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In Praise of Carson McCullers; or, Carson McCullers Reconsidered

Carson McCullers's 1940 debut, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was a literary sensation. Topping bestseller lists it was lauded by critics and the public alike. Today it is a genuine classic, regularly appearing on literary lists. McCullers went on to write three more novels, a short story collection, plays, poems, and an unfinished autobiography, before her early death in 1967.

I was a late comer to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.I was a late comer to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. For years it was on my mental list of recognized classics I hadn't read and would one day get to. The title had always captivated me, sounding like a line confiscated from a W. H. Auden poem (it was in fact taken from Fiona MacLeod poem "The Lonely Hunter"). Then there was her face, Carson's face, so intriguing, not beautiful but with an elfin prettiness that could look surprisingly seductive. Carson had a movie star's ability to reveal her inner emotional life for the camera. So it was with great anticipation that I finally opened Hunter and when finished I was, well, not so much unimpressed as I was perhaps let down. Had I expected too much? The writing was beautiful, the characterizations strong, but somehow I felt it needed trimming and would have made a better novella than it did a full-length novel. But I have no intention of disparaging a universally beloved classic that I enjoyed but was not enamored of. As time went by I couldn't help but wonder more about McCullers. I often found myself looking at her haunting face, feeling slightly puzzled at its elusive quality.

Then February House by Sherill Tippins was recommended by a friend who knew how much I enjoy literary history (especially scandals and gossip!). The history of this brief artistic utopia was one I'd read about only in footnotes. February House was the Brooklyn brownstone that became a literary communeFebruary House was the Brooklyn brownstone that became a literary commune, housing McCullers, W. H. Auden, Paul Bowles, and the burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee (who during her stay began writing The G-String Murders). From that and further reading I discovered Carson's earlier marriage to Reeves McCullers, an aspiring writer. Extreme dependency, sexual confusion and experimentation on both sides, separation, divorce, remarriage, suicide attempts, all of this Carson tried to make sense of, after Reeves's death, in her second play, The Square Root of Wonderful. Throughout much of her life McCullers suffered from illnesses: rheumatic fever, strokes that left her partially paralyzed by age 31, and alcoholism. No wonder shadows haunted her face.

About a year ago I decided to attempt McCullers again, this time choosing Reflections in a Golden Eye. What a surprise! How could this book have come from the same author as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? Nothing remotely sentimental graced its pages and for that I was grateful. Reflections in a Golden Eye has a twisted cast of characters and McCullers hides nothing.Reflections in a Golden Eye has a twisted cast of characters and McCullers hides nothing. Like an efficient archivist, McCullers catalogs the unintentional webs her characters weave. Repressed homosexual Captain Penderton stalks the solitary Private Williams who stalks the delicious adulteress Lenora who sexes the depressed Major Langdon while the fragile Allison retreats further into fantasy. Oddly, I found myself happy to have read Hunter before Golden Eye, as I was able to appreciate McCullers's ability to detach so completely and record the frailty of the human experience. When it was first published, readers were gob-smacked. Even today those who know McCullers only by The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are astonished when they read Reflections in a Golden Eye. But when they do, I think they know her better.

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See also the faithful 1967 screen adaptation of Reflections directed by John Huston and starring Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Brian Keith, and Julie Harris, who also starred in McCullers's play The Member of the Wedding.

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Christopher Johnson has worked twelve years in new and used independent bookstores, including a month-long stint at New York's famed Strand. You can currently find him in the Blue Room at the Burnside Powell's, sweating over the letter "S."

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