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.

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