Crest, 1973.  No designer credited, and the cover artist isn’t named in the colophon or on the back–but the cover is signed. Perhaps the original hardback, which shares this illustration, credited the artist. I read this book in the right place and at the right time—I was a junior or senior in college, obsessed with postmodernism as a technique (rather than postmodernism as a description), and Chimera’s intense gamesmanship enchanted me. I’m pretty sure I read it after Lost in the Funhouse, and that after Wallace’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way. I bought this copy eight or nine years ago (having read it first as a library book), and attempted a reread and was…less impressed. Still, it would be hard for me to overstate how much Chimera did for me—how much it showcased the possibilities of literature and storytelling.

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The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers. Mass market paperback edition by Bantam. No designer or cover artist credited—which is too bad because I love the image. The most recent date on the colophon is 1971 but I am pretty sure the book was published in 1996. I bought it in 1997. It was assigned reading for a creative writing class, and that—along with Johnson’s Jesus’ Son—were the only good things to come out of that misery. (My instructor would not shut the fuck up about “craft,” and he singled out the simile I was most proud of in one of my stories as “a bit much”).

Today’s Three Books’ mass market paperbacks are part of a small cadre of a once-large selection, winnowed away over the years, usually given away to students, etc. (I have an extra copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my car, should you need one).

“The Jockey,” A Short Story by Carson McCullers

“The Jockey” by Carson McCullers

The jockey came to the doorway of the dining room, then after a moment stepped to one side and stood motionless, with his back to the wall. The room was crowded, as this was the third day of the season and all the hotels in the town were full. In the dining room bouquets of August roses scattered their petals on the white table linen and from the adjoining bar came a warm, drunken wash of voices. The jockey waited with his back to the wall and scrutinized the room with pinched, crêpy eyes. He examined the room until at last his eyes reached a table in a corner diagonally across from him, at which three men were sitting. As he watched, the jockey raised his chin and tilted his head back to one side, his dwarfed body grew rigid, and his hands stiffened so that the fingers curled inward like gray claws. Tense against the wall of the dining room, he watched and waited in this way.

He was wearing a suit of green Chinese silk that evening, tailored precisely and the size of a costume outfit for a child. The shirt was yellow, the tie striped with pastel colors. He had no hat with him and wore his hair brushed down in a stiff, wet bang on his forehead. His face was drawn, ageless, and gray. There were shadowed hollows at his temples and his mouth was set in a wiry smile. After a time he was aware that he had been seen by one of the three men he had been watching. But the jockey did not nod; he only raised his chin still higher and hooked the thumb of his tense hand in the pocket of his coat.

The three men at the corner table were a trainer, a bookie, and a rich man. The trainer was Sylvester — a large, loosely built fellow with a flushed nose and slow blue eyes. The bookie was Simmons. The rich man was the owner of a horse named Seltzer, which the jockey had ridden that afternoon. The three of them drank whiskey with soda, and a white-coated waiter had just brought on the main course of the dinner. Continue reading ““The Jockey,” A Short Story by Carson McCullers”

“Stone Is Not Stone” — Carson McCullers

“Stone Is Not Stone” by Carson McCullers–

There was a time when stone was stone
And a face on the street was a finished face.
Between the Thing, myself and God alone
There was an instant symmetry.
Since you have altered all my world this trinity is twisted:

Stone is not stone
And faces like the fractioned characters in dreams are incomplete
Until in the child’s inchoate face
I recognize your exiled eyes.
The soldier climbs the glaring stair leaving your shadow.
Tonight, this torn room sleeps
Beneath the starlight bent by you.

Read “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud,” a Short Story by Carson McCullers

“A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” by Carson McCullers

It was raining that morning, and still very dark. When the boy reached the streetcar café he had almost finished his route and he went in for a cup of coffee. The place was an all-night café owned by a bitter and stingy man called Leo. After the raw, empty street, the café seemed friendly and bright: along the counter there were a couple of soldiers, three spinners from the cotton mill, and in a corner a man who sat hunched over with his nose and half his face down in a beer mug. The boy wore a helmet such as aviators wear. When he went into the café he unbuckled the chin strap and raised the right flap up over his pink little ear; often as he drank his coffee someone would speak to him in a friendly way. But this morning Leo did not look into his face and none of the men were talking. He paid and was leaving the café when a voice called out to him:

“Son! Hey Son!”

He turned back and the man in the corner was crooking his finger and nodding to him. He had brought his face out of the beer mug and he seemed suddenly very happy. The man was long and pale, with a big nose and faded orange hair.

“Hey Son!”

The boy went toward him. He was an undersized boy of about twelve, with one shoulder drawn higher than the other because of the weight of the paper sack. His face was shallow, freckled, and his eyes were round child eyes.

“Yeah Mister?”

The man laid one hand on the paper boy’s shoulders, then grasped the boy’s chin and turned his face slowly from one side to the other. The boy shrank back uneasily.

“Say! What’s the big idea?”

The boy’s voice was shrill; inside the café it was suddenly very quiet.

The man said slowly. “I love you.”

All along the counter the men laughed. The boy, who had scowled and sidled away, did not know what to do. He looked over the counter at Leo, and Leo watched him with a weary, brittle jeer. The boy tried to laugh also. But the man was serious and sad.

“I did not mean to tease you, Son,” he said. “Sit down and have a beer with me. There is something I have to explain.”

Cautiously, out of the corner of his eye, the paper boy questioned the men along the counter to see what he should do. But they had gone back to their beer or their breakfast and did not notice him. Leo put a cup of coffee on the counter and a little jug of cream.

“He is a minor,” Leo said. Continue reading “Read “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud,” a Short Story by Carson McCullers”

“Carson McCullers” — Charles Bukowski

 

“Carson McCullers,” a poem by Charles Bukowski—

 

she died of alcoholism
wrapped in a blanket
on a deck chair
on an ocean
steamer.

all her books of
terrified loneliness

all her books about
the cruelty
of loveless love

were all that was left
of her

as the strolling vacationer
discovered her body

notified the captain

and she was quickly dispatched
to somewhere else
on the ship

as everything
continued just
as
she had written it

 

 

Edward Albee Talks About Carson McCullers (Video)

“The Jockey,” A Short Story by Carson McCullers

“The Jockey” by Carson McCullers

The jockey came to the doorway of the dining room, then after a moment stepped to one side and stood motionless, with his back to the wall. The room was crowded, as this was the third day of the season and all the hotels in the town were full. In the dining room bouquets of August roses scattered their petals on the white table linen and from the adjoining bar came a warm, drunken wash of voices. The jockey waited with his back to the wall and scrutinized the room with pinched, crêpy eyes. He examined the room until at last his eyes reached a table in a corner diagonally across from him, at which three men were sitting. As he watched, the jockey raised his chin and tilted his head back to one side, his dwarfed body grew rigid, and his hands stiffened so that the fingers curled inward like gray claws. Tense against the wall of the dining room, he watched and waited in this way.

He was wearing a suit of green Chinese silk that evening, tailored precisely and the size of a costume outfit for a child. The shirt was yellow, the tie striped with pastel colors. He had no hat with him and wore his hair brushed down in a stiff, wet bang on his forehead. His face was drawn, ageless, and gray. There were shadowed hollows at his temples and his mouth was set in a wiry smile. After a time he was aware that he had been seen by one of the three men he had been watching. But the jockey did not nod; he only raised his chin still higher and hooked the thumb of his tense hand in the pocket of his coat.

The three men at the corner table were a trainer, a bookie, and a rich man. The trainer was Sylvester — a large, loosely built fellow with a flushed nose and slow blue eyes. The bookie was Simmons. The rich man was the owner of a horse named Seltzer, which the jockey had ridden that afternoon. The three of them drank whiskey with soda, and a white-coated waiter had just brought on the main course of the dinner. Continue reading ““The Jockey,” A Short Story by Carson McCullers”

Just a Bunch of Pics of Carson McCullers Smoking

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When I put together this post of writers smoking, I knew I wanted a pic of Carson McCullers; a basic image search evinces that most pictures of McCullers feature her smoking, or at least posing with a cigarette (also drinking). On one hand, this is a hoary old trope, the hard smoking writer; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that McCullers was never far from a smoke. NB: The man pictured by McCullers in one of the images is the playwright Edward Albee.