She called the town and its library her "spiritual home." Carson's own childhood home in Columbus, Georgia now houses the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. Her home (pictured above) was the comfort zone where she completed much of her most important writing—most notably her first two novels. Also, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, though set in a no-name town in the depression-era South, takes many of its attributes from Carson's hometown.
Carson was outspoken about Columbus, saying that while it was the "source of creative material," she also found it "an intolerable place to live," in many respects because of race relations at the time of her upbringing and later as the Civil Rights movement began to consume her with thoughts of racial intolerance. Says the editor of her autobiography, Carlos Dews, "[Carson] was indebted to the South for everything. As a place to live, she couldn't be a writer here [her entire life]. But she could be a writer fromhere."
Boom-to-Bust Mill Town One of the reasons Carson moved away from the South was because of the oppressiveness of her community; yet she still loved the town. Columbus has a rich, complex history. Built on the shores of the Chattahoochee River, Columbus was founded in 1828 and soon became a bustling mill town. Untouched by Civil War battles, Columbus' mill community and ironworks remained busy throughout the 1860s and sustained the town for the next 50 years. Columbus' textile industry was booming business from 1910 through the 1920s but a disappointing cotton crop and workers' rights disputes nearly drove the textile mills out of business at the onset of the Great Depression. This impacted the people of the town in a variety of ways, some of which are depicted in Carson's first novel.
Diverse Characters 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.