The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Study Guide

Carson McCullers

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Carson McCullers | Biography

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Born in a small Georgia town on February 19, 1917, Carson McCullers was only 23 years old when her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was published. Her life experiences up to that time are clearly reflected in the novel, which is widely considered to be her finest work.

Childhood

Born Lula Carson Smith, McCullers was sickly as a child and often painfully unhappy. The family lived modestly—her father was a jeweler—and the town of Columbus, Georgia was too small to allow her to avoid the peers who often mocked her. So she disappeared into music, practicing piano for hours every day. Her dream was to be a concert pianist, but this dream became less attainable when she contracted rheumatic fever (a swelling of heart, vessels, and joints) at age 15. Although she did not have the physical endurance to pursue the life of a professional musician, she left for New York City at age 17 to attend the Julliard School of Music. There she changed her focus to writing. As one columnist for the Washington Post describes McCullers, she was a "true rarity, a born writer ... [who] had to write." She went on to take writing classes at Columbia University and New York University while working odd jobs.

Life as a Writer

By age twenty McCullers had apparently learned the discipline it takes to write a novel. She got to work on The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and it was published just three years later. At age 20 she also married James Reeves McCullers, who went by his middle name. They lived a tumultuous life among the New York City literary, musical, and artistic elite. As a frustrated Marxist (a follower of Karl Marx and his socio-economic theories), Reeves also enjoyed lively political debates as the country recovered from the Great Depression.

McCullers's first novel made her famous, and she kept writing successfully—producing 5 novels, 2 plays, 20 short stories, and various poems and nonfiction pieces over her short lifetime. But she also drank and smoked incessantly, argued angrily with anyone who crossed her, and was plagued by serious illnesses including pleurisy (a swelling of lungs and chest), pneumonia, several more bouts of rheumatic fever, and strokes. A stroke in the late 1940s left her paralyzed on the left side of her body for the rest of her life.

While Carson and Reeves loved each other, they couldn't stand to live together. They divorced and remarried prior Reeves committing suicide in 1953. McCullers moved around throughout her life, living in Georgia, North Carolina, and Paris in addition to New York. She enjoyed living among other writers in group houses and at writers' retreat centers and loved to entertain people with stories she told raucously in her Southern drawl.

An Enduring Reputation

McCullers died on September 29, 1967, after a major stroke. She was only 50 but she had managed to claim a place as a truly legendary author. Few critics fail to express amazement at her incredible insight into the human condition, her luminous and sensitive style, and her exploration of universal themes.

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