She shoots like a comet onto the literary scene of 1940, a 23-year-old novelist whose first book is bought by publisher Houghton Mifflin for a $500 advance. The novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter doesn't disappoint. Her first novel is only slightly more legendary than her tumultuous life. She is an artist who lives hard, dies young, and leaves a wonderful legacy.
Concert Pianist to Vagabond Novelist
Born Lula Carson Smith to a middle class family in Columbus, Georgia, she is ambitious from an early age. At just 13 years old, Carson tells friends and family that she will become a concert pianist. For the next several years, she studies piano with a series of influential teachers. In her late teens, after reading the fiction of Russian realists Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy, Carson impulsively changes her mind about music: she dreams instead of becoming a writer. Her family, unaware of her plans, pawns an heirloom diamond ring to send her to The Juilliard School in New York City. Carson promptly loses her tuition money on the subway and cannot attend school.
Seventeen years old, broke but determined, Carson stays in New York anyway, finding a way to study at Columbia and living all over town—at the legendary Three Arts Club, the Parnassus Club and in Brooklyn with a rough and tumble group of writers, including W.H. Auden and the infamous Gypsy Rose Lee. But mostly, this once shy girl from Georgia does what she knows best: writes stories from her astute Southern point of view.
Love on the Rocks
Carson marries fellow writer Reeves McCullers when she is 20. Their marriage is as tempestuous as any scandalous Hollywood romance today. The union suffers from the great wanderlust she shares with Reeves: over the course of the nearly 20 years they know each other, they split and reconcile no less than 10 times, marry twice, and live in more than a dozen residences in the South, New York City, and Europe until Reeves commits suicide in 1953. Carson, following a bought of rheumatic fever when she was a teenager, is forever plagued with poor health, including several strokes, blindness and paralysis. Yet she never considers herself an invalid. Much like the loneliness we find in her works, Carson seems incapable of settling down, is continually restless and—despite a host of close friends and a raucous social life—speaks often of the intense isolation in her heart.
The Greatest Writer of Her Generation
McCullers' writing finds a constant audience during her lifetime that endures today. Her short fiction, starting at age 21, is continually published in Story, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Saturday Review and The New Yorker until shortly before her death. She is awarded two Guggenheim fellowships, an Arts and Letters Grant, a Gold Metal from the Theatre Club, and the Donaldson Award for best play of the season for her Broadway hit The Member of the Wedding. She lectures on fiction at Columbia University in her later years. She is heralded as the greatest writer of her generation by playwright Tennessee Williams and she develops lasting friendships with literary royalty: Williams, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Louis Untermeyer, Edward Albee and Isak Dinesen.
Despite a troubled life in many ways, McCullers manages to make it fuller than most until she dies of a stroke at age 50. Through it all, she never stops doing the thing she loves best. She is at once and always, a writer.