Sunday, February 15, 2009

BC About the Author: Carson McCullers

Lula Carson Smith (Carson McCullers) was born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, the daughter of a well-to-do watchmaker and jeweler. She was a precocious child encouraged by an indulgent mother to pursue her talents. She began piano lessons at age five and became an awkward and isolated prodigy. At 17, she entered the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York City, but poor health prevented her from going to classes. Instead, she took a series of odd jobs by day and studied writing at Columbia University at night.

At 23, McCullers wrote her first book, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a novel in the Southern Gothic tradition. It was a bestseller and instantly established McCullers on the American literary scene. Critics hailed her as a major emerging talent. The novel explores the inability of human beings to soothe others' loneliness. +/-
Critics loved the way McCullers recreated the closed-in atmosphere of a Southern small town. They also admired how sympathetically the characters were portrayed despite their obvious failings. The title, suggested by McCullers's editor, was taken from Fiona MacLeod's poem "The Lonely Hunter."

McCullers's health was never good, but by the time she was 30, it began to seriously hamper her career. In 1947, she suffered a series of strokes which left her blinded in the right eye and partially paralyzed. She could type with only one hand, and produced only a page a day. In 1948, in despair over her physical condition, McCullers became suicidal. Her husband also tried to commit suicide because of his lack of success in a career and their unstable marriage, and he unfortunately succeeded in 1953.

Her personal difficulties greatly diminished her literary output. McCullers wrote several books, two television screenplays, two theater plays, and two children's books, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig and Sucker (published posthumously). Many of her books have been controversial, dealing with subject matter such as homosexuality, bisexuality (something McCullers personally struggled with), bigotry, and murder.

In 1967, McCullers suffered another stroke and soon died at the age of 50. The Mortgaged Heart: The Previously Uncollected Writings of Carson McCullers, came out in 1971, in which McCullers explained her themes: "Love, and especially love of a person who is incapable of returning or receiving it, is at the heart of my selection of grotesque figures to write about—people whose physical incapacity is a symbol of their spiritual isolation."

Critic Robert F. Kiernan once noted that McCullers was "an eccentric, self-centered woman, preoccupied with money, with literary success, and with the satisfaction of her own emotional needs. But the failings of McCullers's life were the material of her art, and all of her characters share her egocentricity and suffer the pangs of its attendant loneliness."

Critics disagree strongly on McCullers's standing in American literature. McCullers's career was short, but it was filled with daring and unusual work. Critics may disagree on her place in American literature, but clearly her writings were unique in their treatment of isolation, loneliness, and people who were outcasts from conventional society. "No one has written more feelingly than her about the plight of the eccentric," Kiernan contended, "and no one has written more understandingly than she about adolescent loneliness and desperation."

To learn more about McCullers's life and works, visit here.

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