As if it were me, I can still recall the protagonist Mick Kelly sitting in the bushes in a rich neighborhood listening to Beethoven for the first time — the music opened her hunger for music and connection.
Carson McCullers wrote the southern gothic novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter when she was 23 years old.
I read it when I lived in Tennessee at the age of 22. I was lonely and hurting and still believed in soul mates. I thought romantic love was what would fulfill me; it was the connection I needed to make me whole. I was determined if I did anything else in this life it would be to fall in love and that love would elevate me.
Like her characters in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I sought to be seen and loved. All the main characters reach out to John Singer, a deaf-mute for comfort and connection, including Mick. All are oblivious to his pain, and his need for soulful intimacy.
Not one of the characters in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter find what she or he is searching for. When I read McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café again the interior lives of her characters resonated with me. It is a story of how love can empower and destroy. There is no “standard” romantic love in this love triangle story. Miss Amelia is loved by one man, a convicted killer and then she falls for a hunchback. Later the two men become inseparable and literally attack Miss Amelia, leaving her financially ruined, physically bruised, and emotionally broken. The cost of love imprisons her in her own home.
Hearts broken and love triangles formed.
McCullers was born named Lula Carson Smith. At the age of 20, she married Reese McCullers a proclaimed writer. And yet Carson said, “I must say that in all of his talk of wanting to be a writer, I never saw one single line he’d ever written except his letters.”
She divorced him three years later after he forged and spent her royalty checks from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
It was then Carson began her relationship with the famous journalist, Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach. Little is known about their relationship other than Carson writes in her letters that she loved Annemarie and saw her as an escape from the life she had been living. In 1941, Carson and her ex-husband both fell in love with American composer David Diamond. It was after this relationship that she wrote The Ballad of the Sad Café.
Inner lives set in a labyrinth plot.
The plots of McCullers work are not what I remember.
I doubt McCullers was schooled in the hero's journey: books like The Hunger Games, or even Where the Crawdads Sing where we readers know who the heroes are, who their helpers are, what journey they are placed on, and what obstacles they need to forge through. Journeys are not what McCullers's books are about; they are about a soulful beauty that desires connection.
Her characters’ inner lives are what are dynamic, not so much what they do or don’t do, but their complex emotions. This is what attracted me and has lived in my since.
There is an ache and a want that McCullers captures in her characters. This ache begs to be fulfilled as much as Frodo’s desire to make it to Mordor, or Katniss’ is to be chosen for the Hunger Games to protect her sister and set her on a nail-biting journey.
The internal lives of characters are seldom talked about today in contemporary literature. We hear of page-turners and tension and plotting devices. McCullers’ novels are like sitting on a porch with timeless friends drinking sweet tea in-between snips of whiskey.
She did write and drink alongside Street Car Named Desire author Tennessee Williams. The two became trusted friends. Like McCullers, his characters are internally complex. While he wrote Summer and Smoke, she wrote the play version of The Member of a Wedding, a play where the lead character falls in love with his brother’s fiancé — another example of unrequited love.
Dog-eared from my copy of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. “The way I [Singer]need you is a loneliness I cannot bear.” “I want — I want — I want — was all that she [Mick]could think about — but just what this real want was she did not know.”
Deep aches and soulful connections.
Like her characters, Carson McCullers hungered for intense soulful connection too. If the plot sets a road map for characters, then characters with deep aches and interior lives that we can relate to can offer solace.
It is why we women have girlfriends, why we hunger for book clubs, or cups of coffee before picking up our children.
The tension isn’t about what is going to happen next; the energy is in the now, that says I hurt too; I seek to love too; I hear you and I need to be heard too. I need a community too. One glass of red, one touch on my elbow, one Bach sonata and I am back to being 22 reading McCullers for the first time.
McCullers life, her work, and her novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are examples that we need music, community, and a hand to hold. McCuller’s characters never come to a place of self-love, love in partnership, or community, and neither did McCullers. She remarried Reese in 1945.
She fell in love with Katherine Anne Porter while both attended a writer's colony. Porter was a best-selling writer. She also wrote one of the most haunting short stories of all time, “Yellow Wallpaper,” and later would win the Pulitzer Prize.
Porter did not share McCullers feelings. The rumor is Carson would sleep outside Porter’s door and Porter stepped over Carson like a sleeping dog to get to where she needed to go. Carson attracted soulful people like Marylin Monroe who had lunch with her two months before she died. Flannery Occonner who wrote some of the best short stories ever penned, a woman who suffered most of her adult life from lupus was also a friend.
Carson’s husband took his life while encouraging her to do the same. Carson McCullers died at 50 from a stroke.
At 54, one long painful marriage and divorce later, I still can recognize an ache in me that I felt when I first read McCullers, that need or even the faulty belief that I will be fulfilled by another person. One glass of red, one touch on my elbow, one Bach Sonata and I am back to being 22 reading McCullers for the first time.
I do hope however that I not only recognize my needs but also Singer’s needs too, the woman sitting next to me at the bar, and the student’s pain while I am teaching. Today, I’d spend more time trying to listen to the “death mute’s” language, not only my own.