Carson McCullers biography
Born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, Carson McCullers gained early critical and commercial success for her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. During WWII, McCullers lived in "The February House," a Brooklyn artist's commune, where s
Writer. Born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia. Along with Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers was one of the leading female writers of southern gothic fiction in the twentieth century. The daughter of a jewelry store owner, she first aspired to be a musician. McCullers started piano lessons beginning at the age of ten and moved to New York City in 1934 to reportedly study at the famed Juilliard School of Music.
An earlier bout of rheumatic fever, however, left McCullers pondering her career choice. She had become interested in writing during her recovery. In New York, she abandoned music to pursue this new passion. While working a variety of jobs, McCullers took creative writing classes at Columbia University and New York University.
Success came early to this young writer. At the age of 19, McCullers had her first story, “Wunderkind,” published in the December 1936 issue of Story magazine, which was edited by her former writing teacher Whit Burnett. The story explored the painful revelation of a young girl who discovers that she is not a musical prodigy.
Around the time of the story’s publication, McCullers was in her hometown recovering from an illness. She was in a relationship with James Reeves McCullers Jr., whom she had met through a friend. The following year, the two married in September—a union that would prove to be quite stormy over the years. There was some jealousy between the pair—her husband also wrote—and both were heavy drinkers.
In 1940, McCullers received an enormous amount of critical praise and commercial success with her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The work centered on a deaf-mute who finds himself the listening post for four members of a small Georgia town—a restaurant owner, a political activist, an African American doctor, and a teenaged girl. Through their stories, the characters reveal their frustrations, their loneliness, and their isolation from those around them.
While her career was taking off, McCullers was going through a difficult time personally, however. Separated from her husband, she joined several other literary and artistic talents, such as author Richard Wright and composer Leonard Bernstein, to live in a house in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Called the February House by Anais Nin, the residence was owned by Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis.
Divorced from her husband in 1941, McCullers had mixed results with her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, which was published that same year. (It had appeared earlier in Harper’s Bazaar.) It drew a number of negative reviews but had some commercial success.
Continuing her exploration of loneliness and isolation, the work was more provocative than her first novel, tackling issues relating to impotency, bisexuality, infidelity, bestiality, and murder. Some of elements of the stormy relationships depicted in this story may have been inspired by her own marriage—both she and her husband were bisexual and had affairs.
The Ballad of the Sad Café
That same year, Carson grappled with some health issues. She made her first visit to the Yaddo Artists’ Colony in New York where she started her next major work, The Ballad of the Sad Café, which was first published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1943. In this story, McCullers wrote about a love triangle in a small southern town. Some consider this to be one of her best works.
While she had divorced her husband, McCullers remained close to Reeves and the pair decided to remarry in 1945. Her career continued to thrive with the publication of the novella The Member of the Wedding the following year. In this story, the narrator—a young teenage girl—wants to be with her older brother and his bride. Also in 1946, McCullers met a young, gifted writer named Truman Capote through her sister Rita. The two became fast friends, and McCullers helped launch his career. Unfortunately, the friendship later soured over McCullers’ concerns that Capote may have used some of her material and that he was not properly grateful enough to her for her assistance in his success.
Having struggled with health problems much of her life, McCullers was dealt another devastating blow in 1947 when she had two strokes—one in August and one in November, which left her paralyzed on one side. She grew increasingly despondent over her poor health, leading a suicide attempt in 1948. Recovering physically and emotionally from the incident, McCullers spent much of the latter part of the year with friend and famous playwright Tennessee Williams, working on a stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding. In January 1950, her play opened on Broadway to strong reviews. It even won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play that year.
In the early 1950s, McCullers spent a lot of time in Europe with her husband and such literary friends as poet W. H. Auden, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams. Reeves McCullers was increasingly depressed and wanted to Carson and himself to commit suicide together. Fearing for her own well being, Carson returned to the United States in 1953, and Reeves ended his own life in a Paris hotel by taking an overdose of sleeping pills in November of that year.
Her next efforts failed to live up to her earlier successes. In 1957, her play The Square Root of Wonderful opened on Broadway, but closed after only 45 performances. Her final novel, Clock Without Hands, was published in 1961 without garnering much critical attention or commercial interest. The following year, McCullers had surgery to remove a cancerous breast and another surgery to fix her paralyzed left hand.
Her final work, a collection of children’s verse entitled Sweet as a Pickle, Clean as a Pig, was published in 1964. Around this time, Edward Albee’s adaptation of McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café debuted on Broadway. The play earned six Tony Award nominations.
McCullers suffered a final stroke on August 15, 1967, which left her in a coma for 46 days. She died on September 29 at the Nyack Hospital and was later buried at the town’s Oak Hill Cemetery. More than 200 people attended her funeral, including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams and actresses Myrna Loy and Julie Harris.
Shortly after her death, the first film adaptation of her work was released. Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor starred in Reflections in a Golden Eye. The following year, the film version of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968) appeared on the big screen and netted Academy Award nominations for two of its stars—Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke.
In recent years, there has been a revived interest in McCullers’s work. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey selected McCullers’s first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, for her popular book club in 2004, sending paperback sales soaring. More than 60 years after its original publication, the novel’s themes of loneliness and isolation still speaks today’s readers.