Saturday, April 6, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life: IV

I've finished this book, and did actually find it quite interesting. Ordinarily, I have difficulty relating to the thinking process of those who engage in the arts and am more comfortable with "serious" thinkers, however you define that. Possibly, because McCullers was not that distant from me in time and spent much of her life in Nyack, New York, not that far from where I lived, during the last ten years of her life, I have more socio-cultural connection with her than I do with most writers. I'll just sum up the remainder of the book and make a few comments. 

Bébé had recovered and moved back to Nyack, but died in June, 1955, when McCullers was thirty-eight. At that time, McCullers was working on a stage adaptation of The Square Root of Wonderful with Arnold Saint-Subber, who was gay. They developed a very close relationship, but he eventually moved off the project. That story is autobiographical and contains elements of both McCullers and Reeves, but is was a flop as a play on Broadway in 1957. McCullers' health was poor, and she came under the psychiatric care of Mary Mercer, who lived in Nyack, in 1958, when she was working on the novel Clock Without Hands. By this time, McCullers was becoming a regular at hospitals, and she finally received a medical explanation of her condition. It was thought that a strep throat infection during her childhood had led to rheumatic heart fever, which in turn had caused her strokes. There was no evidence that the strokes had caused brain damage. However, she was partially paralyzed on her left side and received corrective surgery. 

Mary Mercer initially did a Freudian analysis of McCullers, but it doesn't seem to have produced any insights. Nevertheless, McCullers chose to keep records of her psychotherapy sessions for possible future use. Mercer became a very close friend and, as an M.D., gradually took charge of her other medical needs. Since McCullers was becoming more physically disabled, she also became more dependent on her African-American housekeeper, Ida Reeder, who had earlier worked for her mother.

In 1959, Isak Dinesen, the author of Out of Africa, one of McCullers' favorite books, visited the U.S. McCullers had an opportunity to meet her and discovered that Dinesen had specifically wanted to meet her, E.E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe. She had already met Cummings and McCullers, and Hemingway wasn't available at the time. Since McCullers was acquainted with Monroe, she arranged a lunch at the Nyack house with Dinesen and Monroe, which went well.

In 1961, McCullers finished her first novel since 1946, Clock Without Hands, which became a bestseller and generally received positive reviews. In 1962 and 1963, she worked with Edward Albee on a stage adaptation of The Ballad of the Sad Café. In 1962, she resumed contact with Mary Tucker, her childhood piano teacher. She was invited to the Cheltenham Literature Festival in the U.K. to speak at a symposium on "Sex in Literature" and flew there in September. In 1966, she met John Huston, who was working on the film adaptation of Reflections in a Golden Eye. They hit it off very well, and he invited her to his estate in Ireland. She flew there, on a stretcher, in April, 1967, with Ida to assist her.

At this stage, McCullers was almost a complete invalid. She had undergone several surgeries, including a radical mastectomy, and was scheduled for a leg amputation. After she returned home, she had a massive stroke on her right side on August 15 and died on September 29 at the age of fifty. 

On the surface, this doesn't seem like a happy story, but, actually, McCullers was very happy most of the time. She was quite strong-willed and often got what she wanted. While she could become a major drain on people, she was able to develop a few of the close, intense relationships that she craved. There were elements of selfishness in this, but this particular biography doesn't emphasize that fact. Possibly, her early dynamics with Bébé set the stage for the rest of her life. She was a first child who remained in the limelight, and her siblings could never compete with her. Furthermore, Bébé may have projected her own aspirations onto her, influencing her decision to pursue a life in the arts. She never developed close relationships with her siblings, and there were elements of manipulation throughout her adult life. One of her closest friends, Tennessee Williams, went to great lengths assisting her but remained cautious, because he knew that she could be a bottomless pit of neediness. It seems that her primary desire as an adult may have been to develop a close relationship with an older female – like Bébé – and be bathed in uncritical love. Ironically, men seem to have been more cooperative than women. Reeves and Tennessee supported her more than all of the women except Mary Mercer, who helped her partly in her role as a doctor when she was an invalid. McCullers usually made a good first impression, but many seem to have been able to sense her intense neediness. Truman Capote and Gore Vidal made catty jokes about her behind her back. 

Some of the negatives about McCullers' life don't seem to be her fault. If strep throat as a child led to her illnesses as an adult, she can't be blamed for that. However, a case could be made that she took little responsibility for her health as an adult. The effects of smoking and drinking were not well understood in those days, but generally she seems to have done whatever she preferred regardless. It probably would have been difficult for her to break out of that lifestyle, because her family had a long history of alcoholism. She also would have been better off if she had never developed a relationship with Reeves. Despite his charm, he seems to have been psychologically problematic. He was confused about his sexuality, drank too much and took drugs. He was never able to make viable career decisions and stick with them. Possibly he suffered from PTSD. Not much information is provided about his family background, but it is probably not a coincidence that both of his brothers and his sister also committed suicide. I feel some sympathy for Reeves, because, in certain respects, he was McCullers' principal psychological support during much of her life, and she does not obviously seem to have reciprocated or felt any responsibility for his early demise.

Overall, I found McCullers to be intelligent and creative, and that her life was quite dramatic. Given her background, I think that she was relatively knowledgeable about literature and classical music. She also had fairly good taste, with some qualifications. Where I find her disappointing is that she didn't seem to have much interest in increasing her understanding of the world. For example, when she traveled to Europe she didn't explore the local cultures. Often she would just stay in a hotel room or with literary acquaintances. I don't know if she ever went to a museum. She seemed to focus almost exclusively on vocational activities and making new friends. So I'm ending up with a slightly disappointed, Sapolskyesque feeling: stuff happens.

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