“We are homesick most for places we have never known.” —Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers may be the South’s greatest yet least known writer of the twentieth century. She also may be both its most obscure and most accurate narrator of the small town life and the industrial changes of the South prior to the second world war. Her characters are nearly always weirdos and outcasts, but lovable and realistic. They are the people you remember from your hometown that everyone knew—the eccentrics about whom you ask at high school or church reunions, “Whatever happened to old so and so?”—and she treated them with delicate sympathy and understanding.
Like many writers of her generation, McCullers moved to New York City, but unlike contemporaries such as Dawn Powell, she did not embrace her new cosmopolitan home as the ideal setting for her stories. Powell, an Ohio girl who probably was more suited to New York all along, searched for the grand and glamorous life in her characters and modeled many on her own life as an up-and-coming star of the literary scene. McCullers in most instances instead retreated—if only in her mind—to her native Columbus, Georgia, and small Georgia towns like it.
Her genius was multi-faceted but in great part it was her ability to create believable settings while making them universal to the region: whatever the town’s name, its name comes second or third in its importance, and the immediacy is on being a mill town at a time when Southern rural life was moving away from the farm and towards industry. Through her characters, though so often misfits, we are able to see ourselves and that virtually everyone, to a degree, was a misfit in this transitional time from agriculture to industry.
It seems only fitting to write about McCullers now when America is yearning for its industrial heyday—the period was at its apex when she was writing and factored broadly, even when latent, into her writing. The literature professor Debra Reed Airheart entitled her doctoral dissertation The Isolated and Grotesque World of Carson McCullers, and that title sums up a lot of what is going on in her stories—scenes of parts of America overlooked by mainstream fiction of the time.
The idea of a hero in the early twentieth century—and certainly in what would become Hollywood’s Golden Age—was just that: a larger-than-life person either born into greatness, or who climbed up to it, but who embodied classic values of courage, goodness, and honor regardless. Many Americans may have seen themselves on a smaller scale as such heroes, men working in the mills and factories which would fuel our war efforts and by the 1950’s launch the greatest American prosperity ever known—and, for the South, would allow the poor small farmers to vastly improve their fortunes with good industrial jobs “in town.”
The problem was, this socioeconomic change also brought upheaval to the cultural landscape—as the wounds of the Civil War continued to heal slowly, the new mill town context of society differed from the rural context. There had been a lot of progressive efforts in the early twentieth century in rural America—things like the Corn Clubs for instance—to bring both new agricultural science and a sense of greater community to rural areas, and corporate leaders envisioned their own mills sponsoring utopian cities with company-built housing for workers and even things like company baseball teams and golf courses. However noble (even if paternalistic) these ideals were, in reality many who immigrated from farm life to mill towns in search of jobs found a degree of isolation and alienation, and for those who were “different” or lacked families of their own, this was all the more pronounced.
It is into this context we meet the cast of characters who compose McCullers’ most-famous of novels, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The lead characters are two deaf mutes who live together until one encounters psychological problems that lead to his being consigned to a mental asylum. Other characters include a puckish tomboy, a black doctor, a fiery and alcoholic labor leader, and the owner of the local diner. Whatever their quirks for literary effect, these are pretty true-to-life characters of a mid-sized mill town, only they are not the dashing young worker or grumpy boss or beautiful housewife that other writers and film directors would have sought out and assumed America to identify with in fiction.
In her novel Reflections in a Golden Eye, McCullers focuses on an army base in the South as her setting—modeled on both Fort Benning near her native Columbus and Fort Bragg in North Carolina—and the people who populate such bases as her characters. But these are not the brave and committed officers and men of the Army we get from other fiction but a disgruntled young officer, his adulteress wife, a philandering more-senior officer, and others. It is at once a tragedy of epic proportions and a bit of a soap opera yet with none of the vicarious suspense but instead with great pathos.
In both novels, while their characters are memorable—haunting, even—the settings are the essential ingredient, a trait of most Southern Gothic works of literature. The removal from the classic horror setting of the haunted house or the traditional Southern setting of an antebellum plantation to the mill town in the South, the military base, or simply a small Southern railroad town spoke volumes for this approach to literature. For one, it declared that the South was not restricted to tropes outsiders might have fancied about it—Southern literature would not be content to rest with Mark Twain, Sidney Lanier, or Kate Chopin. The rest of the world could not be allowed to see the South only as sketches and faded etchings of New Orleans circa 1840 or grand mansions in South Carolina when progress in the South was moving apace with progress elsewhere in America—when those same industrial futures were making their mark also in the South.
Yet that progress was both good and bad, and while McCullers was not a journalist nor ever claimed to present truth verbatim via her fiction, she knew that the best characters and scenarios could be found in real life. She also was keenly aware that the especial environments of mill towns, army bases, and the changing landscape of small Southern towns were incubators for incredible personalities. While her contemporaries were attempting to be cosmopolitan, McCullers looked not only to the places she knew personally but also the way local newspapers reported on the more salacious happenings—Reflections in a Golden Eye was in part inspired by an account in a newspaper of a peeping Tom at Fort Bragg.
Yet she never stooped to a soap-opera or penny-dreadful-style of exploitation—her interest was clearly in environment and characters, not the deeds per se of those characters. Whatever their sins, she felt their cohesive experience would be what lived on longer as they reflected back on their lives. McCullers indeed is decidedly Southern in that, despite her own tomboyish and rebellious ways, she treats her characters with a great degree of respect, empathy, and even primness. And moreover, she knew the towns they inhabited were greater than themselves—even in her tomboys patterned after her own girlhood yearning to move beyond their confining small town grace and affection for their origins.
McCullers was certainly an original in many respects, one that only the American South could have produced, and likewise, from only the inspiration of the South of her time could she have produced the varied, gripping, and often harrowing stories she wrote.
SEE MORE MIKE WALKER PHOTOS HERE