In the first part of my interview with Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, we talked about the universal themes of McCullers’ writing. Today we talk about the strong sense of place in her work and the way Columbus, Georgia, her hometown, informs it.
So we think of Carson McCullers as a writer of the heart but she also has this strong sense of place. How do you see this having lived here a long time? How does Columbus fit into her work?
I once tried to write fiction when I was at the University of North Texas. I also loved poetry but one of the things I noticed about writing fiction is that I could not take myself seriously writing, creating characters who didn’t speak with a Southern accent. For better or worse my characters were gonna have to be Southerners because that was the only way that I could have them speak in what I considered to be an authentic way. It occurs to me that that is partly where Carson is coming from, not just in terms of how characters speak but how they act, and what they eat and all the letters and all of those things — that was her foundation.
You can find all of these different writers who make this remark about your best stuff comes from your childhood. I believe that’s true, I really do. It’s been true in my life as a writer and I believe that it’s true and this is the place where she grew up so it’s the source for all her stuff. The other thing is that she saw firsthand the situation of the poor millworker. So she had that firsthand experience of poverty and that sort of hard life and what it does for instance to race relations. These people are on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder for white people and so they’ve got to have somebody that they feel is beneath them—that’s African-Americans. So you can imagine what it’s like being an African-American. So I think all of that stuff informs her work.
You can also find other things in her work where you realize, once you know about her life, “Ah, that had to have been partly where she gained the insight.” For instance, in her second book, [Reflections in a Golden Eye], we have this homosexual army officer and that was one of the things that really angered people [about the book] here in Columbus. One of her best friends was Edwin Peacock, who was a gay soldier here, and through him she met other gay soldiers. This is this thing that people didn’t want to see, didn’t want to recognize, wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. It was dangerous for someone like Edwin Peacock to have someone know this about him but Carson knew it.
So you can find things in her work all the time that show you: “Oh, she had the real experience that she had in Georgia that helped give her the insight about this.” Carson was able to see in her own little town things that relate to the human condition in general. It was like all great writers who end up being able to connect with other people: [through] experiences they have growing up, they’re able to see people beyond just the way that their neighbors try to see them.
They’re both insiders and outsiders. She grew up Lula Carson; that’s about as Southern as you can get and she loved Southern food. if you’ve ever heard her voice—I have people from Columbus tell me, that’s not just a Georgia accent that’s a Columbus accent that you hear there.
So she’s an insider but on the other hand she was an outsider and was shunned by a lot of people because she was ‘weird.’ That’s the term that they always used to refer to her from the beginning. She didn’t dress right; she was much more interested in the society of books than she was with society of her neighbors. She was just a young person who remained aloof and was mocked and didn’t care, which rural people do not like. So she was an outsider which allowed her to observe them more objectively than most people who are from a place are able to do. That’s where Columbus shows up in her work. She was able to see, in Columbus, so many different facets of the human experience in this one place.
Maybe that has something to do with the particular place because even though it’s a relatively small town, it was about 40,000 when she was growing up, it’s kind of interesting the number of people from different walks of life, to use that cliché, but also from different geographic regions that this place brings together. Fort Benning is huge and when you start reading about the history of the army in the 20th century, all the major players came through this place.
Eisenhower was the commandant at one point. Rusty Calley was tried here [for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam] and then spent most of the rest of his life living in this town. My partner lives a few blocks from where Omar Bradley had lived around the corner from her house. Still, as a teacher at Columbus State, I teach students who come from all over the country and even from different parts of the world because of Fort Benning. Then there’s the Coca-cola connection and the cotton mills that drew in all of this industry. So it was, in a way, a good place to soak up humanity.
I read your piece about the millworkers for Library of America. Even though she’s got those characters like Jake Blount and Dr. Copeland who are really engaged in thinking about political realities and economics, I’ve never really thought of her as having that side developed. Of course, she was only 19 when she wrote it but you see that she had a real feel for it.
The other things that she wrote about are more widely discussed. They’ve become part of this prominent national conversation that we’re having about, take for instance, sexual orientation. At [a recent] international conference, there was a lot of talk about that. In fact, they had an open call for proposals for papers and then, based on the proposals that they got, they came up with the sessions because there were so many people writing about like things. They had to have two sessions for gender and sexuality cause there were so many people who wanted to write about that aspect of her work. Not one paper on her writing about the working class, not one.
That’s partly because, McCullers tends to attract a certain type of scholar—people who are interested in certain kind of things. People who are attracted to writing about the working class and so forth have more often gone to other writers. But I think that’s a mistake that you overlook that aspect of her work because it is prominent and one of her major characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is Jake. That’s what he’s all about. If you read her author’s outline where she’s describing the town, clearly it was a big part of what she was thinking about and writing about. Setting the story in a town like this with the mill culture and poor and how the mill workers all had that look of loneliness and sadness. It’s a big part of her work that is currently being overlooked, but with the popularity of J.D. Vance’s book, [Hillbilly Elegy], because of this recent election, maybe more people will consider that aspect of it.
She talks in one of her essays about homesickness being the American disease—we’re always looking for a home.
“Loneliness: An American Malady” is the title of the piece.
How does that play out with Columbus because after she left she never really returned to live?
She’s sort of like James Joyce—left and never wanted to live there again but never wrote about anything else. It’s a cliché, again, this love-hate relationship, but, especially if you’re as sensitive a person as Carson McCullers was and you’re exposed to this place at that most impressionable time in your life, its going to be a big part of you. At the time same time, as Thomas Wolfe says, you can never go home again. It’s never going to be the same.
Even though I think she was grandstanding a little bit when she said, “I have to return home periodically to renew my sense of horror,” she really was horrified by what went on here—the poverty, the race relations, and all of those things. You can’t get away from it and on the other hand you can’t return to it.
But what she says in that essay about the particular American version of loneliness, (and I’ve flown this by people from other countries to see if they would say “Well, that’s not true. We have the same thing” and no one’s really called me on that), her argument is basically that we don’t have the class ties that the European countries have and that long history. I was just in Italy and you study all of this Roman history and realize even that was built on earlier histories. You have these traditions that have been going on for thousands of years. We don’t have that here, so to be disconnected here is to really be disconnected.
One of the interesting things that she says is that writers and artists have often formed themselves into schools. They branch out from the mainstream but they’re not doing it alone, They have other people similar.
She says more often what happens in America is that writers and artists branch out by themselves. They launch themselves out into outer space alone. Maybe it’s that pioneering spirit in them. Those are her arguments for why Americans maybe experience spiritual isolation, if not in fact, in a more intense way, at least in a unique way.
It is a strange thing in the case of somebody like Carson but one of the things to me that shows that she really did feel a sort of homesickness is when she talks about food and holidays and the trees. You can tell that she misses those things intensely.
She was asked by Holiday magazine to write a piece on the South and they couldn’t publish it. She could only be honest, so it was not just talking about good, happy things, which is what they wanted—the things that you love about Columbus. She couldn’t do it without also talking about the things that are not good, about the natives’ racism and other things. That’s one of the things that has estranged her from a lot of people in Columbus especially during her lifetime and among people who were still alive in the decades after her death. She exposed the town’s dirty laundry and they think that’s unforgivable.
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.