So, I’ve got a thing for Carson McCullers. Anybody who read this blog through the McCullers-palooza that was her 100th birthday celebration in February will know that this Southern writer speaks to me. The characters that she introduced us to in such classics as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding, and The Ballad of Sad Cafe are indelible, all afflicted with the same malady – the longing for love and connection. It’s the same theme that some of our greatest Christian writers (Augustine, Julian of Norwich) have dealt with.
Nick Norwood, who is, among other things, the director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, calls this theme ‘spiritual isolation.’
On my current renewal leave, I stopped by Columbus, Georgia at the childhood home of McCullers, who was born Lula Carson Smith. Sitting in the kitchen of that house where a young Carson produced her earliest works using the pocket doors for a curtain and her siblings as actors, I got to spend a great hour with Nick, who is also an accomplished poet and Professor of Creative Writing at CSU.
In the three parts of this interview we talk McCuller’s sense of place in writing, her ongoing influence, and what it’s like being a Southern poet.
So if you had to say why people should still be interested in Carson McCullers what would you say?
Well, I think one of the things is that Carson McCullers developed universal themes. To me that’s why she’s a writer with real staying power. She took on, as a major theme, what she refers to as spiritual isolation. People have used other terms for it. The term ‘loneliness’ has gotten attached to her, mostly I think because of the title of that first novel, [The Heart is a Lonely Hunter], but also because that’s the theme that she continued to return to in all her major works.
She’s one of those writers who’s going to speak to people no matter where they’re from or what age they live in. To me, here’s proof of that: Why would people in France, in Italy, in China, in Japan, all relate to her so strongly if it weren’t for the fact that she’s developing something universal. Not only that but she’s doing it in a unique way, in a fresh way. To me, what she does with John Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, that’s a piece of genius. So to me that’s the main reason.
A lot has been said recently about how a lot of the social issues that she dealt with in her books are now at the forefront of some national conversations—things that have to deal with sexual orientation, gender, race, all those things. Sarah Schulman, a novelist and lesbian rights activist, wrote a really interesting piece that was published in The New Yorker last year. She makes the argument that now is the time for writers to be returning to Carson McCullers. And the specific reason she said was that there is now this ongoing debate about white writers writing about people who are not like themselves, people of color for instance. It’s gotten kind of contentious and [Schulman] is very sensitive to that and doesn’t dismiss it at all but says, “Still, I want to be able to write about the full human spectrum, so how do I do it?”
She notes that Carson McCullers does it and she quotes the famous review by Richard Wright of Carson’s first book: “She’s the first white writer to be able to write about black characters with as much understanding and sympathy as she does her white characters.” So, there’s one reason why people should be reading her now. But to me the main reason is that she wrote about universal things that are still as important as they were when she wrote them.
What makes it spiritual isolation? I like that term for it.
There is literally being physically, if you will, isolated but what’s more important to her is this idea that we all feel at times that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us. That’s why I think The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is so brilliant because we have this character, John Singer, who is an exemplary human being and really is sensitive to other people. And because he doesn’t speak, it makes people think that, not only is he a good listener, but he understands them. Then, of course, the big revelation is: no, he doesn’t.
My partner is also a colleague of mine. She teaches art and she taught The Heart is a Lonely Hunter this past year too. A lot of us did because of the [100th anniversary] celebration. We argued about this character of Antonapoulos. She thinks that John Singer’s devotion to Antonapoulos is ridiculous and unbelievable. I said, “No, I think the reason that she had to do it that way is to show how strong is this desire to have somebody to connect to.”
Antonapoulos is the only person Singer knows for one thing. There’s the practical issue that Antonapoulos understands sign language. He’s also a mute so he can relate to Singer and it just helps her develop the theme. So when she talks about spiritual isolation it’s this idea that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us. That is pretty bleak but that is the situation of all humans. Maybe it’s not always that way. Maybe there’s some temporary relief from that situation but that is the basic situation.
So, you have Singer, the most exemplary lover, and even he has his own isolation.
When she has him write the letter to Antonapoulos it is revealed to us that he doesn’t know these other characters who come to him with their problems. He’s not sure what they’re talking about. I love it when he says, about Jake, “He thinks that we have a secret together but I do not know what it is.” But all of this is prefaced by the fact that he’s writing this letter to Antonapoulos whom he knows is not able to read.
Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.