Much like Orson Welles, Carson McCullers [nee Lula Carson Smith] spent her childhood being repeatedly informed that she was a wunderkind par excellence. Born in the 1917 in the rather provincial Southern city of Columbus, Georgia, her future success was less prophesied than regally decreed by her rather overbearing mother. As a result it was something of a shock when Carson, whose childhood idea of chit-chat was haughtily informing her playmates ‘I shall be rich and famous’, decided at 17 that she lacked the necessary talent for her chosen profession of concert pianist. Most children who crack beneath their parents ambitions tend to go off the rails, but whether through internal strength or simply a lack of particularly enervating options for debauchery in Columbus circa the 30s, Carson set herself to writing fiction and realised that she had found her metier.
After writing some short stories [the first, revealingly titled ‘The Wunderkind’, was about a child ‘prodigy’ who realises that she lacks the talent to be a concert pianist. Wherever did this crazy kid get her ideas?!] she started work on her first published novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a novel which would capture the public imagination and prove impossible for her to top. She was all of 20 when she began it and 23 when she sent it to the publisher, a fact that is less inspirational than agonising; people have been put on trial for witchcraft for less. Regardless of such jealous accusations of precocity, Hunter is a remarkably accomplished work. McCullers traces the hapless lives of five townspeople, all of whom are inexplicably drawn to a deaf-mute named John Singer. There is the young Mick Kelly, a teenage girl who dreams of making it big as a concert pianist [McCullers had a real aversion to not appearing in her own fiction it would seem]; Biff Bannon, the middle-class owner of a local cafe; Jake Blount, a whiskey ruined communist and Dr Benedict Copeland, the town’s African American doctor who rails against the inequities of a racist society, but is helpless against them. As they all interact with Singer, they fail to notice his pain or that he is mourning a loss of his own: the banishment of his similarly deaf mute friend Spiros Antonapoulos to an insane asylum.
Singer’s deaf mute status means that each of these lonely characters can place whichever qualities they desperately hunger onto him, loving Singer with a desperate neediness that is closer to a kind of religious mania than a friendship. For his own part Singer, who is unable to understand why these people seek him out, idolises the absent Antonapoulos in exactly the same manner. McCullers evokes the inherent loneliness that bleeds out of the unromantic reality of small town life with a lyrical intensity that makes the novels vision impossible to forget. McCullers was immediately catapulted to literary super-stardom after the novels release and never got over it. Beset by a series of strokes she was described by an otherwise sympathetic biographer as “sickly, paralyzed, alcoholic and depressed” who passed away early at age 50. She never wrote a book as good as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter again, but then who does?