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Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967) was an American writer. She wrote novels, short stories, and two plays, as well as essays and some poetry. Her first novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter explores the spiritual isolation of misfits and outcasts of the South. Her other novels have similar themes and are all set in the South.

Early life

She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia in 1917 of middle class parentage. Her mother was the granddaughter of a plantation owner and Confederate War hero. Her father, similar to Wilbur Kelly in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was a watchmaker and jeweler of French Huguenot extraction. From the age of ten she took piano lessons, and at the age of 15 she received a typewriter from her father.

In September 1934 at age 17 she left home on a steamship from Savannah, Georgia, planning to study piano at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, but never attended the school, having lost the money set aside for her tuition. McCullers worked in menial jobs and studied creative writing under Texas writer Dorothy Scarborough at night classes at Columbia University and with Sylvia Chatfield Bates at Washington Square College of New York University. She decided to become a writer and published in 1936 an autobiographical piece, Wunderkind, a piece her course teacher Miss Bates much admired, in Story magazine. It depicted a musical prodigy's failure and adolescent insecurity and also appears in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe collection.

Marriage and career

From 1935 to 1937 she divided her time, as her studies and health dictated, between Columbus and New York and in September 1937 she married an ex-soldier and aspiring writer, Reeves McCullers. They began their married life in Charlotte, North Carolina where Reeves had found some work. There, and in Fayetteville, North Carolina, she wrote her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in the Southern Gothic tradition. The title, suggested by McCullers's editor, was taken from Fiona MacLeod's poem "The Lonely Hunter". The novel itself was interpreted as an anti-fascist book. Altogether she published eight books. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), written at the age of twenty-three, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Member of the Wedding (1946), are the best-known. The novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1951) also depicts loneliness and the pain of unrequited love. She was an alumna of Yaddo in Saratoga, New York.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was filmed in 1968 with Alan Arkin in the lead role. Reflections in a Golden Eye was directed by John Huston (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Some of the film was shot in New York City and on Long Island, where Huston was permitted to use an abandoned Army installation. Many of the interiors and some of the exteriors were done in Italy. "I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York," said Huston in An Open Book (1980). "Carson lived nearby, and one day when Buzz and I were out for a walk she hailed us from her doorway. She was then in her early twenties, and had already suffered the first of a series of strokes. I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine. It wasn't palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger."


"Mrs McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility. I prefer Mrs McCullers to Mr. Faulkner because she writes more clearly; I prefer her to D. H. Lawrence because she has no message." – Graham Greene

"[Her work is] one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture."Gore Vidal

"Moving, yes, but a minor author. And broken by illness at such a young age." – Arthur Miller

"Carson's major theme; the huge importance and nearly insoluble problems of human love." – Tennessee Williams.

Although McCullers's oeuvre is often described as "Southern Gothic," she produced her famous works after leaving the South. Her eccentric characters suffer from loneliness that is interpreted with deep empathy. In a discussion with the Irish critic and writer Terence de Vere White she said: "Writing, for me, is a search for God." Other critics have variously detected tragicomic or political elements in her writing.



Other works

  • The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1951), a short story collection comprising:
  • The Square Root of Wonderful (1958), a play
  • Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig (1964), a collection of poems
  • The Mortgaged Heart (1972), a posthumous collection of writings, edited by her sister Rita
  • Illumination and Night Glare (1999), her unfinished autobiography, published nearly 30 years after her death
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