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Writing Wrongs

McCullers Biographer Has a Score to Settle, and It Isn't Pretty

Carson McCullers: A Life

Author:Josyane Savigneau
Publisher:Houghton Mifflin
Pages:370
Genre:Biography

By Eileen Murphy | Posted 2/21/2001

Three decades after her death, Carson McCullers remains a biographer's dream. She was a literary enfant terrible who published her first novel at age 23, is reputed to have enjoyed numerous lesbian affairs (despite a 15-year relationship with her husband), and suffered from devastating health problems for nearly her entire adult life, which ended with an early death at age 50. Along the way, McCullers hobnobbed with all of the right people, became an alcoholic, and attracted a cult following for her fiction, plays, and poetry. As if that weren't enough, McCullers was a Southern writer, thus offering biographers the opportunity to indulge in all sorts of dialects, stereotypes, and Gothic flourishes.

McCullers is already the subject of at least three biographies, plus an unfinished autobiography the writer was working on at the end of her life. What in the world is left to be said? Not much, if Carson McCullers: A Life is any indication. Billed by Houghton-Mifflin as a "deeply sympathetic new portrait," the book comes from French literary critic Josyane Savigneau, the first biographer to work with the full cooperation of the McCullers estate. Such privileged access doesn't yield much in the way of new relevant information about McCullers, but it may account for Savigneau's charitable analysis of her subject and defensive stance toward other biographers.

Carson McCullers (nee Lula Carson Smith) was born and raised in Columbus, Ga., and the South of her youth provided the setting for most of her stories. Precocious from the start, she originally intended to be a concert pianist but, in an apocryphal-sounding twist that must delight her biographers, she lost her music-school tuition on the New York subway and wound up studying writing at Columbia University. McCullers published The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1940, when she was 23, and the novel immediately caught the public eye, garnering reviews in The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, and other prestigious publications. The strange, gawky young woman--who stood 5-foot-9, dressed in men's clothes, and shared a New York house with writers Richard Wright and Paul and Jane Bowles, composer Benjamin Britten, and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee--became an overnight sensation. She would go on to publish three more novels (Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding, and A Clock Without Hands), a novella (Ballad of the Sad Café), numerous short stories, plays, poems, and a children's book.

Her personal life was less successful. At age 20, she married Reeves McCullers, an aspiring writer with a military background. After their wedding, the couple arranged to alternate their working and writing lives, with one spouse supporting the family while the other wrote. Wife Carson took the first turn and used the time to pen The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; husband Reeves never published anything. The two would divorce and marry a second time, and their marriage has become the stuff of literary legend, a drunken, dependent, and destructive relationship that ended only when Reeves took his own life in 1953.

In addition to her early success and unhappy marriage, the third element to McCullers' ultimately tragic story was her overwhelming health problems, seemingly beginning with a stroke that paralyzed her left side when she was 30. (Doctors later traced McCullers' adult health problems to an untreated childhood case of rheumatic fever.) McCullers never regained her full mobility or her strength and she battled severe pain for the next 20 years, until she died in 1967 following another massive stroke.

McCullers' popularity as a subject is more likely due to biographers' interest in those events than any sense of the writer's lofty place in American literature. Flannery O'Connor, another gifted Southern writer who died young, has yet to receive the full-scale biographical treatment, 37 years after her death. Of course, O'Connor was a devout Catholic who lived with her mother, never married, and was more likely to correspond with other writers than to toss back whiskeys with witty scenesters. Where's the fun in that?

Savigneau uses the new biography as a way to settle old scores--McCullers' old scores. It's a strange construct that robs the book of any narrative power. Not that there would be much of a narrative, anyway--most of McCullers' intimates are gone, and Savigneau is reduced to depending on the accounts of previous biographies rather than original interviews. As a result, she spends an inordinate amount of the book taking potshots at others who trod the same literary ground as she. She frequently takes aim at Virginia Spencer Carr, author of The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers (1975), blaming Carr for not showing enough warmth and faulting the earlier biographer for providing information rather than a feel for her subject: "[Carr] describes [McCullers' mother] Marguerite's short stay in New York at considerable length but comes up with only the most banal facts."

Savigneau also revisits McCullers' bad reviews to attack the writer's critics: "In the March 7 [1947]issue of the Spectator, D.S. Savage--the classic figure of a critic impressed with his own self-importance . . . " When she is able to talk with McCullers' contemporaries, she impugns their motives if their remarks don't suit her thesis, as she does here with Arthur Miller: "He seems very preoccupied by posterity, by the possibility of sudden oblivion to which almost all once-famous people succumb. One almost gets the impression that although he himself was still among the living, Arthur Miller wanted to make certain that Carson McCullers would not literarily outlast him."

And what is Savigneau's thesis? It's hard to say. She certainly wants to place McCullers among the major writers of the 20th century--unlikely given the author's competition, especially from fellow Southern writers such as William Faulkner and O'Connor--but the biographer's attack-dog method leaves the reader less sure of McCullers' talents than of the purportedly loathsome motivations of her detractors. Savigneau dismisses most accounts of McCullers' own bad behavior (especially toward her husband) and makes excuses for the writer, citing McCullers' physical pain, upbringing, or artistic focus as reasons for insensitivity and irresponsibility.

In the end, Savigneau throws off a lot of heat but sheds little light on her subject. Let's hope that other biographers see her failure as a cautionary tale rather than yet another incentive to set the record straight. Why not let McCullers' work stand for itself? A reader who wants to know about Carson McCullers would be better off reading her novels than plowing through the leftovers of her life that her latest biographer dishes up.

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