A Book You Shouldn’t Read: The Unfortunate Autobiography of Carson McCullers


imagesThe title promises more than it delivers.  Illumination and Night Glare, the unfinished autobiography of Carson McCullers, purports to be a chronicle of the artistic process, giving us insight into the inspirations (illumination) and trials (night glare) of McCullers’ life.  There is some of that in this slight book, but it retains its interest only for the most dedicated McCullers fan.

Yeah, I’m one of those.

I came to Carson 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 Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of Sad Cafe, to my mind she never surpassed the depth of human and social insight she displays in Heart.  

That first novel was the product of an introverted misfit who intuited the larger psychic landscape pulsing beneath the surface of 1930s Columbus, Georgia.  Her autobiography indicates her desire “to get away from Columbus and to make my mark in the world” but it never really left her.  The streets and landmarks of that small city near Fort Benning show up in almost all of her work.  And her characters roam this realm, as she did, in search of a truer home.

The most interesting parts of Illumination and Night Glare give us a glimpse of the young Lula Carson Smith, who was bright, musical, and self-possessed in a way that must have seemed a little shocking to Southern sensibilities. She didn’t have much use for school, attending high school only “enough to keep up with classes.” (543) When a classmate attacked her in the basement of the school during the first week, “grinding [her] face against the cement floor,” she played off her injured face to her mother by saying it was “just one of the things in high school.” (544)  At 17 she traveled solo by boat from Savannah to New York in order to study at Columbia, lost the money she had been given for her sustenance, and proceeded to excel in the writing world.

Carson needed that equilibrium to survive the series of strokes that plagued her from an early age, her tempestuous marriage with Reeves McCullers, and the disappointments of her later career.  The 50-year-old McCullers who dictated the autobiography during her final summer of life in 1967 was so constrained by bad health that her world was mostly confined to her home in Nyack, New York.  Even so, she writes that her “life has been almost completely filled with work and love, thank goodness.” (537)  Friends did not forget her in her convalescence and she had an impressive collection of them from Tennessee Williams and John Huston to Isak Dineson and Richard Wright.

The autobiography, which I read in the recent Library of America collection of her Stories, Plays, and Other Writings, should probably not have been published.  It portrays Carson as a fading dilettante fascinated by ephemera, detailing the furnishings in Huston’s guest room on his Irish estate.  She repeats herself like a woman far older than her years.  Why pretend that this is who she is?

Carson McCullers

Instead, open The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and watch Mick Kelly march into the New York Café late on a hot summer night, “a gangling, towheaded youngster, a girl of about twelve…dressed in khaki shorts, a blue shirt, and tennis shoes.” 

See Biff Brannon, the proprietor, ask her, “Your folks know you’re out after midnight?”

Wonder, like Biff, if Mick tells the truth when she says, “It’s O.K.  There’s a gang of kids playing out late on our block tonight.” Biff knows she’s never been one to hang out with anyone her own age.

Watch Mick buy a pack of cigarettes and head back into the night.  See how Biff watches the door as she goes:

“He wondered if he should have sold her the pack of cigarettes…He thought of the way Mick narrowed her eyes and pushed back the bangs of her hair with the palm of her hand. He thought of her hoarse, boyish voice and of her habit of hitching up her khaki shorts and swaggering like a cowboy in a picture show.  A feeling of tenderness came in him. He was uneasy.”(19)

Only don’t imagine it’s Mick Kelly swaggering through the illuminations and night glares of the darkened streets.  It’s Carson McCullers.  Bet your bottom dollar.

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