Post 2 for Carson McCullers 100th Birthday Week.
Things to expect when you read Carson McCullers: late night diners, music, triangles of frustrated love, circuses, outsiders, and wanderers. In her two best works, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Member of the Wedding, you also find a fiery, pre-teen girl trying to make sense of the world around her.
Mick in Heart and Frankie in Member are both stand-ins for Carson, who never really outgrew the wonder and longings of that stage of her life. But the fruit of her arrested development is work which probed the depths of her deep South community and captured the vulnerabilities of her adult characters in a way that a more jaded author would dismiss. She tackles great national issues like race, class, economics, and rigid gender roles, but all from within the roiling of a young soul.
“This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her…This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen… Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt.” —The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Besides the girls, perhaps her greatest literary creation was the character of John Singer, the mute man at the center of Heart who does not speak but who becomes the confidant of Mick and several other troubled characters. His silence allows those around him to project whatever they would like onto him, but it also condemns him to be misunderstood.
“During the moonlit January nights Singer continued to walk about the streets of the town each evening when he was not engaged. The rumors about him grew bolder. An old Negro woman told hundred of people that he knew the ways of spirits come back from the dead. A certain pieceworker claimed that he had worked with the mute at another mill somewhere else in the state–and the tales he told were unique. The rich thought that he was rich and the poor considered him a poor man like themselves. And as there was no way to disprove these rumors they grew marvelous and very real. Each man described the mute as he wished him to be.” —The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Singer himself is devoted to a comically selfish man, Antonapoulos, who is unable to reciprocate his affection.
All these star-crossed dreamers wander the same streets and seek the same thing – a lasting home within love. The failure of their searches only illuminates the treasure that they desire. And it’s what gives McCullers work it’s transcendent beauty and warmth. There is a heart in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
3 responses to “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: Carson McCullers Week, part 2”
[…] late but was immediately entranced when I did a cross-South trip listening to an audio version of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. She wrote that classic at the age of 19, and though she would go on to other triumphs like […]
[…] in other places, like StreetLight. The mid-20th century author is mostly known for her master work, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, as well her later pieces like The Member of the Wedding and Ballad of Sad Cafe. Each of those […]
[…] “Mick is perhaps the most outstanding character in the book.” Carson McCullers is describing a central character in her remarkable debut novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. […]