Discovering Carson, Discovering Herself: A Review of My Autobiography of Carson McCullers

37380Jenn Shapland is no doubt right that those who fall under the spell of Carson McCullers are an obsessive lot. (And I count myself among them.) As she surveyed the landscape in writing her new book My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, she found that “everyone had a claim to lay, an attachment to prove. Everybody wanted a piece of her, including me.” (245)

You can tell by the odd title of Shapland’s book that she claims a lot more of her subject than most biographers would. She becomes a character as much as McCullers and her own voyage of discovery, claiming her identity as a lesbian, is central to the narrative here. It’s an idiosyncratic way to look at McCullers’ life and an effective argument for biography as memoir.

I’ve chronicled my fascination with McCullers through this Heartlands site and 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 books records the desperate longings for love and connection among characters who all feel like outsiders, set in the Deep South landscape of McCullers’ youth.

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Jenn Shapland

Carson’s personal life after she left Columbus, Georgia was a journey through trauma, illness, and significant connections with glittering figures on the New York scene like Tennessee Williams and Gypsy Rose Lee. But it was not until she formed a therapeutic relationship and then a more intimate relationship with Dr. Mary Mercer in 1958 that she was able to spell out her own conflicted inner landscape.

Shapland had access to the surviving notes from the therapy sessions between Mercer and McCullers, notes that McCullers hoped to turn into her autobiography. (As I’ve written before, the partial autobiography she did complete is a disappointment.) Shapland served a residency at Columbus State University in the home McCullers lived in as a youth and returned to throughout the 40s. This, along with her work at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, gave her access to most of the collected effects of McCullers, including those transcripts.

The book proceeds by walking loosely through the chronology of McCullers’ life and her own journey. Shapland eats breakfast in the kitchen McCullers surely had in mind as she wrote The Member of the Wedding. She watches TV on the sofa where McCullers convalesced. All the while she grows more firmly convinced that McCullers’ sexuality and struggles to express it are both a mirror and a key to her own passage.

Shapland also takes on the vague descriptions  of McCullers’ relationships with women that previous biographers used to keep a shadow over that part of her life. Her conclusion, no spoiler, is:

Her biographers called them traveling companions, good friends, roommates, close friends, dear friends, obsessions, crushes, special friends. I’m over it. I, for one, am weary of the refusal to acknowledge what is plainly obvious, plainly wonderful. Call it love. (254)

If there is doubt about it, Shapland reviews the record. Her two marriages to Reeves McCullers clearly indicate a relationship more of duty than romance. She professes grand, unhindered love for women like Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach and Katherine Anne Porter and Mary Mercer, but because she is not more explicit about the valence of ‘love,’ her professions have tended to go remarked. Or perhaps the intent was more malign, as Shapland believes:

It was her retroactive closeting by peers and biographers that I found most disturbing. I took it personally. I began to feel unreal, deranged. If Carson was not a lesbian, if none of these women were lesbians, according to history, if indeed there hardly is a lesbian history, do I exist? (21)

The back-and-forth between McCullers’ story and Shapland’s makes this an interesting read, even for those who may not share an initial interest in either epiphanic coming-of-age stories or a Southern Gothic master. Coming at it from the latter perspective, I appreciated the new dimensions of McCullers’ work that Shapland reveals. The loneliness and longing in Carson’s books and stories has another layer of meaning. And it adds to the strange quality of her writing to get at something deeply human.

That these features were also part of the author herself comes through in the transcripts.

Carson tells Mary that reciprocity in love does exist, but is extremely unlikely, because of the faith in another person it demands. She doesn’t finish the sentence, unable or unwilling to put into words what the effect of unrequited love might be in the abstract. Unrequited love, feelings unreturned was a fear that haunted Carson. (72)

And perhaps, it is a fear that haunts us all.

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