I finally read my hardback copy of My Autobiography Of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland, which coincidentally is now published in paperback.
I discovered Carson McCullers’s books in my school library. They did not have any, but she was a name in the back pages of the Penguin Modern Classics editions of William Faulkner’s novels. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, The Ballad Of The Sad Café and The Member Of The Wedding were listed, advertised with Graham Greene’s endorsement:
Miss McCullers and perhaps Mr Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility. I prefer Miss McCullers to Mr Faulkner because she writes more clearly; I prefer her to D. H. Lawrence because she has no message.
She was a face in one of the encyclopedias, that gave the details of her marriages (twice to the same man) and the paralyzing illnesses of her later years. Though she was not much discussed directly, I did get the idea from negative appraisals of To Kill A Mockingbird that her works were considered to be the superior, literary version of the same themes that sold millions of copies for Harper Lee.
I read her novels in the 90s and early 00s, and they were easily available in branches of Waterstones and even W.H.Smiths – she didn’t seem to have slipped away in to obscurity at all. I am surprised to read Jenn Shapland stating that “I have yet to encounter another person who has read Clock Without Hands except at my urging, though when it came out it was a bestseller.” That book has retrospectively become more significant to me, as the central character is terminally ill with leukaemia, and I was diagnosed with leukaemia. I did not reread it, but I thought again about all those chapters in which a sick man sees the world he knew slipping away. We should all know the great scene in which our hero tries to change the mind of a lynch mob with an appeal to metaphysics:
’I guess it is supposed to be me,’ he said in a deadened voice. Everybody looked at him. His voice rose. ‘But if it’s bombing or violence, I can’t do it.’
’Gentlemen.’ Looking around the drugstore, Malone realized there were few gentlemen there. But he went on. ‘Gentlemen, I am too near death to sin, to murder.’ He was excruciatingly embarrassed, talking about death in front of this crowd of people. He went on in a stronger voice, ‘I don’t want to endanger my soul.’ Everybody looked at him as though he’d gone stark raving crazy.
Somebody said in a low voice, ‘Chicken.’
’Well, be durned,’ Max Gerhardt said. ‘Why did you come to the meeting?’
Malone was afraid that in public, in front of the crowd in the drugstore, he was going to cry. ‘A year ago my doctor said I had less than a year or sixteen months to live, and I don’t want to endanger my soul.’
’What is all this talk about soul?’ asked Bennie Weems in a loud voice.
Pinioned by shame, Malone repeated, ‘My immortal soul.’ His temples were throbbing and his hands unnerved and shaking.
’What the fuck is an immortal soul?’ Bennie Weems said.
’I don’t know,’ Malone said. ‘But if I have one, I don’t want to lose it.’
The Judge, seeing his friend’s embarrassment, was embarrassed in turn. ‘Buck up, Son,’ he said in a low voice. Then in a loud voice he addressed the men. ‘J.T. here doesn’t think we ought to do it. But if we do do it, I think we ought to do it all together, because then it’s not the same thing.’
Having made a fool and a spectacle of himself, Malone had no face to save, so he cried out, ‘But it is the same thing. Whether one person does it or a dozen, it’s the same thing if it’s murder.’
Crouched in the compounding room, Jester was thinking that he never thought old Mr Malone had it in him.
Sammy Lank spat on the floor and said again, ‘Chicken.’ Then he added, ‘I’ll do it. Be glad to. It’s right next to my house.’
All eyes were turned to Sammy Lank who was suddenly a hero.
There is humour in her writing, even when describing terrible things. “Madame Zilensky And The King Of Finland” was a short comic tale in which the titular character comes under suspicion as a compulsive liar, only for an unexpected twist to suggest that in fact the universe itself is just contradictory and confusing.
Jenn Shapland’s book starts with a declaration of intent.
To tell her own story, a writer must make herself a character. To tell another person’s story, a writer must make that person some version of herself, must find a way to inhabit her. This book takes place in the fluid distance between the writer and the subject, in the fashioning of a self, in all its permutations, on the page.
The “fashioning of a self” is a topic in several of Carson’s early short stories, which did not find publishers though we have some feedback from her agent. “Court In The West Eighties” describes months in the life of a young student living and looking inward at a block of apartments, observing the other residents and imagining narratives around them, whilst still feeling on the edge of the greater world.
At night when I wasn’t reading I would write to this friend of mine back home or type out things that happened to come into my head on the typewriter he got me when I left for New York. (He knew I would have to type out assignments at school.) The things I’d put down weren’t of any importance – just thoughts that it did me good to try to get out of my mind. There would be a lot of x marks on the page and maybe a few sentences such as: fascism and war cannot exist for long because they are death and death is the only evil in the world, or it is not right that the boy next to me in Economics should have had to wear newspapers under his sweater all winter because he didn’t have any overcoat, or what are the things that I know and can always believe? While I would sit writing like this I would often see the man across from me and it would be as if he were somehow bound up in what I was thinking – as if he knew, maybe, the answers to the things that bothered me. He seemed so calm and sure. When the trouble we began to have in the court started I could not help but feel he was the one person able to straighten it out.
Another life, observed from a distance, can be imagined as having the keys to the problems at home.
Shapland first went deep in to the world of McCullers whilst working as an intern at the Harry Ransom Center, “a giant collection of writers’ and artists’ books and papers on the University of Texas campus in Austin.” It was there that she came across the love letters from Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach to Carson. Annemarie was a writer that Carson met during her time in an artists’ colony in New York; she dedicated her second novel Reflections In A Golden Eye to her. Previous biographers have downplayed the possibility that the two women had a relationship, but now we have evidence that her feelings were reciprocated. Later, Shapland went to another university archive at McCullers’s home town of Columbus, Georgia. There she found the transcripts of sessions with the psychotherapist Dr Mary Mercer in the late 1950s, which contain plenty of material confirming her subject had relationships with women throughout her life. These two resources finally advance the narrative around this side of McCullers’s personality, which previous biographers and critics either ignored or diminished as a “phase” or with similar neutralising expressions.
This is “My Autobiography” – Shapland’s account of her own journey in writing about her subject’s life. There is already a sort-of genre for this writing. Examples would be Kate Zambreno’s Book Of Mutter, Drifts and Heroines, and Nathalie Leger’s Suite For Barbara Loden. In all these cases the narrator is narrating their own life around their quest. We have long stretches of detail, and short chapters with a few lines in which a small point is taken to turn around the world it is embedded in. Ther narrator tells us how their family or romantic relationships are changing. The narrator emphasises their limitations, but this action can sometimes direct attention to some areas rather than others that are passing unremarked on.
The style has little in common with McCullers, either her fiction or the non-fiction essays she produced. There are cliched phrases (“unfettered access”, “flashes of brilliance” amongst many others) and trite observations. The narrator can be unreliable, or at least careless: the paragraph describing “the house filled with queers” implies that Christopher Isherwood and Louis MacNiece were a couple.
In its approach to its central theme, it also differs from the ways McCullers and her time regarded it. In her essay “The Flowering Dream – Notes on Writing”, published 1959 – the time of the therapy sessions – she states:
Nature is not abnormal, only lifelessness is abnormal. Anything that pulses and moves and walks around the room, no matter what that thing is doing, is natural and human to a writer. The fact that John Singer, in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, is a deaf-and-dumb man is a symbol, and the fact that Captain Penderton, in Reflections In A Golden Eye, is homosexual, is also a symbol, of handicap and impotence… Symbols suggest the story and theme and incident, and they are so interwoven that one cannot understand consciously where the suggestion begins. I become the characters I write about. I am so immersed in them that their motives are my own. When I write about a thief, I become one; when I write about Captain Penderton, I become a homosexual man; when I write about a deaf mute, I become dumb during the time of the story.
The word “queer” appears in “How I Began To Write” from 1948, recollecting her novel set in New York that she wrote when 15 years old and had never visited the city: “The details of the book were queer: ticket collectors on the subway, New York front yards”. The great city imagined from a distance without experience, in a smaller world.
A question Shapland poses to herself is what exactly is required or at stake in determining whether a writer from an earlier period can be put in to categories used and manipulated in a different time and place.
On reading the therapy transcripts in the university’s archive, I was so befuddled – with joy, excitement, fear – I could barely look at them long enough to process what they contained. I was stunned. Here was Carson, in person, trying to tell her story, to understand her sexuality, in her own words. And Mary, a willing listener. And, miracle of miracles, there it was, plain as day: the word “lesbian”. I’m always reading queer histories that dance elaborately around the terminology of queerness, asserting that at the time, back then, people didn’t describe themselves the way we do now. The effect of this, for me, is an erasure of lesbians from history. One of our many Foucauldian hangovers. But the word “lesbian” was like a magnet, pulling everything I had been researching to face it. I skimmed the messy, typed pages, I scanned them and emailed them to myself, and then, not knowing why, I put them away for months. I wasn’t ready to deal with the Carson they contained, wasn’t prepared to take her at her word.
The “Foucauldian hangovers” would be the influence of Foucault’s History Of Sexuality, emphasising that concepts of sexuality and sexual categories have developed and changed over time, are embedded in law and learned consensus, and that these elements define the range of awareness that individuals have of themselves. They do not have a privileged private insight into their own nature, a nature which is itself an impersonal given. “Queer” is a transhistorical category that subsumes the different manifestations under whatever names or regimes they were defined.
I also realised on some level that I was a confused queer person looking to Carson as a role model – I looked to everyone I met as a role model; I was in my midtwenties – and so I must have been reading into her queerness, seeing what I wanted to see.
The problem in this book is not with any “gay agenda”. As far as “proof” means anything, then Shapland has located it in the new archives that decisively challenge the way previous biographers have minimised or redacted the signs of Carson’s relations with other women. The trouble is in the attitude toward the relationship with her husband Reeves McCullers.
She tells Mary that she wanted to be at liberty to love whomever she wanted, as though such freedom, such fluidity, could constitute an identity. For Carson, I think it does.
But there is a subtle push toward a reversal of those previous biographers: there is a different erasure going on, implying that Carson was “really” a lesbian and the marriage was a sham. That doesn’t fit any standard of “proof” either. There was no compulsion for young Carson to get married back in Columbus; it was absolutely not necessary to marry Reeves a second time in the 40s, when she was living in New York and settled for a long time in communities where those houses filled with queers weren’t unusual.
I have to credit Mary with knowing Carson better than her biographers, better than so many of the people around her. Like Elizabeth, she understood that Reeves was a great threat to Carson’s independence, her work, and her sense of self – as well as her life. This was no great romance, no life-long love. Maybe what they have could be described as love, but I have trouble recognising it as something other than pursuit and possession at all costs. Reeves was a shadow that loomed over Carson’s whole adult life, one with which she continuously reckoned but was never able to shake while he was alive. When he was finally gone, I can only imagine her feeling of relief. Freedom.
But Mary never met Reeves, and it is admitted that “Carson struggled to discuss Reeves in her conversations with Mary.” How much we are having to accept of her appraisal, through whatever filters, and then extended into a total condemnation for not matching a rather Hollywood image of love and companionship? The two people changed over time, and the final years were only one part of their lives.
Reeves was a drunk and a queer himself and a failure at many things. Before he finally killed himself in a hotel in Paris he tried to persuade Carson to join him in a double suicide. There was a pregnancy, which ended in a miscarriage; Shapland notes that Carson’s mother wanted to arrange an abortion. Curiously, she states: “Frankly, it’s not clear who the father is.” But that would imply Carson had sex with at least one other man, which we have not been given any clue of, and rather seems to go against the picture of her in this book. In all of the discussion of Reeves, Shapland seems to be falling back on rather conventional suburban expectations of how responsible, loving adults ought to behave, in spite of the foregrounding of this as a “queer reading”.
An image that recurs in McCullers’s writing is what we might call The Failed Male. He’s the narrator of her first short story “Sucker”, written in the 30s but not published until 1963. A teenage boy, frustrated at rejection from the girl he is obsessed with at high school, vents his anger at his simple, adoring cousin, breaking the trust between them and leaving himself with nothing.
There is one thing I have learned, but it makes me feel guilty and it is hard to figure out. If a person admires you a lot you despise him and don’t care – and it is the person who doesn’t notice you that you are apt to admire.
Captain Penderton is of course a Failed Male, and J.T.Malone embarrassed himself with the gang of Southern racists. A later story, “Who Has Seen The Wind?” from 1956, depicts a male novelist struggling to live up to his early success, and not making a good impression at a New York literary party.
He consoled himself with the writers who had felt they failed and whose fame was established after death. When he was twenty he daydreamed that he would die at thirty and his name would be blazoned after his death. When he was twenty-five and had finished The Night Of Darkness he daydreamed that he would die famous, a writer’s writer, at thirty-five with a body of work accomplished and the Nobel Prize awarded on his deathbed. But now he was nearly forty with two books – one a success, the other a defended failure – he did not daydream about his death.
Instead there is the temptation to bring it about:
But his shame still smouldered and he put his cold hand to his hot, throbbing forehead. It was no longer snowing but the wind lifted flurries of snow on the white terrace. The length of the terrace was about six footsteps and Ken walked very slowly, watching with growing attention his blunted footsteps in his narrow shoes. Why did he watch those footsteps with such tension? And why was he standing there, alone on the winter terrace where the light from the party room laid a sickly yellow rectangle on the snow? And the footsteps? At the end of the terrace there was a little fence about waist-high. When he leaned against the fence he knew it was very loose and he felt he had known that it would be loose and remained leaning against it. The penthouse was on the fifteenth floor and the lights from the city glowed before him. He was thinking that if he gave the rickety fence one push he would fall, but he remained calm against the sagging fence, his mind somehow sheltered, content.
The repetitions of terrace, footsteps, fence set up the rhythm of pulsing mania, as the solitary self-consciousness contemplates the possibility of an end. Are these Failed Men also “symbols”, symbols of the lost boy, like Sucker, growing into hopeless middle age, that Carson could not break away from? It’s not a relationship that would elicit much sympathy, she should never have given him another chance… but it was a relationship she had, it was fluid and unconventional and cannot be moved to the margins or cast as a phase she grew out of.
Carson’s poetry does not get mentioned by Shapland, and so she misses another aspect of her life that would have less appeal to current readers: her religious beliefs. She told us in “How I Began To Write” that her teenage juvenilia included a play called The Fire Of Life.
The play had two characters – Jesus Christ and Friedrich Nietzsche – and the point I prized about the play was that it was written in verses that rhymed. I gave a reading of this play, too, and afterward the children came in from the yard, and we drank cocoa and ate the fallen, lovely raisin cakes in the back sitting-room by the fire. ‘Jesus?’ my aunt asked when she was told. ‘Well, religion is a nice subject anyway.’
In “The Mute”, the outline for the novel that became The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, she specifies:
The broad principal theme of the book is… man’s revolt against his own inner isolation and his urge to express himself as fully as possible. Surrounding this general idea there are several counter themes and some of these may be stated briefly as follows: (1) There is a deep need in man to express himself by creating some unifying principle or God. A personal God created by a man is a reflection of himself and in substance this God is most often inferior to his creator. (2) In a disorganized society these individual Gods or principles are likely to be chimerical and fantastic. (3) Each man must express himself in his own way – but this is often denied to him by a wasteful, short-sighted society. (4) Human beings are innately cooperative, but an unnatural social tradition makes them behave in ways that are not in accord with their deepest nature. (5) Some men are heroes by nature in that they will give all that is in them without regard to the effort or to the personal returns.
The sequence of poems under the title “The Dual Angel – A Meditation On Origin And Chance”, from the 40s and 50s, bring together Lucifer and God in images of the universe created in a primal sexual moment, millions of years ago, now leading up to the final nuclear apocalypse: “The screams are heard by blasted ears within the radiation zone/ And hanging eyes upon a cheek must see the charred and iridescent craze – / Earth orphaned by atom, each man alone.”
However, her most striking poem is “The Mortgaged Heart”, describing the life of the surviving member of a couple after their other has died:
The dead demand a double vision. A furthered zone,
Ghostly decision of apportionment. For the dead can claim
The lover’s senses, the mortgaged heart.
Watch twice the orchard blossoms in grey rain
And to the cold rose skies bring twin surprise.
Endure each summons once, and once again;
Experience multiplied by two – the duty recognised.
Instruct the quivering spirit, instant nerve
To schizophrenic master serve,
Or like a homeless Doppelganger
Blind love might wonder.
The mortgage of the dead is known.
Prepare the cherished wreath, the garland door.
But the secluded ash, the humble bone –
Do the dead know?
The notes state it was published in Voices in the September-December 1952 issue. “In somewhat different form, this poem appeared earlier in New Directions X, 1948”. Reeves died in November 1953. Who is the dead lover who has a charge on her heart? Or was Reeves already dead to her, the suicide attempts and threats and self-pity already overwhelming from soon after their remarriage? Or is it Annemarie being remembered? It’s odd that Shapland does not make the connection.
The updating and adjusting of her work had already started in her lifetime: John Huston’s film version of Reflections In A Golden Eye was moved to the post-war period from its original 30s setting, and so Marlon Brando’s Penderton had a wistful moment pondering the name and greatness of George Patton, who was not a famous general in the time of the book. Carson had connections with Hollywood as her works were optioned for adaptations, and that is how she was able to arrange for her new friend Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen-Finecke, who went by her English name Tanya) to meet Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.
Tanya was a magnificent conversationalist and loved to talk. Marilyn, with her beautiful blue eyes, listened in a ‘once-upon-a-time-way’, as did we all… She talked always with such warmth that the listeners didn’t have to try to interrupt or change her marvellous conversation.
Also not mentioned here is Suzanne Vega’s attempted impersonation of Carson, which I have not heard so I can’t judge how a straight woman performing McCullers’s autobiography would compare. Carson did record some of her poetry but this has not been uploaded anywhere. But we do have Kenneth Patchen’s “Do The Dead Know What Time It Is?”. Patchen might well have been known to Carson, since his poetry was published by New Directions from the 30s, and they had a mutual connection in W.H.Auden. His archive has ended up at the Harry Ransom Center as well.