Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published in 1940 to critical acclaim, and with its success came windfall fame and accolades for the writer, who was only 23 at the time. Heart is set in a dusty Georgia mill town in the 1930s, and tells the story of deaf-mute John Singer; young tomboy Mick Kelly; black physician Mady Copeland; Biff Bannon, a café owner; and Jake Blount, a Socialist alcoholic. McCullers’ characters are societal outcasts all, each struggling to break free of the emotional and environmental isolation they feel.
Heart is thought by many readers and scholars to be McCullers’ seminal and best work, her artistic sensibility at its most distilled, the opus that most clearly demonstrates who she is a writer — deeply attuned to the plight of the other and insatiably curious about the loneliness that sits at the heart of so much of human experience.
McCullers herself may not have argued this, writing, “I suppose my central theme is the theme of spiritual isolation. Certainly I have always felt alone.”
Born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, McCullers spent much of her life defying the feminine conventions of her time, and feeling that alienation that comes with that kind of defiance. She was brazen, passionate and talented, androgynous in appearance and fluid in her sexuality. Beyond this, she also suffered from physical and mental illness that often led to feelings of isolation. At 15, she came down with a debilitating case of rheumatic fever that damaged her heart. In 1947, she suffered two strokes as a result, one of which left her paralyzed on her left side. She attempted suicide in 1948, and later struggled with alcoholism and depression. She had a tumultuous off-and-on relationship with her husband, Reeves McCullers, who was violent and also suffered from alcoholism and depression, and who tried to get McCullers to enter into a suicide pact with him.
As is often the case with the work of other acclaimed but troubled female writers, it would be easy to situate Heart and her other novels strictly within the context of McCullers’ physical and emotional traumas. But Alison Graham-Bertolini and Casey Kayser — McCullers scholars and editors of the new essay collection, Understanding the Short Fiction of Carson McCullers (Mercer University Press, 2020) — argue that there’s more to McCullers than Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and much more to glean from her talent and body of work than what it looks like to be lonely.
Graham-Bertolini is assistant professor with a joint appointment in English and Women and Gender Studies at North Dakota State University. Kayser is assistant professor of 20th Century American and Southern Literature and Drama and Gender Studies at the University of Arkansas.
In the introduction, they write that the collection instead “supports the view of McCullers as a writer engaged not only with the literary and cultural movements of her time, but as a writer politically ahead of her time, concerned not just with the failures of human connection, but intent on critiquing oppressive sociopolitical mores and institutions that may have prevented such relationships.”
Here, they speak more about this with ArtsATL and about McCullers’ enduring relevance in the 21st century.
ArtsATL: What brought you both to Carson McCullers work initially?
Casey Kayser: I was introduced to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in college and just thought it was beautiful book. I’ve also always identified with some of the young female characters that McCullers writes, such as Mick Kelley in Heart and Frankie in Member of the Wedding. I really thought McCullers was a beautiful writer, and I really connected with her female characters.
Alison Graham-Bertolini: For me, I read The Member of the Wedding when I was a teenager, which was a huge mistake because I didn’t understand it at all. In fact, I was horrified by the book. So for a long time, I was McCullers-averse. And then I re-read The Member of the Wedding and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in graduate school. It just struck me as remarkable that she was writing about these issues and these characters at what I felt was such an early point in American history. And like Casey said, I started recognizing things in the characters that spoke to me about my own growing up, my own coming of age, my own resistance to being forced into a box of femininity when I was an adolescent.
ArtsATL: You both worked as editors on this recent collection, Understanding the Short Fiction of Carson McCullers. Like you, most people find McCullers’ work through her novels, through Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. What can a reader get from her short fiction that they might not get from her longer work?
Graham-Bertolini: I think her short fiction boils down a lot of the themes that she explores in more detail in her novels. She used a lot of her short fiction as studies for creating her longer novels, so I think they’re a good place to start if you’ve never read Carson McCullers before and you’re wanting to get a taste of the types of things she would be writing about in the longer works. They’re real distilled and impactful.
Kayser: I also think reading the short stories, in conjunction with the novels or on their own, gives a lot of insight into the craft of writing.
ArtsATL: Alison, in the collection, you chose to explore McCullers’ short story, “The Jockey.” You touched in your essay on this idea of the “Southern grotesque,” the ways that McCullers explores it in her story. Can you talk a bit about what the “Southern grotesque” is and how women writers like McCullers use it to explore what you called ‘the constraints of identity?’
Graham-Bertolini: The “Southern grotesque” is a style and genre of writing that uses grotesque imagery to convey problems within our society and our culture. There is this seedy underside that is being portrayed in these grotesque characters, so they look disgusting on the outside to reflect that seedy thing that’s going on within the culture.
What McCullers does is sort of flip that around and change it somewhat. The characters might have some problem — they might be deformed; they might be young women who are very masculine, which rings strangely in [McCullers’] time period. But what you start to recognize as the reader is that it’s your own prejudices that are at play, that are expecting that character to behave in a certain way. She’s turning that around on you so that these [grotesque-looking] characters are the good characters inside, underneath the strangeness. They are the ones that usually have something to teach us.
ArtsATL: You wrote in that essay that she turns our own discomfort with difference against us.
Graham-Bertolini: Yes. In “The Jockey,” she uses a jockey who is a dwarf, and I think I’m the first person to say he is in a sexual relationship with another jockey. I don’t think anyone has come right out and claimed that, but it’s very evident to me that this is a gay relationship, and these two jockeys care very deeply for one another. And they are being funded by these rich men who are paying for them to run these races.
What you expect is that there’s something wrong with the jockey, you expect him to be the strange one. But it turns out he’s trying to point out something about the power dynamic that’s going on between him and these rich people who are funding him and the races.
The metaphor that’s at play in this story is that he takes a bite of their food — they have this lush banquet laid out on the table — and he walks in and takes a bite of their French fries. He chews and spits it out. It’s the incredible thing that she’s doing with this idea of being chewed up and spit out for the working man, which he’s representing in that moment.
ArtsATL: Casey, you looked at the idea of the medical narrative in some of McCullers’ work. We know that McCullers suffered from many different physical ailments that impacted her life and work. Can you talk a bit about the impact they had on the stories she told? Were they more of a help or a hindrance?
Kayser: I think in some cases, it can be both a help and a hindrance, that suffering can sometimes produce great artistic expression or it can inhibit it. I think for McCullers, if she was in a physically ill place, it often inhibited her. The quote I draw upon in my article, she said, “I want to be able to write, write whether in sickness or health, for, indeed, my health depends almost completely upon my writing.” So I do think physical health was very important to her artistic output.
I also think that she had some mental health issues in terms of depression, alcoholism, a very tumultuous relationship with Reeves McCullers, and I think that in some ways, those experiences really contributed to her artistic output — especially with the short stories. She draws on a lot of the experiences she had with Reeves and his alcoholism in their relationship in many of the short stories.
ArtsATL: About her work, McCullers once wrote that “spiritual isolation is the basis of most of my themes.” What exactly does McCullers mean by spiritual isolation in terms of her writing?
Bertolini-Graham: I think that it meant that she had a hard time finding her people. She was very different. We speculate that if she had been born in our current age that she might be trans. She presented as a very masculine young woman. She didn’t follow what was expected of her, so she stood out. She had a hard time fitting in in her hometown.
When she moved to New York, I think finally she started thinking, ‘OK, here I found some like-minded people, like-minded artists and spirits who are similar to me.’ And she started reaching out to them. But her methods of connecting with people, from what we know of her history, were so passionate that she often scared people away. We hear in the history of Carson McCullers that she believed that relationships were always one-sided, that one person in the relationship always cared more than the other. And I think she put herself in that position quite often, so that she was the one who was reaching out, trying to makes connections, and other people were more careful about jumping into the deep end like Carson did. So it led to a lot of loneliness, a lot of isolation.
ArtsATL: Why was this essay collection something you wanted to work on? What are you hoping readers are able to glean from in terms of who McCullers was and what her short fiction was about?
Bertolini-Graham: In this [current] collection, we made a real effort to stress that she was a lot more worldly and political than she’s been given credit for being in the past. The stories and the analysis of these stories show just how well-read she was, how well-educated she was. She makes references to all sorts of things in the stories in these veiled ways that our contributors uncovered. And I find it to be, just, remarkable, her commentary surrounding the Second World War, and her prescience in understanding that different types of people will come to be accepted and come to be embraced and valued for what they contribute to our culture, even though perhaps that wasn’t happening yet around the time that she was writing.
Kayser: So much of what we say in the book is that her work goes beyond these themes of loneliness. Though, ironically, we’re in an age right now where people are grappling with and experiencing issues of loneliness. So maybe not only is it good time to maybe pick up and read McCullers, but actually to maybe think about some of those themes connected to loneliness as well.