The National Catholic Review
Gerald T. Cobb

Carson McCullers described her distinguished novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as the story of five isolated, lonely people in their search for expression and spiritual integration with something greater than themselves. This thematic preoccupation, combined with the fact that McCullers lived for a time in France, made her particularly popular with French readers. Josyane Savigneau’s biography of McCullers, translated from the French by Joan E. Howard, has significant flaws, but it does at least bring us once more into contact with the dark beauty of McCullers’s fiction.

Lula Carson Smith was born in Columbus, Ga., in 1917. Although her physical health was never strong and was further impaired by her abuse of alcohol, she never flagged in her dedication to writing, publishing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at age 23, then going on to write The Member of the Wedding, Reflections in a Golden Eye and a number of short stories and plays.

She fell in love with Reeves McCullers, an aspiring writer, but their marriage (or rather marriages, since they remarried in 1945 after divorcing three years earlier) declined into excessive drinking, depression and physical abuse. The last years of McCullers’s life were difficult for her and her acquaintances. Gore Vidal lamented, An hour with a dentist without Novocain was like a minute with Carson McCullers. Apart from this judgment, McCullers possessed, as did Flannery O’Connor, the extraordinary gift of revealing in freakish, gothic figures the greater spiritual deformities of our body politic.

The chief and most annoying flaw in Savigneau’s book is the inclusion of a multitude of extended and under-analyzed quotations. A line count reveals that more than half of the first chapter (and more than 40 percent of the second chapter) is comprised of quoted material. The injudicious use of sources throughout the book reduces Savigneau’s role to that of a commentator rather than a biographer. McCullers’s literary works are merely invoked rather than discussed at any length, and one quickly tires of the umbrage Savigneau directs toward any critic or contemporary who faulted McCullers.

Concerning McCullers’s romantic attraction to women, Savigneau offers truisms (...all beings are endowed with a penchant for the pleasures of the flesh) and unlikely hypotheses (Would it be outrageous to suggest that Carson may have favored outfits that resembled men’s simply because they looked good on her and were well suited to her androgynous physique?) Well, yes, it would be extreme to think that this fully explains McCullers’s style of dress.

Lines likely to raise a reader’s eyebrows are tossed off by Savigneau with a studied casualness: Throughout her life Carson liked nothing better than to slip unannounced into the beds of her friends. Savigneau implausibly minimizes the complexity of this behavior: Her actions were by no means sexual advances but indications of a childish need to snuggle up to someone.

This book in no way displaces Virginia Spencer Carr’s 1975 biography of McCullers, The Lonely Hunter. As a compendium of some previously unpublished material, Savigneau’s book may offer rewards for the dedicated McCullers fan, but there is little enlightenment for the general reader, except to be reacquainted with the powerful themes McCullers explored. In The Member of the Wedding the adolescent character Frankie poignantly articulates one such theme: The trouble with me is that for a long time I have just been an I person. All people belong to a We except me. Not to belong to a We makes you too lonesome. For McCullers, America is an exceedingly lonely place.

 

Gerald T. Cobb, S.J., is associate dean and chair of the English department at Seattle University.