Bookish Birthdays: Carson McCullers

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Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, on February 19, 1917, the eldest child of Lamar and Marguerite Waters Smith. Her father was a watchmaker of French-Huguenot extraction, and her grandfather had been a plantation owner and Confederate war hero.

As a young girl, encouraged by her mother, Carson dreamed of being a concert pianist. But while still in high school, Carson contracted rheumatic fever.

It was around this time that Carson told a friend she had decided to become a writer, and when she was fifteen, her father gave her a typewriter. She was influenced by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov, and the American playwright, Eugene O’Neill.

At seventeen, Carson moved to New York City. Her first story, Wunderkind – about a girl who realises she isn’t a musical prodigy – was published in 1936. A year later, she married another aspiring writer, James Reeves McCullers.

While living with Reeves back in North Carolina, and recuperating from serious illness, Carson wrote her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. A second book, Reflections in a Golden Eye, was published in 1940.

After 1941, Carson’s health declined further. Devastated by her father’s death, she drank heavily. Her marriage collapsed, and she returned to Brooklyn to join an artist’s commune at February House.

Her third novel, The Member of the Wedding, was published in 1946, when she remarried her ex-husband. In 1947, aged thirty, Carson suffered two strokes, leaving her paralysed on the left side. She attempted suicide.

Over the next few years, she befriended the dramatist Tennessee Williams, who helped her to adapt The Member of the Wedding for the stage. A novella, The Ballad of the Sad Café, was published in 1951.

However, her marital woes continued. Reeves McCullers was acutely depressed by his own career failures, and after he tried to persuade Carson into a suicide pact, she left him. He died after overdosing on sleeping pills in 1953.

Reeling from another painful loss – her mother died in 1955 – McCullers threw herself into work. But her next play – The Square Root of Wonderful – closed after just forty-five performances.

Her final novel, Clock Without Hands, was published in 1961. A Broadway production of Sad Café, co-written with Edward Albee, opened in 1963.

Carson McCullers died on September 29, 1967, after suffering another stroke and a massive brain haemorrhage which left her comatose for forty-seven days.

I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand,’ director John Huston wrote. ‘But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger.’

In 1971, The Mortgaged Heart – a collection of essays, articles and poems – was compiled by Carson’s sister, Marguerite. Her Collected Stories are now in print, as well as an unfinished memoir, Illumination and Night Glare.

McCullers wrote about loneliness and outcasts in the American South. Her stories were often tragic, but not without humour and a subtly political edge. She had affairs with both men and women, and sexual difference is a recurring theme in her work.

All of her novels have been filmed. Last year, the New York-based singer-songwriter, Suzanne Vega, starred in a self-penned, off-Broadway tribute, Carson McCullers Talks About Love; and a bio-pic based on Virginia Spencer Carr’s biography, The Lonely Hunter, is also planned.

Tara Hanks