You are the we of me

Joyce Carol Oates

  • Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers edited by Carlos Dews
    Wisconsin, 256 pp, £19.95, September 1999, ISBN 0 299 16440 3

The wedding was like a dream outside her power, or like a show unmanaged by her in which she was to have no part.

The Member of the Wedding

How to account for the vagaries of literary reputation? In the Forties and early Fifties, such disparate, talented young writers as Carson McCullers, Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor were perceived as kindred; there was a highly publicised vogue of American Southern Gothic writing, abetted by photographs of the very camp Truman Capote reclining on a chaise-longue like a delicious dream of Oscar Wilde’s, and by lurid tales of the erratic, often inebriated behaviour of Carson McCullers, a literary prodigy to set beside Scott Fitzgerald in the previous generation. (McCullers, married to a bisexual man, was frequently enamoured of women who sometimes, but more often didn’t, welcome her effusive advances.) Of the trio, Flannery O’Connor, who published her first novel Wise Blood in 1952, and her first collection of short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find in 1955, with less publicity and fewer sales, was the most reclusive, preferring to spend her writing life on her family’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia; O’Connor, like McCullers, suffered from chronic poor health and was physically handicapped but, unlike the adventurous McCullers, O’Connor hoarded her strength and concentrated exclusively on her craft.

During their lifetimes, McCullers and Capote were far more acclaimed and commercially successful than O’Connor. McCullers’s novels were usually bestsellers, including even the last, poorly reviewed Clock Without Hands (1960), and her stage adaptation of the autobiographical The Member of the Wedding (1946) was a critical and commercial success in the Fifties. Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), and his Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) were bestsellers; Capote wrote successfully for Broadway and Hollywood and published, in 1966, his non-fiction crime novel In Cold Blood, which brought him praise and notoriety for its seeming exploitation of violent murders in Kansas and of the murderers themselves, whose executions were described in the book. Capote would die an alcoholic, drug-ravaged death in 1984 at the age of 60, his talent long since exhausted; McCullers died much earlier, at 50, in 1967, after 15 years of severe ill health; O’Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39; she had been suffering from lupus. A writer’s writer, she had no single bestseller, but her starkly ironic, parable-like stories were favourites in the influential Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Awards yearly anthologies.

If American Southern Gothic survives as a literary mode, it’s only as parody. The reputations of McCullers and Capote have severely diminished even as the reputation of O’Connor has steadily risen. McCullers may be perceived in some quarters as a writer of young adult classics whose work has not transcended its era; Capote is little read except for his atypical In Cold Blood, which was the inspiration for more complex and ambitious non-fiction novels by Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song) and Don DeLillo (Libra). In the massive, magisterial The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike, Flannery O’Connor is included with one of her much anthologised stories, ‘Greenleaf’, while McCullers and Capote are not only absent, but their absences have gone unremarked by reviewers. Fifty years ago, such a state of affairs would have been greeted in literary circles with astonishment and disbelief.

Yet McCullers is the author of a number of works of fiction that compare favourably with the best stories of O’Connor, and her finest novel, The Member of the Wedding, is an exquisitely rendered, haunting work that surpasses anything O’Connor has written. McCullers’s portraits of lonely, eccentric, sexually ambiguous men and women achieve a mythopoeic power largely lacking in the one-dimensional portraits of ‘grotesque’ Southerners who populate O’Connor’s backwoods Georgia fiction; McCullers’s gift was to evoke, through an accumulation of images and musically repeated phrases, the singularity of experience, not to pass judgment on it. Where O’Connor’s characters are actors in an ideologically charged theological drama (she was a fiercely polemical Roman Catholic), tending toward allegory (or caricature), McCullers’s characters are like us: human, hapless, hopeful, ‘real’.

In Illumination and Night Glare, the posthumously published ‘autobiography’ McCullers dictated to a secretary in the final months of her life, she states her intention:

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