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.

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