The Arrested Development of Carson McCullers

The Arrested Development of Carson McCullers

That same summer, McCullers began a whirlwind tour of conferences and residencies, where she charmed some of the most famous names in literature and alienated many others. At Bread Loaf, the summer writers’ conference at Middlebury College, she was an “enfant terrible,” monopolizing the conversation and drinking all of Wallace Stegner’s bourbon—when she wasn’t drinking straight gin out of a water glass. Back in New York, she abandoned Reeves for an experiment in communal living in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone; other residents included W. H. Auden, Jane and Paul Bowles, and Gypsy Rose Lee. From there, it was on to Yaddo, where she became infatuated with Katherine Anne Porter, a writer nearly thirty years her senior and the “queen bee” of the artists’ colony. One night, Porter exited her residence to find the lovelorn McCullers lying prone on the doorstep. The older writer simply stepped over the body and continued to dinner.

All this activity took its toll. Never a hardy person, McCullers suffered from increasing ill health during the early forties, contracting strep throat, an ear infection, double pneumonia, pleurisy, and a tooth infection that required daily trips to the dentist. She also suffered a small stroke in 1941 that affected her vision, though she seemed to recover within a couple of months. Bébé, who still saw herself as her daughter’s guardian, appeared at the first sign of sickness. She nursed McCullers in New York, then summoned her home to Columbus, where McCullers did nothing but write, eat, and rest. Such attentive care both enabled McCullers to keep writing and insured that she wouldn’t have to change her ways.

“Has anyone turned in a pair of reading glasses?”

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez and Al Batt

McCullers rarely wrote directly about illness, but she wrote often about what it’s like to have a body that, for one reason or another, doesn’t fit the norm. Her fiction is full of unusual characters, the kind that critics sometimes call “grotesques”: deaf-mutes, drifters, convicts, women who chafe at feminine convention. But, in McCullers’s fiction, these people aren’t freakish or threatening so much as they are uncorrupted by adult life. In “The Ballad of the Sad Café,” a novella she worked on while recovering from her stroke, she described one such character as possessing “an instinct which is usually found only in small children, an instinct to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world.”

“Ballad” is a strange little fable, and it occupies a strange place in McCullers’s career. It’s more philosophical than any of her novels, and its omniscient narrator frequently interrupts the central plot—a love triangle involving a cross-eyed giantess, a four-foot-tall hunchback, and a good-looking convict who is also the giantess’s estranged husband—to pontificate about romantic love, small-town life, and “the atmosphere of a proper café.” One oft-quoted passage concerns how lonely love is, describing the lover and the beloved as coming “from different countries”:

Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. . . . He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself.

It’s a strikingly capacious vision of love, if ultimately an adolescent one. What young person, falling in love for the first time, doesn’t feel proud of her passion, or wary of sharing her feelings with the very person who inspired them? McCullers’s trick, in “Ballad,” was to transmute the typical teen’s experience of love into a universal philosophy of the same. In all her fiction, she presented love not as a mutual experience but as a solitary fantasy, a feat of imagination that torments and consoles at once.

For her part, McCullers loved to play the lover. She spent most of her life pursuing women who were usually both unavailable and uninterested, a group that included the Broadway producer Cheryl Crawford, the actress Katharine Cornell, and the “First Lady of Alcoholics Anonymous,” Marty Mann. Meanwhile, in her marriage, she cast herself permanently in the role of the beloved. Reeves existed to manage their domestic life and to meet her needs; if he wanted someone to meet his needs, then he could simply become someone else’s beloved. But Reeves didn’t embrace abjection the way his wife did. When McCullers criticized him or withdrew her affection, he drank, raged, and occasionally threatened suicide. The couple divorced in 1941, after McCullers caught Reeves forging a check in her name, and then, incredibly, remarried in 1945, after Reeves finished serving in the Second World War. “These two had an abominable, cannibalistic relationship,” a friend of the couple observed. “But she was the vampire. . . . She had a colossal power of destruction.”

McCullers couldn’t always see the damage she caused. But the novel she worked on throughout her turbulent twenties suggests that, on some level, she knew she was a handful. “The Member of the Wedding,” from 1946, seems at first to be a rehash of McCullers’s prior work. It is yet another story about the painful transition from childhood to adolescence, featuring yet another young female protagonist with a nickname that sounds like a boy’s. Frankie Addams is twelve years old during a “green and crazy summer,” and in the middle of an existential crisis. Having suddenly shot up in height—she’s now too tall to walk beneath the scuppernong arbor, where she used to put on plays—Frankie feels like an “unjoined person,” belonging to nothing and no one. Early in the novel, she lights upon a solution to her loneliness: after a visit from her older brother and his bride-to-be, Frankie resolves to join the wedding party and depart with the married couple for a new home, far away from her small Southern town.

But the novel is a repetition with a difference. In her earlier fiction, McCullers presented imagination positively—as the handmaiden to creativity, or as a kind of life force. In “Member,” we see for the first time its dangers. Frankie is obsessed with the wedding: she talks about it, daydreams about it, and pesters Berenice, the Black housekeeper, to tell her about it again and again. Berenice tries to puncture Frankie’s fantasies, warning her against “falling in love with some unheard-of thing.” “You cozen and change things too much in your own mind. And that is a serious fault,” she tells Frankie. The rest of the novel proves Berenice right: Frankie has a disastrous flirtation with a soldier, then is disappointed by the wedding. She throws a tantrum, dismayed that her brother treats her like a child and equally dismayed that her childish behavior doesn’t get her what she wants. As much as we may sympathize with Frankie, we also see clearly the error of her ways. It’s as if McCullers were stretching herself to show the adult perspective on the child who refuses to grow up.

McCullers took five years to write “Member,” choosing each word carefully, as if she were composing a long poem. The novel is better for the effort, containing some of the most beautiful passages she ever wrote. (The dawn sky has “the wet pale blue of watercolor sky just painted and not yet dried.”) There were emotional challenges, too. McCullers felt too close to the novel; at one point, she told Reeves that Frankie was “the expression of [her] failure”—not as a writer, one gleans, but as a person. For years afterward, McCullers said she was prouder of “Member” than of any other of her works.

Many critics saw the novel differently. For them, McCullers was no longer a twenty-three-year-old début novelist but an established writer—and she was still writing about twelve-year-old girls. Edmund Wilson panned the book, writing, not entirely without reason, that it was too long and that nothing really happens. Even some of McCullers’s friends were repulsed. The journalist Janet Flanner was aghast: “To think that such disorder, physical and mental, resides within her perpetual juvenility is an alarming sight to see in print.” Adolescence is a terrible time; why revisit it in adulthood? But McCullers, indulged and unfettered, wasn’t writing what she remembered so much as what she knew.

Dearborn describes the publication of “Member” as a turning point in McCullers’s career, but it’s tempting to call it the end. McCullers became progressively less sure of herself and even more desperate for affection; Leon Edel remembered “a certain pathos in her pleading look, those large, liquid eyes that asked the world for love.” She began writing for the stage, perhaps thinking that theatregoers were easier to please than literary critics. (Her adaptation of “The Member of the Wedding,” starring Ethel Waters as Berenice, opened on Broadway in 1950.) She struck up a friendship with Truman Capote—another precocious Southern writer—but dropped him before long, worried that she couldn’t trust him. (To be fair, Capote was a snake.)

In 1947, McCullers had a second stroke, a serious one, that partially paralyzed her left side. She had barely regained her mobility when she had a third, this one debilitating. Only thirty years old, she found it hard to walk and nearly impossible to type. Depressed, in pain, and entirely dependent on others, she wrote less and drank more. For years, she’d kept a thermos of sherry with her while she worked—she called it “tea,” and sometimes there was tea in the mix—but now she drank several cocktails before dinner, then a bottle or more of wine. She turned mean. Reeves bore the brunt; she degraded him, confessing to various crushes and writing him letters that Dearborn describes as “intricately cruel.” When Reeves died by suicide, in 1953, McCullers did not attend the funeral.

As Dearborn notes, with some incredulity, no one ever tried to moderate McCullers’s drinking. (According to a relative, doctors recommended that she have no more than “one large drink—or two small ones” each night, but “they didn’t define ‘large’ or ‘small,’ ” and, with said relative’s help, “the jigger got bigger and bigger.”) Nor did friends and family insist that she seek consistent psychiatric care, not even after McCullers tried to take her own life, in 1948. The reason was the same as it always was: McCullers was a genius, and geniuses got to live by different rules.

Eventually, although later than one would like, McCullers decided to grow up. In 1958, she began seeing a therapist named Mary Mercer. In an early session, McCullers described her infatuation with Annemarie and the lessons she’d taken from it: love is suffering, and reciprocal love impossible. Mercer suggested that love could in fact be reciprocated, then showed her how: after they concluded therapy, the two began a relationship. At the age of forty-one, McCullers had her first real girlfriend. She returned to her writing, and became happier than she had been in decades. She wanted to travel abroad, to stay at fancy hotels, to cook elaborate meals from scratch—even though she only ate what Mercer called “pediatric” amounts of food. And she dreamed of writing a book called “In Spite Of,” which would describe the lives of artists who had overcome disability and pain: Sarah Bernhardt, Cole Porter, and Arthur Rimbaud, among others. These were artists who had suffered greatly, sometimes by their own hands. Like her, they were imperfect; like her, they were extraordinary. ♦

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