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:

I think it is important for future generations ... to know why I did certain things, but it is also important for myself. I became an established literary figure overnight, and I was much too young to understand what happened to me or the responsibility it entailed. I was a bit of a holy terror. That, combined with all my illnesses, nearly destroyed me. Perhaps if I trace and preserve for future generations the effect this success had on me it will prepare future artists to accept it better.

With the publication in 1940 of the much-acclaimed novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers was indeed an overnight success who looked even younger than she was: at the age of 23, she bore a distinct resemblance to the novel’s epicene Mick Kelly, a ‘gangling, towheaded youngster, a girl of about twelve’. Yet McCullers was more of a prodigy than most people knew: her first published story, appropriately titled ‘Wunderkind’, was written when she was 17; it appeared in the distinguished American literary magazine Story in December 1936. ‘Wunderkind’ is a subtle, sensitively imagined story of a ‘wunderkind’ girl pianist who comes to the realisation, painful both to her and her piano teacher, and to the reader as well, that her early genius for the piano is fading in adolescence. It bears a peripheral resemblance to Katherine Mansfield’s more poetically, deftly rendered ‘The Wind Blows’, but it’s an excellent story in its own right, the more remarkable for having been written by someone so young. Story also bought another early work, ‘Like That’, but had second thoughts about publishing it because it dealt, however obliquely and tastefully, with a young girl’s first menstruation and her first sexual experience, subjects that Story’s male editor thought too extreme for his readers.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter begins with a mature story-telling ease that suggests parable: ‘In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.’ The deaf-mute whom we come to know is named John Singer, a jeweller’s assistant with an indefinable charisma; in Singer’s ‘eternal silence’ others find comfort as they tell him their stories, eliciting a sympathetic if minimal response, sometimes in writing. (Singer can read lips.) Only the reader understands that Singer has a secret of his own: he’s hopelessly, one might say quixotically, in love with his companion deaf-mute, Antonapoulos, an obese, apparently retarded man with few redeeming virtues. When Antonapoulos dies of Bright’s disease, Singer is bereft and commits suicide, to the astonishment of the five townspeople, among them the troubled adolescent Mick Kelly, who have idolised him as a superior, Christ-like being. This début novel is perhaps uneven in execution, and the character of Mick Kelly is an early, sketchier version of Frankie Addams (from The Member of the Wedding), but it remains a powerful and original work of fiction, especially daring in its depiction of white racist cruelty against Negroes, and in its portrait of a Negro doctor who urges his fellows to ‘throw off the yoke of submission and slothfulness’ and assert their rights as human beings. In rural Georgia, in the late Thirties? It’s no wonder that McCullers’s fellow Georgians, among them the Ku Klux Klan, didn’t take kindly to her iconoclastic vision.

‘Even as a grown woman I was haunted always by homesickness,’ McCullers says in Illumination and Night Glare, and it’s clear that in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter the young author was entranced as much by place, and the ineffable ‘soul’ of place, as by her characters. If the entrancement had been simple nostalgia, the results would have been sentimental; in fact, McCullers was as much appalled by her Southern hometown, Columbus, Georgia, as she was enthralled by it.

McCullers’s second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), was less enthusiastically received than her first. It is a less accomplished novel, with a quite different tone, more clearly a tall tale of the grotesque, or the frankly freakish. Inspired by an anecdote McCullers had heard about a voyeur at a local Army post, Reflections scandalised Georgians and incurred the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan, those keepers of morality; McCullers was given police protection after she’d received a threatening telephone call: ‘We are the Ku Klux Klan and we don’t like nigger-lovers or fairies. Tonight will be your night.’ Considering the violent, racist atmosphere of the American South well into the Fifties, when lynchings were not uncommon and almost always went unpunished, it’s remarkable that McCullers and her family escaped physical injury. (Even with much of the world watching by way of the media, the young black civil rights demonstrator, Medgar Evers, was shot in the back in Jackson, Mississippi in the summer of 1963, and his killer, though probably known to local authorities, was never named.)

McCullers suffered her first stroke in 1946, at the age of 29. Though she continued to write, and sometimes to write very well after this, she reached the zenith of her career in the previous five years, when she wrote The Ballad of the Sad Café and The Member of the Wedding. These works of fiction, set in Georgia, confirmed her early promise and established her as perhaps the leading writer of her generation. (Clock Without Hands, worked on intermittently, often in a sickbed, for twenty years, wasn’t published until 1960.)

McCullers admired the Gothic tales of Isak Dinesen, whom she eventually met, and the imperial, somewhat arch style of Dinesen seems to have been an influence on The Ballad of the Sad Café. This parable-novella is an acquired taste, defiantly risky and weird – the story of a love triangle composed of the cross-eyed, Amazonian Miss Amelia, a well-to-do café proprietress in a small Georgia mill-town, the hunchback dwarf Lymon whom Miss Amelia uncritically adores, and Miss Amelia’s ex-husband, a violent ex-convict named Marvin Macy who is adored by Lymon. It’s a challenge to paraphrase the novella without making it sound like a parody of Southern Gothic, but there are luminous passages that transcend the melodramatic plot:

Love is a joint experience between the two persons – but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing.

The once proud Miss Amelia comes to a sorry end, publicly humiliated by her beloved Lymon and her cast-off husband Marvin Marcy; the ‘sad café’ is shut down for ever. Love, McCullers seems to suggest, is a hurtful, freakish experience, in mythic-rural Georgia at least.

By contrast, The Member of the Wedding is a wholly realistic work, beautifully composed and nuanced; as original and haunting as any work by Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter or Virginia Woolf. According to her biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, McCullers wrote seven drafts of The Member of the Wedding, yet there is nothing artificial or over-polished about its fluid, poetic style or its brilliantly compressed drama. This heart-rending tale of 12-year-old Frankie Addams’s infatuation with, and inevitable exclusion from, her brother’s wedding is that rare work of the imagination: the rendering of experience so convincing that we may come to think it has been our own. Sometimes we inhabit Frankie’s head, teeming with thoughts and impressions; often we float above her, amused and alarmed by turns, and understanding the disillusion to come, as she hastens after the married couple with her own suitcase.

The rest was like some nightmare show in which a wild girl in the audience breaks onto the stage to take upon herself an unplanned part that was never written or meant to be. You are the we of me, her heart was saying, but she could only say aloud, ‘Take me!’ And they pleaded and begged her, but she was already in the car. At last she clung to the steering wheel until her father and somebody else had hauled and dragged her from the car, and even then she could only cry in the dust of the empty road: ‘Take me! Take me!’ But there was only the wedding company to hear, for the bride and her brother had driven away.

Small in scope, as intense as Frankie Addams’s fevered imagination, The Member of the Wedding is magical in effect, properly an American classic. Its mixture of comedy, pathos and tragedy (for there is a shock of an ending, beyond Frankie’s personal humiliation) is rendered with such seeming effortlessness, one might be inclined to call it ‘artless’. There is no higher praise.

Illumination and Night Glare was a 128-page typescript found among McCullers’s papers at the University of Texas at Austin. None of it had been published. Though described as an ‘autobiography’, it is rather more of an informal, unselfconscious memoir organised on the principle of association of ideas, not by chronology or theme; it’s touching, conversational, inevitably disjointed. For some time before her death, already debilitated by a series of strokes, McCullers had been dictating random memories to a secretary, and the present book, compiled by Carlos Dews of the University of West Florida, is all that she completed before a massive brain haemorrhage left her comatose for 47 days. The sketchy memoir comes to not quite 80 printed pages and has been filled out, to use a neutral expression, by material of dubious worth: dozens of letters from McCullers’s second husband and a detailed outline of ‘The Mute’ (the working title of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which had been submitted by the 22-year-old McCullers to a publisher). Though the ‘autobiography’ recapitulates, in radically distilled, censored form, the events of McCullers’s life, traced in pitiless detail by Carr in The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers, there are frequent passages of interest, and one can see why an editor would want to present the attenuated manuscript for publication, for it is all that remains of the unpublished work.

Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia in 1917. She married at the age of 19, divorced, and some turbulent years later remarried the charming, handsome, emotionally unstable and fatally alcoholic bisexual, Reeves McCullers, who committed suicide in 1953, having failed to coerce McCullers to do the same. According to Carr, though it’s scarcely mentioned in Illumination, Carson McCullers was also a chronic alcoholic from her early twenties; even after her strokes, she continued to drink heavily and to chainsmoke, hastening her ‘premature’ death. McCullers speaks circumspectly of her attachments to other women, which Carr elaborates on in sometimes serio-comic detail (McCullers pursued the attractive, then-famous Katherine Anne Porter so obsessively that Porter was once forced to step over her supine body in a doorway, at the writers’ colony in Yaddo, New York). McCullers herself says very little about her complicity in the disastrous marriage, while Carr traces the couple’s unhappy history in excruciating detail. The self-portrait of illumination is fuzzy and vague as if a light were being turned not on the subject’s face, but into the viewer’s eyes; Carr’s portrait is both appealing and unflattering. This is Frankie Addams as a psychic vampire, a perennial waif who exploited the kindness of friends and admirers until in some cases she bled them dry. What steely self-absorption, and what will – even when she was confined to a wheelchair. Yet as Carr and Illumination both record, McCullers enjoyed a diverse assortment of friends and admirers over the course of her life, among them her most forgiving friend, Tennessee Williams, a fellow Southerner, ‘lonely hunter’ and drinker; W.H. Auden; Edith Sitwell; Henry Miller; Janet Flanner; Richard Wright, who praised McCullers for her complex, realistic portraits of Negroes; the American composer David Diamond, who had a triangular love affair with McCullers and Reeves that ended unhappily for all; the film director John Huston, who directed the film version of Reflections in a Golden Eye, and the younger playwright Edward Albee who adapted, with limited success, The Ballad of the Sad Café for the stage.

‘Illumination’ is McCullers’s term for epiphany, inspiration, insight; ‘night glare’ her term for her illnesses, bad luck, and the loss of inspiration: ‘the soul is flattened out, and one does not even dare to hope. At times like this I’ve tried praying but even prayers do not seem to help me ... I want to be able to write whether in sickness or in health, for indeed, my health depends almost completely upon my writing.’ One feels that McCullers is telling the truth in such passages; yet how to reconcile her devotion to her art with her reckless disregard for her health? As Scott Fitzgerald said of himself, McCullers would seem to have been a ‘poor custodian’ of her own talent. To friends, lovers, admirers and strangers, such self-destructive individuals present the very face of mystery: how can genius so rare so squander itself? The fragmentary and only intermittently inspired Illumination and Night Glare doesn’t consider such questions; it is nostalgic, highly subjective and uncritical. It would be unfair to expect a more rigorous self-examination by a woman so severely afflicted. But if this memoir leads a new generation of readers back to McCullers’s outstanding work, it will have more than justified its publication.