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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 893

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This is the grave of Carson McCullers.

Born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, which at least today must be one of the very worst cities of its size in America, Lula Carson Smith (good call on going with the middle name) grew up in OK circumstances, but was hardly a member of the southern elite. Her father repaired watches. This was not a milieu that created girls who went on to become famous writers and artistic legends. What seems clear from my understanding of her (and others may have more knowledge than I) is that what she really wanted was to get the hell out of Columbus. She had to work for her money. She had just enough money to study piano at Julliard. She went to New York. And then somehow lost her money on the subway. So she worked as a waitress and dog walker. She got sick with rheumatic fever she never really recovered from, dropped out, and had to go back to Columbus to recover. She wasn’t staying in that town long. As a child, she had written a lot as well as played the piano so she decided to go back to New York and give it a go as a writer, both because she wanted to make her own art and because she didn’t think her health would hold up to the physical intensity required of a professional pianist. That of course meant back to the menial labor since no one was really paying for young writers to live. She married another aspiring writer in 1937 named Reeves McCullers. They switched off–one would write and the other would work to support the couple and then the other way. Pretty fair for the time, at least in theory. In reality, she wasn’t very good at keeping up her part of the bargain. He was also a southerner–from rural Alabama–and her mother introduced them, despite Carson having a very complex relationship with her mom.

McCullers had a lot more success than her husband. The late 30s and early 40s was a period where there was a real desire in the literary world for southern writers. Faulkner was huge and Eudora Welty was publishing her best works. McCullers tapped into this with her 1940 novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which is what she is most known for today. This was a huge hit in the literary community. Among other accolades, Richard Wright said she was the first white writer to create fully formed and real Black characters. Quite a compliment and McCullers does really seem to have transcended the racism of her time and place more than other white writers, certainly more than Faulkner, though she could fall back on stereotypes in her writing too. However, McCullers’ health was terrible. She was already having strokes in her 20s. Moreover, she really, really liked to drink. This hardly put her outside the norm of the mid-century literary community, but she definitely was at the Hemingway/Faulkner level of boozing. She continued writing pretty consistently over the next decade or so, despite the drunkenness and health problems. Reflections in a Golden Eye came out in 1941, The Member of the Wedding in 1946, and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in 1951. In the sexism of the day, her husband, who went by Reeves, was credited by many reviewers as the “real” writer of her work, which was absurd not only because it was false and misogynist, but he was one of those guys who talks about being a writer but never actually writes anything. I think we’ve all known this type at some point.

McCullers was also deeply committed to what was then called a Bohemian lifestyle (not really sure why the southern Germans were tagged with living that way). She smoked all the time, she wore her hair short, she wore men’s shirts. She had an androgynous look at a time when this was not exactly common among women. This, plus her intense literary-celebrity studded personal life made the press very interested in the southern sensation. She and her husband divorced in 1941. She moved to New York to live with the editor of Harper’s, but that didn’t last either. She lived in an communal house in Brooklyn with other artist types (what could go wrong), lived with the composer David Diamond for awhile, and also tried to have several sexual relationships with women, but it seems these were unrequited. It was hard out there for a bisexual woman in the 1940s and 1950s. When she hit on Katherine Anne Porter, she was kicked out of her house. This is an interesting recent essay on McCullers realizing she was a lesbian and trying to act on it.

But hey, there was also the bottle and her good friends like Paul Bowles and Tennessee Williams. She remarried her ex-husband in 1945 after he, in his desperation after she left him, went back into the military during World II (he was in it in the 30s) and was wounded in Normandy on D-Day. In 1948, she tried to kill herself with pills. In 1953, her husband did kill himself that way while trying to convince her to kill herself with him. In other words, she was a goddamn mess. For whatever it is worth–and it should be taken with a grain of salt for the bitchy asshole he was–Gore Vidal despised her and couldn’t understand why Williams would want to hang out with someone who he claimed only talked about her own greatness as a writer. Let’s face it, if Vidal is right about this, it would be pretty damn annoying to spend time with her.

Her health did not get better over time. The rheumatic fever she had as a teenager is what caused her heart damage that led to her strokes. She was paralyzed on her left side by 1950. In 1945, after her father died, probably from suicide as well, she moved to Nyack, New York, on the Hudson River, and her mother and sister came up from Georgia to help take care of her. Her last major book published while she was alive was her 1961 novel Clock Without Hands (a popular image in high art of the time, as Ingmar Bergman would use to such effect in his great film Wild Strawberries). She had a children’s book published as well in 1964.

Finally, the strokes got McCullers. She died of one in 1967, at the age of 50.

Carson McCullers is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Nyack, New York. No, I did not leave the tequila. But it does make me thing, would McCullers have even known about tequila? I feel like she must have been a woman of gin and whiskey. Then I realized I don’t really know the history of how tequila was introduced into this nation. The world is a magical and mysterious place full of questions to explore.

If you would like this series to visit other great American writers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. The Library of America published its edition of McCullers’ greatest book as Volume 128 in its series, which seems about right (it is currently at Volume 352, for some perspective on the issue). If you would like this series to visit the authors published just after McCullers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Over the years, I’ve actually gotten to a number of writers. McCullers is followed by volumes of Alexander Hamilton (not sure Hamilton’s writing in quite literature but OK) and Mark Twain. Then it is Charles Chesnutt, who is in Cleveland, and John Steinbeck, who is in Salinas, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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