Friday, March 29, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life: III

After her 1947 strokes, McCullers increasingly required assistance from others to go about her daily life. She was partially paralyzed on her left side and needed a cane to walk. Thereafter, she was unable to do much physical work and needed someone to help her bathe. She, Reeves and her sister, Rita, all recognized that they had an alcohol problem, and Reeves and Rita joined AA. McCullers didn't join and pretended to decrease her alcohol intake but actually didn't. When in Nyack, her mother generally took care of her. Reeves got another job and an apartment in Greenwich Village, with a walk-up that was too demanding for her. She continued to develop crushes on women and became interested in Jane Bowles, the wife of Paul Bowles, the better-known of the two.

In 1949, McCullers, with encouragement from Tennessee, participated in a stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding, which became a Broadway hit in 1950. She also became pregnant in 1949 and had a medical abortion. The success of her play and the publication of The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories boosted her literary reputation and income. She became attracted to Elizabeth Bowen, the Anglo-Irish writer, who was a few years older than her. Their writings had nothing in common, but she knew that Bowen had affairs with women. When she visited Bowen in Ireland later in 1950, nothing came of it, and she left for Paris, where she met Reeves. Bowen did have affairs with women but apparently was not attracted to McCullers. I was surprised to learn that later she probably had an affair with Eudora Welty, who was not generally known to engage in such things.

In Paris, McCullers and Reeves drank too much and decided to get more involved with AA. Later in 1950, McCullers met Marty Mann, who had been instrumental in the formation of AA. She was also a lesbian and had a brief affair with McCullers. McCullers at this point was circulating in the highest literary circles and met the English poet, Edith Sitwell, at a party at Tennessee's apartment on East 58th Street in New York City.

In 1951, though Reeves was still drinking too much, he and McCullers traveled to London. Tennessee thought that McCullers needed psychiatric help and found her a psychoanalyst, Kathryn Cohen. Just to show the kind of people that McCullers associated with, here is Dearborn's description of Cohen:

Kathryn was an elegant woman with an interesting past, just the sort who drew Carson. Born in New York City in 1905, before the age of forty she was a successful actress and a performer with the Ziegfeld Follies. She married Dennis Cohen in the late 1930's, and when war broke out, she enrolled at Cambridge to study medicine, graduating with a degree in genetics. Regardless, she became a psychoanalyst with St. George's Hospital, an eminent teaching hospital then located in Hyde Park. She often had affairs with women. The writer Patricia Highsmith was most recently her lover, and Cresset Press [operated by her husband] went on to become the British publisher of Highsmith's psychological thrillers.

Cohen and McCullers did bond. McCullers became a patient at St. George's Hospital, and later was moved to a home in Sussex. But by the end of October, 1951, McCullers abandoned her treatment and moved to the Ritz Hotel in London. Her treatment was a failure according to Cohen. McCullers returned to Nyack.

In January, 1952, McCullers and Reeves sailed to Italy. In May, they drove to Paris. They ended up buying a house in Bachivillers, a small town an hour away. They liked the house, and McCullers loved gardening – especially growing tomatoes. However, she returned briefly to the U.S. because Bébé had had an accident. At that point, McCullers owned the Nyack house and Bébé moved back to Georgia. Shortly after this, McCullers was offered the job of working on a screenplay for a film directed by Vittorio De Sica and produced by David O. Selznick in Rome. She returned to Rome and worked on the screenplay, but Selznick didn't like it and she was fired.

The Diary of Anne Frank was published in the U.S. in 1950, and in 1952 McCullers was approached with an opportunity to write a stage adaptation. She met Anne's father, Otto Frank, in France, and they hit it off well. However, because of her slow work and other factors beyond her control, the play was eventually given to someone else. At her house in Bachivillers, her relationship with Reeves grew worse. He spent most of the time away in Paris. One day early in 1953, he took her out to a cherry tree in their orchard and proposed that they hang themselves together with the ropes that he had provided. She wasn't interested. In July, he proposed a double suicide again, and she immediately flew back to the U.S. by herself, without packing. On November 18, Reeves committed suicide in Paris, with an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. At that time, McCullers was living in Nyack, and she expressed little reaction to Reeves's death. She spent time with friends in Charleston, South Carolina and then resumed her Yaddo routine.

On my next post I'll wrap up my commentary on this book. It is not pleasant to read, but I do think that it is quite informative. Besides the tragic aspects of McCullers' life, I am finding the discussion of the sexuality of McCullers and her friends surprising. It seems that within the literary milieu of the time, homosexuality was quite common. In the past, I had heard about the men – Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, etc. – but little or nothing about the women. Even today, if you look up Eudora Welty, who has been dead for years, on Wikipedia, there is no reference to that aspect of her relationship with Elizabeth Bowen. Possibly this difference between men and women was that the women felt that they had to hide their behavior in order to avoid damaging their careers. This is why I prefer reading biographies to Wikipedia entries. Many of the descriptions of people that you read in Wikipedia articles are not much better than cleaned-up résumés written by the person discussed. Another question that arises for me is the nature of female sexuality. Obviously McCullers and many of the women in her life had a fluid sense of their sexuality. Terms such as "LGBTQ" may address some of the ambiguity, but, judging from the past, many people were able to get along fine without them. To use McCullers as an example, she may have been "LBQ." How useful is that information?

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life II

McCullers had a poor health history while growing up, and this continued for the remainder of her life. Generally, she had lung problems, and it seems that she had rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease. In 1941, while visiting her family in Columbus, she apparently had a stroke. At that time, Reflections in a Golden Eye was published, and reviewers generally didn't like it much. She recovered and returned to New York, where she met David Diamond, a composer, and took to him immediately. However, Diamond was gay and was actually attracted to Reeves; apparently Diamond and Reeves slept together one night. Shortly after this, McCullers began to attend the Yaddo artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York. Reeves was working elsewhere and began cashing checks addressed to McCullers without telling her. This went on for quite a while and eventually caused her to divorce him. At Yaddo, McCullers socialized wildly and decided that she loved Katherine Anne Porter. Unfortunately, Porter was homophobic and completely rejected her, preferring to spend her time with Eudora Welty, who was also there. After this, she traveled to Columbus to write. In 1942 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and decided to return to Yaddo. In December, she learned that Annemarie Schwarzenbach had died in Switzerland following a bicycle accident, and, predictably, this was extremely upsetting to her. In January, 1943, she moved back to the Brooklyn house. In June, she returned to Yaddo. The Ballad of the Sad Café was published in Harper's Bazaar in August. Reeves joined the Army again and became a lieutenant, serving in Europe; via letters, he attempted to win her back.

On August 1, McCullers' father, Lamar, Sr., who had been in poor health – probably due to alcoholism – died, presumably by suicide. He was fifty-five. At this point, Bébé decided to move closer to McCullers and her other daughter, Rita, who had become an editor at Mademoiselle. In time, she bought a Victorian house in Nyack, New York, north of New York City on the west bank of the Hudson River. Nyack was a slightly trendy location for various people in the arts then. In 1945, at the end of World War II, Reeves returned, injured, from Europe. He attempted to start a new career, and he and McCullers decided to remarry. They lived part-time in the Nyack house. In January, 1946, The Member of the Wedding was published in Harper's Bazaar. It received poor reviews, most notable from Edmund Wilson, the leading literary critic at the time, in the New Yorker. This was devastating to McCullers, and she didn't publish another novel for fifteen years. She made friends with fellow Southerners Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams and vacationed with Tennessee and his boyfriend on Nantucket. In November, 1946, McCullers and Reeves went on an extended trip to France.

In France, they lived luxuriously, and they also traveled to Rome. They had many connections, and McCullers' books were already popular in France. Their social conduct was appalling on some occasions. Besides both of them drinking excessively, Reeves had sex with a daughter of one of their friends. He was also thought to be taking drugs. McCullers had her second stroke in the summer of 1947. Later, she had a kidney infection and a third stroke. They flew back to the U.S. on November 30, and McCullers received medical treatment.

To a reader of this book, McCullers' life following the publication of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter seems to be a disaster-in-progress. In just seven years, she became dissolute, and Reeves was even worse. At this point, I'm not sure how much of this is the result of their psychiatric conditions, how much of it is the result of their inexperience and lack of preparation, and how much of it is the result of a complex literary environment during and after World War II. I think that this was a difficult period for people in the arts to navigate, though others, such as Tennessee Williams, seem to have managed well. It all goes downhill from here for McCullers, but I still like the Southern elements of her fiction, because, even with their limitations, there is a genuine interpersonal warmth between characters that doesn't generally occur elsewhere in American fiction. That was a long time ago, and warmth between characters now seems to be a thing of the past.

I should have two more posts on this book.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life I

I've started this new biography by Mary V. Dearborn. On the whole, Carson McCullers is not an ideal subject for me, because I'm not terribly excited to read more of her works. However, I do think that she was one of the best American writers of fiction, and if her health had been better and she had lived more than just fifty years, she may have produced more good fiction. For me, this book is turning out to be a further study in the history of American literary fiction. Her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940, when she was twenty-three. That year, she moved to Greenwich Village, and, therefore, McCullers' life intersects with other people I've discussed. Around that time, Carl and Alice Zuckmayer were fleeing Europe with the commencement of World War II, and then, after the war, people like Anatole Broyard and Denise Levertov moved to Greenwich Village. As of 1940, several European literary people were already in New York City. McCullers' life is also an early example of young people descending on New York City in order to become writers, and some of the same patterns are still in place. So far, I am finding Dearborn's writing to be quite good, because she specifically addresses the psychological questions that occur to me, unlike most of the biographers I've been reading.

McCullers, née Lula Carson Smith, was born into a middle-class family in Columbus, Georgia in 1917. Her father was a jeweler, and she had a younger brother and sister. Her mother, who went by the name Bébé, had an interest in the arts, and although their income was modest, her house in some ways resembled a salon. The family also habitually engaged in drinking, which later became one of McCullers' habits. Bébé identified artistic talent in McCullers, who dropped her first name at an early age, and encouraged her to play music. While she was growing up, McCullers generally dressed like a male, though, as far as I've read, she does not seem to have had transgender feelings and was more likely a lesbian. Her behavior during her youth seems to have been primarily asexual. She did turn out to be quite musically talented and considered becoming a composer or a concert pianist. For four years, she received high-quality lessons from Mary Tucker, an extremely proficient teacher who was the wife of an officer at nearby Fort Benning. They attended a Rachmaninoff concert while he was touring in Georgia, and there was talk of McCullers going to the Julliard School on a full scholarship. Then, suddenly, Tucker's husband was transferred to Maryland. McCullers, who had been extremely close to Mary, felt betrayed and began saying that she wanted to be a writer, not a pianist. There is some speculation about the nature of McCullers and Mary's relationship.

While she was growing up, McCullers was an average student and took no interest in the local schools. After she finished high school at the age of seventeen in 1934, she made several solo trips to New York City, and she enrolled in creating writing classes at Columbia, and, later, at New York University. On one of her returns home, she met, through a mutual friend, James Reeves McCullers, Jr., called "Reeves," who was four years older than her and a soldier stationed at Fort Benning. He was a charming and intelligent person who was also interested in the arts, and they developed a strong relationship based on their discussions, though physical attraction did not occur immediately. They married in 1937, when she was twenty and he had been discharged from the army. They moved a few times with Reeves's jobs, and when The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published, they moved to Greenwich Village.

The novel was an instant hit, and McCullers immediately drew the attention of the American literary community. George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar took an interest in her and soon put her in touch with Erika and Klaus Mann, the children of Thomas Mann. W.H. Auden and Erika Mann were gay, and they had married in order to permit her to escape Germany. Through Erika, McCullers met Annemarie Schwarzenbach, the daughter of a wealthy Swiss businessman, who was a lesbian and dressed like a man. McCullers was instantly smitten with her. That year, both McCullers and Eudora Welty were invited to Bread Loaf, at Middlebury College, and Welty disliked McCullers, perhaps because of her drinking habits. They were also in competition with each other as Southern writers. McCullers met W.H. Auden there. After Bread Loaf, Davis organized a project in which several writers would live together in a rental house in Brooklyn. Before long, McCullers was living there with Davis, Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten and Richard Wright. They lived in separate rooms but ate communally and paid rent. The idea was that they could do their work there, and Reeves was generally left out, staying in the Greenwich Village apartment.

As far as I've read, McCullers has had an unsatisfactory sexual encounter with Schwarzenbach, who then attempts suicide; the latter has psychiatric issues, along with a morphine addiction, and she is hospitalized. As Schwarzenbach points out to McCullers, she is not sophisticated enough to be part of her group. She is nearly ten years older than McCullers, and their backgrounds are completely different. I agree with this assessment, and so does Dearborn. I am not looking forward to the remainder of the book, because it already reminds me of Katherine Mansfield, who was about twenty-nine years older than McCullers and went through a similar experience when she moved to London and attempted to become a writer. For all of Bébé's motherly intentions, she could not have known what McCullers would get into with her artistic encouragement.

Sunday, March 3, 2024


I'm getting off to a very slow start for reading this March and hope to pick up my pace a little. I have a new biography of Carson McCullers and will also be getting a new book on the tech industry by Kara Swisher. I'm not sure how much I'll like the McCullers biography. I enjoyed The Heart is a Lonely Hunter but haven't read anything else my her. The biography, so far, is better-written than the Thoreau biography that I recently discussed. I had given up on American fiction but did try several other female writers, including Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Anne Tyler, Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore. McCullers, I think, was somewhat more interesting than this group. I heard Kara Swisher in a radio interview today, and she recounted how tech CEOs behaved submissively around Donald Trump. This confirms what I've thought for some time: they're great at being tech billionaires, but not necessarily at lots of other things. In my view, they are little different from previous generations of ultra-rich people and primarily like being rich. Once they become rich, they instinctively become risk-averse and focus on maintaining or increasing their personal wealth. From their point of view, they have little to gain by speaking out against Trump, for several reasons. A Trump presidency is a guarantee of government chaos, and for large corporations that means that regulations won't become more cumbersome and corporate taxes will remain low. It also means that income taxes for wealthy people will remain relatively low, and there won't be a wealth tax. In certain respects, they are spineless and cowardly, because, even though they know that Trump is a stupid, potentially dangerous buffoon, they think it's not their responsibility to deal with him. They are well aware that they already have billions of dollars, and they can spend that on gigantic luxury Armageddon bunkers and yachts in competition with each other. In some of their minds, space colonization is a great idea: life on earth may already be in a death spiral, so why waste money on it? The point is that, like all humans, the range of their skills is limited. In their little capitalist bubble, they have always been "the smartest guy in the room," and they would like to keep things that way. No doubt, their feeble mammalian brains would be exposed for what they were if they attempted to move out of their comfort zone.

Last night, for a change of pace, I attended a concert of Voces8, an English a cappella group, at Middlebury College. Their performance was definitely world-class, but their repertoire included a few crowd-pleasers that didn't appeal to me. I liked their Monteverdi madrigals, and their rendition of the classic Miserere Mei, Deus, by Gregorio Allegri, was excellent. Also relevant to me, some years ago I learned that just seeing and hearing English people has a calming effect on me. Although I've now lived in the U.S. for sixty-seven years, my brain is still English and thinks that I'm surrounded by heathens. The concert was sold out, and most of the audience consisted of sixty-year-old-plus Middlebury faculty. I've come to find their chatter a little tiresome after twelve years here. Another irritant for me is always the acoustics in Robison Hall. After having been to Bennett Gordon Hall at Ravinia a few times, Robison Hall sounds no better than a high school gymnasium. The sound is always muddy no matter where you sit.

I am gradually de-Middleburying myself, because I increasingly feel a reduced connection to the town. I've dropped my subscription to the Addison County Independent and have subscribed to the Brandon Reporter. Brandon is in Rutland County, and I now spend nearly all of my time here. Although I may check in occasionally on my former Middlebury neighbors, to some extent I no longer want to spend much time there. Addison County is much wealthier per capita than Rutland County, largely because of the college, and I generally find that wealthy people are boring and like to show off. I'm not sure how much I have in common with the people in Brandon, but they don't seem to get on my nerves as much.