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CARSON MCCULLERS: ASTUTE AND UNACKNOWLEDGED PHILOSOPHER OF LOVE

Tennessee Williams, in “Some Words Before,” a preface to Virginia Spencer Carr’s definitive biography, The Lonely Hunter said Carson McCullers had the “tongue of angels,” and this gave her the power to sing the lonely heart and make it an anthem. Since music and love are primary considerations in her work, let us add that McCullers is an astute and unacknowledged philosopher of love, one whose wisdom and understanding preceded philosopher-novelist, Alain De Botton’s insightful examinations of love in his novels, On Love (1993) and The Course of Love (2016).  Indeed, one of the more cogent comments about love in literature occurs in The Ballad of the Sad Café:

Cover of It's Good Weather for Fudge

Cover of It's Good Weather for Fudge

But what sort of thing is love? First of all, it is a joint experience between two persons, but that fact does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only the 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 comes to know a new, strange loneliness.

In addition to the aforementioned statement on love in Ballad, McCullers’ story, “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud,” espouses a “science of love” in which an old transient in an all-night café explains to a young newspaper boy that

[f]or six years now I have gone around by myself I can love anything. No longer do I have to think about it even. I see a street full of people and a beautiful light comes in me. I watch a bird in the sky. Or I meet a traveler on the road. Everything, Son. And anybody.   All stranger and all loved. Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?

On February 19, 2017, Lula Carson McCullers might have been 100 years old. Although she died at age 50, September 29, 1967, it may be argued that she fulfilled her mother’s prophecy that she would be a genius. It seems fitting at this juncture to examine McCullers’ legacy, not just to Southern literature, but to American literature and beyond, for this July 14-16, 2017, a Carson McCullers in the World Centenary Conference is being held at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy, conjointly hosted by the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, and the Carson McCullers Society.

What drew me to Carson McCullers and to write my Ph.D. dissertation on love, time, and music in Carson McCullers’ work in 1979 is what drew me to write It’s Good Weather for Fudge: Conversing With Carson McCullers in 2003, an imaginary conversation that tries to understand the vicissitudes of love—both in terms of self and other. It is what prompted NewSouth Books in Montgomery, Alabama to reissue a second edition of It’s Good Weather for Fudge this January, 2017, with a new introduction by Carlos Dews, Chair of the English Department at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. McCullers’ lasting appeal lies in the universal need to understand the “we of me” that lives within us.

After 100 years, there is a resurgence of interest in Carson McCullers, this lonely hunter reared in Georgia, though she later moved from Columbus to Nyack, New York, a Sleepy Hollow- Washington Irving town on the Hudson River some twenty-five miles north of New York City. McCullers is buried in Nyack, and as her work indicates, her sensibilities are other than those thought of as conventionally Southern. Loneliness and love are ever-present themes in her work, and it is within these bounds that McCullers renders a compassionate and sensitive attitude toward the African-American race, bisexuality, homosexuality, the body in distress, its illnesses and disabilities, as well as the plight of freaks and outcasts such as the prisoners on the chain gang in The Ballad of the Sad Café.” Solace, however, lies in music; McCullers had once intended to be a concert musician prior to her decision to become a writer. The coda of the Ballad notes that the voices of the chain gang are “intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky.” McCullers always seemed to find, amid sorrow, that in music, there is release, something to hold to and believe in outside the solitary and lonely self.

McCullers’ place in the literary canon is also relevant in terms of race relations. As Sarah Schulman, notes in an article entitled “White Writer,” it is difficult for a white woman to address the issue of race in today’s culture without being criticized. (http:aawww.newyorktimes.com/culture/cultural-comment/white writer)

Lionel Shriver, speaking at the Brisbane Writers Festival on 8 September 2016, likewise says:

Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction. . . . [T]he kind of fiction we are allowed to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drive to begin with.

African-American novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge, also expresses concerns in regard to writing about races other than one’s own.  “It’s the wish not so much to be able to write a character of another race,” she says, “but to do so without criticism.” Carson McCullers’ work provides a blue-print for writing about race, not only of the black Marxist doctor, Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter but the quintessential mother-figure, Miss. Berenice Sadie Brown of The Member of the Wedding.

Prior to the establishment of Disability Studies as a special division of the Modern Language Association, McCullers offered a memorable account of disability. In The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, she explores the relationship of two mutes, one of whom is named “Singer.” Dwarfism was addressed in The Ballad of the Sad Café. Carson, herself, no stranger to disability, suffered several disabling strokes. A stroke in 1957, followed by another stroke three months later, paralyzed her left side. She had a heart attack in 1959, and underwent two operations on her left arm and wrist. Two additional surgeries followed in 1969. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1962, and her right breast was removed. On August 15, 1965, she suffered a final stroke and was in a coma for forty-seven days before she died.

Current McCullers criticism, particularly since the author’s death, has dealt increasingly with issues of gender. Sarah Schulman, in “White Writer,” believes that “had McCullers been living today, she might have been living as a transgender man.”  She had told Truman Capote: “I think I was born a boy.”  Some 60 years ago when McCullers was writing, issues regarding same-sex relations were largely swept under the rug. It was In 2010 that Dan Griffith, a documentary film-maker and friend of Mary Mercer, took me to Nyack to meet Dr. Mercer. When we arrived, Mary was wearing Carson’s vest and showed us what was once Carson’s room. She paused and plunked a few notes on Carson’s piano. We subsequently spent a lovely afternoon on the porch overlooking the Hudson talking about Carson’s legacy and the way she persevered through many traumas and illnesses and her divorce and subsequent remarriage to Reeves McCullers. We spoke of how human beings are spiritually and physically isolated as they seek, though love, to find truth, goodness, and beauty in a world out of tune, a world filled with untruth, ignorance, evil and wretchedness. The conversation was mainly about Dr. Mercer’s book on psychoanalysis and love, her years as a physician, but I was told via telephone, upon my return to Alabama, that I was not to write about anything we had discussed during that afternoon tea on Dr. Mercer’s front porch.

The new 2017 Library of America Collected Works of Carson McCullers is testimony to McCullers lasting place in the canon of American and world literature, as is the 2016 book, Carson McCullers in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Alison Graham-Bertollini and Casey Kasper. The forthcoming  Carson McCullers in the World Centenary in Rome has the distinction of being the largest conference ever devoted to Lula Carson McCullers. Still other events are taking place in Georgia, in Nyack, in Alabama, and in New York City.

On August 17, 2016, Master Chef Evan Hanczor of Egg Restaurant in Brooklyn, NY, wrote “The Ultimate Literary Ten-Course Meal” in which he mentioned the “Hoppin’ John passage in The Member of the Wedding. In early March 2017, Hanczor will be in New Orleans cooking a Member of the Wedding McCullers meal for the Tulane Medical School.  On March 19, at Egg Restaurant, I will be reading from It’s Good Weather for Fudge where Hanczor will be serving McCullers fare, and yes, Evan, if music be the food of love, let us all play on and on.

Note: A couple of blurbs should you want them.

Carlos Dews, Founding Director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, and currently a Professor at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy says of Sue Walker’s it’s Good Weather for Fudge: Conversing With Carson McCullers:  Walker’s poem flawlessly weaves together a biographical conversation with McCullers and an autobiographical conversation with the poet. It is a necessary read for anyone who wants to understand Carson McCullers fully—her work, her personality, and her influences.”

Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab’s Wife, says of Walker’s Conversing With Carson McCullers: “I’m over the moon about this book.  It loves you, through its language and depth and daring. Witty, sensual, defiant, celebratory! Don’t let the fun fool you. The interweaving of texts makes me think of Eliot’s Waste Land technique—here made more accessible, womanized, personalized, and astute about being and nonbeing, time and place, like Virginia Woolf. This is a brilliant book that knows no borders.”