Carson McCullers

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Carson McCullers
McCullers, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1959
McCullers, photographed by
Carl Van Vechten, 1959
BornLula Carson Smith
(1917-02-19)February 19, 1917
Columbus, Georgia, U.S.
DiedSeptember 29, 1967(1967-09-29) (aged 50)
Nyack, New York, U.S.
EducationColumbia University
GenreSouthern Gothic
Notable worksNovels:

Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967) was an American novelist, short-story writer, playwright, essayist, and poet. Her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), explores the spiritual isolation of misfits and outcasts in a small town of the Southern United States. Her other novels have similar themes and most are set in the Deep South.

McCullers's work is often described as Southern Gothic and indicative of her Southern roots. Critics also describe her writing and eccentric characters as universal in scope. Her stories have been adapted to stage and film. A stage adaptation of her novel The Member of the Wedding (1946), which captures a young girl's feelings at her brother's wedding, made a successful Broadway run in 1950–51.[1]

Early life[edit]

McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917 to Lamar Smith, a jeweller, and Marguerite Waters.[2] She was named after her maternal grandmother, Lula Carson Waters.[2] She had a younger brother, Lamar, Jr.[2] and a younger sister, Marguerite.[3] Her great grandfather on her mother's side was a planter and Confederate soldier. Her father was a watchmaker and jeweler of French Huguenot descent. From the age of ten, she took piano lessons; when she was fifteen, her father gave her a typewriter to encourage her story writing.

Smith graduated from Columbus High School. In September 1934, at age 17, she left home on a steamship bound for New York City, planning to study piano at the Juilliard School of Music. After losing the money she was going to use to study at Juilliard on the subway, she decided instead to work, take night classes, and write. She worked several odd jobs, including as a waitress and a dog walker.[4] After falling ill with rheumatic fever, she returned to Columbus to recuperate, and she changed her mind about studying music.[5] Returning to New York, she worked in menial jobs while pursuing a writing career; she attended night classes at Columbia University and studied creative writing under Texas writer Dorothy Scarborough and with Sylvia Chatfield Bates at Washington Square College of New York University. In 1936, she published her first work. "Wunderkind", an autobiographical piece that Bates admired, depicting a music prodigy's adolescent insecurity and losses. It first appeared in Story magazine and is collected in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.[6]

From 1935 to 1937, as her studies and health dictated, she divided her time between Columbus and New York. In September 1937, aged 20, she married an ex-soldier and aspiring writer, Reeves McCullers. A New Yorker profile described her husband as "…a dreamer attracted to big, capable women."[7] They began their married life in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Reeves had found work. The couple made a pact to take alternating turns as writer then breadwinner, starting with Reeves's taking a salaried position while McCullers wrote. Her eventual success as a writer precluded his literary ambitions.[7]


Maxim Lieber was McCullers's literary agent in 1938 and intermittently thereafter. In 1940, at the age of 23, writing in the Southern Gothic or perhaps Southern realist traditions, McCullers completed her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.[8][9] (The title was suggested by her editor and was taken from the poem "The Lonely Hunter" by the Scottish poet Fiona MacLeod). At the time the novel was thought to suggest an anti-Fascist message.[10]

After completing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in 1939 (then titled The Mute), McCullers and her husband moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where she completed Reflections in a Golden Eye (then titled Army Post) in the span of two months. She sold the book to Harper's Bazaar for five hundred dollars in August 1940. It was published in two parts in the magazine in October and November.[11]

With influences such as Isak Dinesen, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, she published eight books; the best known are The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Member of the Wedding (1946). The novella The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951) depicts loneliness and the pain of unrequited love; at the time of its writing, McCullers was a resident at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York.

In The Member of the Wedding, McCullers describes the feelings of a young girl at her brother's wedding. The Broadway stage adaptation of the novel had a successful run in 1950–51[1] and was produced by the Young Vic in London in September 2007. The original production won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for the best play of the season.[12]

Many know her works largely by their film adaptations, neither of which she lived to see. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was adapted as a film with the same title in 1968, with Alan Arkin in the lead role. Reflections in a Golden Eye was directed by John Huston (1967) and starred Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. McCullers died a fortnight before that film's premiere in October 1967. Huston, in his autobiography, An Open Book (1980), wrote of her:

I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York. Carson lived nearby, and one day when Buzz and I were out for a walk she hailed us from her doorway. She was then in her early 20s, and had already suffered the first of a series of strokes. I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine. It wasn't palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger.

Richard Wright, the author of Black Boy, reviewed her first novel, published in 1940 when she was 22, and said she was the first white writer to create fully human black characters. In his review 'Hugo: Secrets of The Inner Landscape,' he stated:

To me the most impressive aspect of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.[13]

Later life[edit]

Carson and Reeves McCullers divorced in 1941. After separating from Reeves she moved to New York to live with George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar. She became a member of February House, an art commune in Brooklyn.[14] Among her friends were W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee and the writer couple Paul Bowles and Jane Bowles. After World War II McCullers lived mostly in Paris. Her close friends during these years included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. During this period of separation, Reeves had a love relationship with the composer David Diamond, and the two lived together in Rochester, New York.[15]

McCullers fell in love with a number of women and pursued them sexually with great determination. Love letters written to McCullers from Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach are at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.[16] Her most documented and extended love obsession was with Annemarie Schwarzenbach, of whom she once wrote "She had a face that I knew would haunt me for the rest of my life." In her autobiography, McCullers reports that the two shared one kiss. McCullers's passion, however, was not reciprocated, and the two remained friends with McCullers dedicating her next novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, to her.[15][17] Sarah Schulman writes:

There is the infamous obsession with Katherine Anne Porter and a much-implied ongoing “friendship” with Gypsy Rose Lee. But if Carson ever actually had sex with a woman, even Tennessee [Williams] didn't hear of it. According to McCullers's brilliant biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, Carson did brag to her male cousin that she'd had sex with Gypsy once. But if that was the case, she never mentioned it to any of her gay friends. In the absence of reciprocated lesbian love and the inability to consummate lesbian sex, McCullers still wore a lesbian persona in literature and in life. She clearly wrote against the grain of heterosexual convention, wore men's clothes, was outrageously aggressive in her consistently failed search for sex and love with another woman, and formed primary friendships with other gay people.[15]

In 1945, Carson and Reeves McCullers remarried. Three years later, while severely depressed, she attempted suicide. In 1953, Reeves tried to persuade her to commit suicide with him, but she fled and Reeves killed himself in their Paris hotel with an overdose of sleeping pills.[18] Her bittersweet play The Square Root of Wonderful (1957) drew upon these traumatic experiences. In the 1950s, McCullers was in therapy for a variety of reasons, and discussed the possibility of being a lesbian with her therapist Dr. Mary A. Mercer.[19]

McCullers dictated her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare (1999), during the final months of her life. Her home from 1945 to 1967 in South Nyack, New York, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.[20][21]


McCullers suffered throughout her life from several illnesses and from alcoholism. At the age of 15, she contracted rheumatic fever, which resulted in rheumatic heart disease.[22] As a result of the heart damage sustained, McCullers suffered from strokes that began in her youth.[23] She lived the last twenty years of her life in Nyack, New York, where she died on September 29, 1967, at the age of 50, after a brain hemorrhage. [24] She is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.[25]


McCullers's style is often described as Southern Gothic, as the majority of her works take place in the Southern United States and feature eccentric characters suffering from loneliness interspersed by moments of deep empathy. In a discussion with the Irish critic and writer Terence de Vere White, McCullers said, "Writing, for me, is a search for God". Other critics have variously detected tragicomic or political elements in her writing.

The most recent scholarly collection of commentaries on her work is Carson McCullers in the Twenty-First Century (2016), edited by Graham-Bertolini and Kayser.[26]


McCullers's childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, is now owned by Columbus State University and is the central location of the university's Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians.[27] The center is dedicated to preserving the legacy of McCullers; to nurturing American writers and musicians; to educating young people; and to fostering the literary and musical life of Columbus, the state of Georgia, and the American South. To that end, the center operates a museum in the Smith–McCullers' home, presents extensive educational and cultural programs for the community, maintains an ever-growing archive of materials related to the life and work of McCullers, and offers fellowships for writers and composers who live for periods of time in the Smith-McCullers home in Columbus.

While the center operates out of the Smith–McCullers house, the writer's childhood home and museum is open to the public.

In 1944, when McCullers's father died, her mother left Columbus and moved to Nyack, New York, where she bought her daughter's famed Nyack home. McCullers lived with her mother and sister off and on in this house for a number of years, eventually buying the house from her mother. McCullers was living in this house when she died in 1967. In December 2006 the house in Nyack was added to the National Register of Historic Places.[28]

McCullers's therapist and longtime friend, Dr. Mary E. Mercer, bequeathed the house in Nyack to Columbus State University's Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, the same center that owns and operates out of McCullers's childhood home in Columbus, Georgia.[29] At Dr. Mercer's death in late April 2013, the McCullers Center inherited not only the house but also many artifacts and documents that shed light on the last ten years of McCullers's life.

The two former McCullers houses now owned by Columbus State University together contain the world's most extensive research collection on the author.

The Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts in Columbus, Georgia, is named in honor of McCullers and fellow Columbus native Ma Rainey.

Charles Bukowski wrote a poem about Carson McCullers.[30]

She influenced Edward Albee who adapted her novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe into a play.

In 2020, American writer Jenn Shapland published My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, which recounts Shapland's discovery of McCullers' letters to Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Shapland's book contends McCullers was queer, or closeted.[31] Other critics have noted that "McCullers camouflaged her love for women in her fiction, [and] gay and lesbian themes are inarguably present in her work."[32]



  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1940. LCCN 40010298.
  • Reflections in a Golden Eye. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1941. LCCN 41002706.
  • The Member of the Wedding. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1946. LCCN 46002022.
  • Clock Without Hands. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1961. LCCN 61010351.

Other works[edit]



  • Carson McCullers Reads from The Member of the Wedding and Other of her Works. New York: MGM Records. 1958. LCCN 89741503.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b ​The Member of the Wedding​ (1950 production) at the Internet Broadway Database
  2. ^ a b c 1920 United States Federal Census.
  3. ^ 1930 United States Federal Census
  4. ^ Carr 2003, pp. 42–45.
  5. ^ Carr 2005, p. 5.
  6. ^ Carr 2003, p. 62.
  7. ^ a b Als, Hilton (November 26, 2001). "The Unhappy Endings of Carson McCullers". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved May 30, 2019.
  8. ^ "Author Carson McCullers Wrote Prolifically While in Fayetteville". FayObserver. March 28, 2010. Archived from the original on April 8, 2010. Retrieved September 17, 2011.
  9. ^ Johnson, Thomas S. (1974). The Horror in the Mansion: Gothic Fiction in the Works of Carson McCullers. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dissertation Abstracts.
  10. ^ Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. (2009). The Fourth Ghost: White Southern Writers and European Fascism 1930–1950. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. p. 233.
  11. ^ Carr 2003, p. 570.
  12. ^ Carr 2003, p. 572.
  13. ^ Wright, James (1973). "Hugo: Secrets Of The Inner Landscape". The American Poetry Review. 2 (3): 13. ISSN 0360-3709. JSTOR 27774587.
  14. ^ Tippins, Sherill (2005). February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Brooklyn. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 0-61841911-X.
  15. ^ a b c "McCullers: Canon Fodder?". The Nation. ISSN 0027-8378. Retrieved November 15, 2016.
  16. ^ O’Grady, Megan (February 4, 2020). "She Found Carson McCullers's Love Letters. They Taught Her Something About Herself". The New York Times. Retrieved August 8, 2022. Shapland was an intern at the Harry Ransom Center, a writers' and artists' archive at the University of Texas at Austin, when she discovered love letters written to McCullers from Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a Swiss heiress with whom McCullers had an affair.
  17. ^ Whitt, Jan (1999). "The "we of me": Carson McCullers as lesbian novelist". Journal of Homosexuality. 37 (1): 127–139. doi:10.1300/j082v37n01_09. PMID 10203074.
  18. ^ Dews, Carlos (2005). Carson McCullers (1917–1967). The New Georgia Encyclopedia.
  19. ^ Shapland, Jenn (2020). My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Portland, Oregon: Tin House Books. pp. 1–2. ISBN 978-1-947793-28-6.
  20. ^ "National Register Information System – (#06000562)". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 13, 2009.
  21. ^ New York SP McCullers, Carson, House at the National Archives and Records Administration
  22. ^ Carr 2003, p. 466.
  23. ^ Carr 2003, pp. 466–467.
  24. ^ Als, Hilton (November 25, 2001). "The Unhappy Endings of Carson McCullers". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  25. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Location 31251). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition
  26. ^ Carson McCullers in the twenty-first century
  27. ^ "Carson McCullers". Retrieved February 13, 2020.
  28. ^ "National Register of Historic Places Official Website--Part of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior". Retrieved February 13, 2020.
  29. ^ "Nyack". Archived from the original on June 4, 2015. Retrieved August 23, 2015.
  30. ^ "Carson Mccullers Poem by Charles Bukowski - Poem Hunter". January 3, 2003. Retrieved February 13, 2020.
  31. ^ Shapland, Jenn (February 3, 2020). "The Closeting of Carson McCullers". The Paris Review. Retrieved August 27, 2022.
  32. ^ Whitt, J. (1999). "The "we of me": Carson McCullers as lesbian novelist". Journal of Homosexuality. 37 (1): 127–139. doi:10.1300/J082v37n01_09. ISSN 0091-8369. PMID 10203074.


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