A diverse community, the characters from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are very representative of the types of people who lived in Columbus during Carson's youth: café owners, shop keepers (of which her father was one), blue-collar families hit hard by the Depression, educated and uneducated African-Americans and drunken drifters. In addition, Fort Benning—which Carson characterized in second novel Reflections in a Golden Eye—brought a West Point soldiers, infantry from all over the South (Carson's own husband included) and all walks of life to town.
Carson's Southern Roots
This was strong cultural soil for Carson McCullers' rare talent to flourish. She captured the unique details of time and place with precision and heart in all of her novels and short stories. Carson appreciated the tranquility of her hometown, saying, "I love my home with its garden and old familiar furniture. I had a piano in my own bedroom and spent most of the afternoon playing it or reading. Occasionally a friend would come and get me and we would go out together, but on the whole Columbus gave me the tranquility and calm that was so necessary to my work."
But the South was also filled with societal norms that cut to her very soul. A child during the Depression, she recalled seeing "black and white people in those days rooting in garbage cans. People, kind, sweet people who had nursed us so tenderly, humiliated because of their color. We were exposed so much to the sight of humiliation of human dignity which is even worse." As a writer, she repeatedly returned to themes of spiritual isolation—of which segregation for varied reasons was one—making her later work often considered part of the Southern Gothic genre.
Find resources for more information about Carson and her hometown here.