Carson McCullers: A Literary Life
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.
Born Lula Carson Smith on February 19 in the heart of downtown Columbus, Georgia; first child of Vera Marguerite Waters Smith and husband Lamar, owner of a jewelry store.
Lula Carson enters her first grade class at the Sixteenth Street School in Columbus. At the end of the year, her maternal grandmother and namesake Lula Caroline Carson Waters (with whom her family lives) dies.
Age 10, Lula Carson—who at this point has proven to have a great affinity for music—begins piano lessons with Mrs. Kendrick Kierce. She studies with this teacher for the next four years.
At the beginning of her eighth grade school year, Carson drops the use of Lula from her name. This year, she begins piano studies with Mrs. Mary Tucker and decides that she will become a concert pianist.
During her senior year in high school, Carson is stricken with a severe case of rheumatic fever, which is incorrectly diagnosed. This illness in childhood is later thought to contribute to her lifelong battle with debilitating maladies and an early death. While recuperating from her illness, Carson begins to read many major Russian, British and American writers and to consider changing her vocation from musician to writer.
At age 17, Carson sails from Savannah to New York City after her father sold her grandmother's ring so she could attend school. She promptly loses her small family fortune on the subway, and she is forced to take odd jobs to survive. She also has plans to pursue her secret ambition to write, and quickly begins to study writing at Columbia and New York University and to fall in with a very literary crowd in New York. She continues to pursue her studies for the next two years.
Back in Columbus, GA in the fall of 1936 to recover from a difficult respiratory infection, Carson is bedridden for several months and uses the time to begin her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Her first story, "Wunderkind," is written and published at the end of the year by Story magazine.
In September, Carson marries James Reeves McCullers, Jr., a native of Wetumpka, Alabama whom she met when he was stationed in the army at Fort Benning near her hometown. The marriage is simultaneously the most supportive and destructive relationship in her life, and is from its beginning plagued by the partners' shared difficulty with alcoholism, their sexual ambivalence and the tension caused by Reeves' envy of Carson's writing abilities. The couple, who have a very rocky relationship throughout their years together, split and reconcile several times—including a divorce in 1941 followed by a remarriage in 1945.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, her masterpiece (originally titled The Mute), dedicated to her husband and parents, is published to rave reviews from literary critics and readers alike. She returns to New York City without Reeves and takes up with an artistic crowd that includes George Davis (literary editor of Harper's Bazaar), poet W. H. Auden, writers Oliver Smith and Richard Wright and performer Gypsy Rose Lee.
Carson's second novel Reflections in a Golden Eye, set at the Fort Benning military base near her hometown, is published. It receives a mixed criticalreviews, and Carson faces ridicule from people in her hometown who see negative reflections of themselves in the maladjusted characters of the novel. She attends Yaddo Artists' Colony in New York for the first time, meeting composer David Diamond and writer Katherine Anne Porter. She will return to Yaddo several times throughout her life to find inspiration and meet other writers.
Following her father's sudden death in August, Carson, her mother and sister move to Nyack, New York where Mrs. Smith purchases a house. McCullers spends most of the rest of her life in this house on the Hudson River.
In the January issue of Mademoiselle, Carson is named one of the ten most deserving women in America and is the recipient of a Merit Award. In the summer and fall, she spends time in Nantucket with friend playwright Tennessee Williams adapting her novella The Member of the Wedding into a play.
The Member of the Wedding opens on Broadway and enjoys an amazing run (501 performances), winning the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for the best play of the season. Carson suffers a miscarriage and misses opening night.
In January, Carson and Reeves sail to Naples, Italy and spend more than a year in Europe. After a month in Rome, they drive to Paris and buy a house in the nearby village of Bachvillers. In midsummer, The Ballad of the Sad Café and Collected Stories is published.
After increased disillusionment in their marriage, Reeves tries to convince Carson to stage a double suicide with him in Paris. Fearing for her life, and his, she flees France. On November 19, Reeves kills himself in a Paris hotel.
Carson attends a dinner meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters at which Isak Dinesen (do we need to explain who this is?) is the guest speaker. Later in the year, she gives a luncheon for Miss Dinesen, which is attended by Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. Due to failing health she is often unable to work on her manuscripts, so she turns to writing children's verse later published as Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig.
Her play adaptation of The Ballad of the Sad Café, which opened the previous year, closes on Broadway after 123 performances. After a fall in the spring that results in a broken hip and elbow, Carson signs her last will and testament.
After many exploratory surgeries and long hospital stays, Carson suffers a final stroke on August 15 that leaves her comatose for 47 days. She dies on September 29 in the Nyack Hospital in New York and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, on the banks of the Hudson River. The day before her death, shooting begins on the film adaptation of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.