“She was afraid of these things that made her suddenly wonder who she was, and what she was going to be in the world, and why she was standing at that minute, seeing a light, or listening, or staring up into the sky: alone.” ~ Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding
Sunday afternoon, cloudy, 49 degrees.
Wednesday was the birthday of American novelist, playwright, and poet Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917-September 29, 1967). Granted, I came to McCullers late in the game, not reading my first book by her until grad school—Reflections in a Golden Eye, written in 1941 (go here to download an e copy of the novel). However, once I had read that book, I was hooked, reading almost everything that she had written in quick succession. When I was still teaching, I always included something by McCullers on my literature syllabi, my favorite being her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940).
Most often, McCullers is classified as a Southern Gothic writer, in the same vein as Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams. Southern Gothic literature is so named because of its similarities to the Gothic genre, which arose in 18th century Britain. Key elements of Gothic literature include bleak, dark settings, and mysterious, sometimes supernatural plots filled with psychologically complex and damaged characters. Well-known examples of the genre include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
Gothic literature continued to flourish in the 19th century, influencing the works of Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart,” 1843), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886), and Nathanial Hawthorne (The House of the Seven Gables, 1851), all of which incorporated the Gothic motifs of suspense and horror, as well as characters with traumatized psyches. Often central to the overarching atmosphere of these works was a large, foreboding house harboring a terrible secret (Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights); the term Gothic actually derives from the architectural classification of late Medieval structures such as cathedrals that featured stone and glass incorporated into the arches and buttresses.
Elements of the Gothic tradition in literature continue today—the entire oeuvre of Stephen King or Anne Rice, for example—with sensational plots and characters steeped in mystery and the supernatural, with thematic spillover into movies and television shows featuring zombies, vampires, and werewolves.
“His own life seemed so solitary, a fragile column supporting nothing amidst the wreckage of the years.” Carson McCullers, from “The Sojourner”
While the roots of Southern Gothic literature stem from the Gothic tradition, Southern Gothic tends to focus less on the primary setting of singular creepy mansions and instead uses the concept of the sprawling Southern plantation or the small Southern town as the atmospheric backdrop. Much of Southern Gothic literature centers on the differences inherent in the mid 20th century South and the characters who reside there. For example, in Reflections, McCullers incubates her characters within the stultifying isolation of a military base in which characters self-mutilate and ultimately commit murder.
Southern Gothic first emerged as a sub genre in the work of William Faulkner in the 1920s, but it reached its peak in the period between the 1940s to the 1960s through the work of well-known authors such as McCullers, O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, and Harper Lee. I would be remiss if I did not mention the Southern Gothic masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), by Tennessee Williams; in fact, it was Williams who convinced his friend McCullers to turn her 1946 novel Member of the Wedding into the 1950 play, which won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the best play of the season.
Interestingly, many well-known Gothic novels and stories have been translated to movies and plays, with some having multiple adaptations over the years: McCullers’ Heart novel was adapted to film in 1968 and starred Alan Arkin and a young Sondra Locke. Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando starred in the 1967 film version of Reflections. Member was not only adapted into a play, but also into a film in both 1952 (garnering Julie Harris a best actress nomination) and 1997, as well as a TV adaptation in 1982.
“Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.” ~ Carson McCullers, from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
One key motif of both Gothic and Southern Gothic literature is the incorporation of the grotesque, which is defined in the literary sense as the ludicrous or abnormal, in other words, whatever or whoever deviates from traditional societal norms, especially as relates to the body and the many ways in which it can be exaggerated or distorted, a la the Frankenstein monster. McCullers was particularly skilled in incorporating the overarching Gothic idea of the grotesque into her characterizations: witness John Singer, the deaf-mute protagonist of Heart, whose physical differences caused him such emotional pain and mental anguish. He moves through his life with an overarching sense of alienation that allows him no permanent place in this world, which in turn leads to his suicide.
McCullers creates within so many of her characters this sense of other as a deliberate mechanism for portraying the wretchedness of the human condition. Her stories are populated by those set apart from the mainstream by race, sexuality, and deformity, and then she further isolates these characters through complex themes such as bisexuality, impotency, bestiality, and murder. But perhaps the leitmotif that permeates her work more than any other is that of need: her characters’ need for love, for understanding, for companionship, for sex, for strength, for belonging. She creates these needs, but rarely offers the satisfaction of successfully achieving any of them.
I always thought that her characters in Heart are indeed both grotesque and sublime—creations that the reader can both love and fear because we fear what we do not know, whether it be a mute or an individual institutionalized for mental illness (Spiros). Singer was a masterpiece of contractions: He could not hear, but he loved music, or the idea of music. He could not speak but was named singer. Oddly, the person in the boarding house who is deemed the best listener is the deaf man. Overall, the book’s characters are all lone hunters, with each seemingly hunting something different yet at the same time, each hunting a way out of loneliness.
“What did he understand? Nothing. Where was he headed? Nowhere. What did he want? To know. What? A meaning. Why? A riddle.” ~ Carson McCullers, from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Anyway, not really sure how I ended up writing so much about Southern Gothic literature when I had originally just wanted to mention McCullers’ birthday; I finally had to stop myself when I realized that I was going into a full-blown academic analysis of her, and the Gothic tradition, etc. . . . that, plus I began this post on Wednesday, so it was long overdue for completion. Truthfully, though, I miss writing research papers, which is why so many of my posts contain elements inherent to pedagogy.
Nevertheless, I never even touched on McCullers as a person, which is in large part why I have always been so fascinated with her, but that’s a whole other post’s worth of words, and then some. But truly, McCullers was brilliant, and like many brilliant people she was very troubled, so perhaps I’ll write about that and the bourbon some other time, but this is quite enough for today.
More later. Peace.
Music by The Dead South, “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company”