Thursday, February 16, 2023

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Source of book: I own this.


One of the fun things I have done since starting this blog is exploring Southern literature. Sure, we all get a bit of it in high school - “A Rose for Emily,” a Flannery O’Connor story or two, something by Ambrose Bierce, and of course To Kill A Mockingbird. For reasons I do not understand, Eudora Welty does not appear to be part of the standard curriculum (even though I think she was a superior writer to Faulkner.) And also for unknown reasons, Carson McCullers appears to be an afterthought. 


I found a used copy of her complete novels in a Library of America edition a year or so ago, and put The Heart is a Lonely Hunter on my list for this year. I have to say, it is an achingly beautiful book, a unique story, and one that I wish was more widely read. 

First, though, a bit about McCullers. She was quite the unusual character in a number of ways, unorthodox by the standards of her time (and even, perhaps in ours.) The character of Mick in the book is pretty obviously autobiographical (as are others in her family.) A girl who dresses in boys clothes, wishes she was a boy, takes on a “male” name, and seems more comfortable in male spaces, Mick also aspires to becoming a concert pianist. In real life, McCullers was literally on her way to study at Juliard when she lost her tuition money on the subway, worked odd jobs, returned home to recover from a bad bout of rheumatic fever (which damaged her heart badly, eventually leading to her early death at age 50), and switched to writing. 


After her first story was published at age 19, she married an ex-soldier, Reeves McCullers at age 20. By agreement, they intended to take turns in breadwinning and writing, but because Carson’s first novel (this one) became a hit, he never got his turn. 


Instead, they divorced, and then later remarried. It does not appear to have been a healthy relationship, with both of them suffering from depression and alcoholism. Finally, they made a suicide pact, which he followed through on - she didn’t. 


There is some indication that the marriage was an open marriage, but even if it wasn’t, neither of them was monogamous. Between her two marriages to him, she cohabited with editor George Davis, and then composer David Diamond. But she also aggressively pursued a series of women sexually, although it isn’t clear if she ever succeeded. 


During her whole life, McCullers’ closest friendships were with gay and lesbian people, many of them writers of the era (Tennessee Williams and W. H. Auden among others.) She continued to wear mens clothing and present as at least butch, if not explicitly non-binary or transgender as our current culture would understand it. While her lack of success in forming a lesbian relationship was a disappointment, she intentionally presented as lesbian in her personal life, and in her writing. 


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter isn’t an explicitly queer book, but it certainly hints at it. Not just in the character of Mick, but in the relationship between the two deaf mutes who form the core of the story. 


The book opens with the pair, John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos, living together. Soon their happiness is ruined, when Antonapoulos has a bad mental break, and is placed in an asylum. Singer visits occasionally, when he can save enough money, but when his friend dies, he is heartbroken and commits suicide. (Sorry about the spoiler.) 


Most of the book takes place in the interim between these two traumas. The setting is a decaying small town in Georgia, in the 1930s. Although not central to the plot, the rise of fascism and antisemitism in Europe haunts the book, and McCullers appears to have intended it to have an anti-fascist. Singer was originally intended to be Jewish, but McCullers changed her mind and left him of vague ethnicity. 


After Antonapoulos is committed, Singer becomes a lonely man, and is latched onto by the other lonely characters. Mick, of course. Jake Blount, a communist labor organizer and alcoholic. Biff Brannon, the recently widowed proprietor of the town’s all-night diner. And Dr. Benedict Copeland, an elderly African American who has a single-minded focus on racial justice. (This leads to a bitter and thoroughly unnecessary blowup with Jake over how best to solve poverty in America.) 


Each of these characters opens up to Singer in a way that they cannot with anyone else. Because he rarely responds, yet appears to understand and sympathize, he is the perfect sounding board for them. When he is gone, they are all left once more lonely and alienated. 


Without having to spend extended time in description, McCullers manages to paint an unmistakable picture of the town, mired in poverty, neglected by government and the private sector alike, seen only as a source of cheap labor at starvation wages. She has a light touch with her writing, never letting the dark themes of the book become heavy, letting the characters speak and argue rather than making a didactic argument herself. 


One of the most notable features of the book - again, published in 1940, not 2020 - is that a main character is African American, but portrayed with equal detail, care, and humanity as the white characters. He (and the other black characters) are not portrayed with stereotypes, and not flat and one-dimensional or “types,” and speak with the same complexity of thought and motive (and flaws!) as the others. Dr. Copeland is frustrating in the same way that Jake is frustrating - they are both myopic and unable to think outside their ideological paradigms long enough to realize that they are on the same side, for example. It is difficult to overstate how much of a change this was at the time, or how rare it remained for decades thereafter. 


This was noted at the time by a rising young African American writer, Richard Wright. In his review of the book, he stated:


To me the most impressive aspect of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.


I have seen some scholars who consider the book to be an elaborate parable on government and democracy, with the characters standing in for specific ideas and roles. I think this is a bit of a stretch, although if reading it that way works for you, go for it. 


I see instead the theme of the book to be contained in the title. The characters are lonely and alienated, and are searching - hunting - for that connection to others, a relationship of the heart. Their hopes and dreams are all thwarted by their circumstances - poverty, prejudice, bereavement, generational trauma, their own weaknesses. But at least having someone to listen and understand gives them that connection. 


The tragedy of the book is that this ability to connect seems limited to a connection to Singer. Dr. Copeland and Jake should have been friends. Mick and Biff should have been friends. (And Biff certainly tries to befriend Jake and Mick, but Jake seems incapable of maturing enough to relate, while Mick’s need to help support her family drives her in the direction of conformity and exhaustion.) 


Thus, this is an achingly sad book, haunted by what might have been, what could have been, what should have been. It is astonishing that McCullers wrote with the insight she did in her very early 20s - this book reads like something written by someone of psychological maturity, something rarely seen in the young. (That’s not an insult. We should all hope to grow as we age, not regress.) 


There are so many wonderful lines in this book. McCullers had a true gift with words, and a deep way of thinking. Here are the highlights for me. This one is from Mick, after a disappointing attempt to make a functional instrument out of broken one, a hopeless task.


Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.


This line stood out to me because I think this is the phenomenon that led my parents into catastrophic mistakes, particularly their embrace of Bill Gothard. When you want so bad to have things turn out right, it is so easy to trust in whatever - and whoever - promises to give that to you. That Gothard was a liar, a predator, and a charlatan is apparent now, but he sounded so good. 


I liked the introduction in the book to Dr. Copeland. We first see him in his kitchen, reading Spinoza by the dim light, while he waits for patients to show up. He is, from the outset, portrayed as an intellectual, and a devoted doctor, as well as a bit philosophically crotchety. 


Mick’s dad is a watchmaker, just like her father; and like her father, isn’t particularly successful at it, which is why they have to run a boarding house and the teens have to work. There is a haunting line about what Mick comes to understand about him. 


Now she just suddenly knew that she knew about her Dad. He was lonesome and he was an old man. Because none of the kids went to him for anything and because he didn’t earn much money he felt like he was cut off from the family. And in his lonesomeness he wanted to be close to one of his kids - and they were all so busy that they didn’t know it. He felt like he wasn’t much real use to anybody.


Another scene involving Mick that was wonderful was her discovery of a musical work. She has the habit of listening when a neighbor plays the radio, and one day, Beethoven’s Eroica (Symphony #3) comes on. She is so transported by the music that she sings its tunes for months thereafter. While I do not remember the first time I heard the Eroica, I will never forget seeing it performed for the first time. I was a teen, and our youth symphony took a field trip to see the LA Phil perform. The first half of the concert was meh - a Gerald Levinson piece that didn’t do anything for me. I enjoyed the two Michael Tippet brass fanfares. But it was the Eroica - brilliantly conducted by Simon Rattle - that blew my mind. While picking a favorite Beethoven symphony is really an impossible task, I think Eroica is mine. 


I should also mention one of the subtle queer lines in the book. 


She was at the age when she looked as much like an overgrown boy as a girl. And on that subject why was it that the smartest people mostly missed that point? By nature all people are of both sexes. So that marriage and the bed is not all by any means. 


Mick goes on to note that before puberty, and at old age, humans seem to be sexless, with their voices and appearances far more alike than different. This was one moment in the book that made me realize that McCullers would likely be considered non-binary or transgender today. And she has a point that the traits that culture defines as “masculine” or “feminine” are traits that all humans have by their nature. It seems so obvious once you see it, after you allow yourself to see past the ideology of gender that our culture constantly blasts us with. 


Dr. Copeland is an atheist, which is one reason he is lonely - he has lost a central connection to his own people and family, to whom religion is central to their very identity. There is a statement by an old man that sounded rather familiar. 


“I done thought and reasoned about the time when Jesus going to descend again to this earth. ‘Cause I done always wanted it so much it seem to me like it will be while I am living. I done studied about it many a time. And this here the way I done planned it.” 


My wife’s grandfather, near the end of his life, became obsessed with “End Times” stuff, particularly the stuff that purported to see signs of the end of the world in current events. Any of us ex-evangelicals who grew up in the 1980s know far too much about this part of the subculture. But what we have also noticed, is that this is a common end-of-life obsession. Those who most pushed this stuff, and who were the most obsessed with it as the focus of their religion, tended to be people who were feeling their mortality. Older people, of course. But also those who recently lost parents, or who had started to have medical problems or pain. There is a great desire to avoid death, and one way to cope with that is to find reasons to believe that one won’t have to die at all: Jesus is coming back during MY lifetime! And then, most of these folks have died, so apparently it didn’t work out for them. This has always puzzled me, because people who believe in a glorious afterlife shouldn’t care that much how they get there, or be so dang afraid of dying. But here we are. 


The worst part about this passage is that the old man goes on to say that he believes that he and all his family will stand before Jesus, and that Jesus will take pity on them, and make them white.




This isn’t the only time I ran across this idea in a book. The notoriously racist Elsie Dinsmore books that the most fundie of Fundies adore had the heroine promising to her slaves that in Heaven, God will make them white. 


I had an argument online a few months ago about this issue and about whether people believed that women lacked souls. He (of course it was a he) asserted that because no formal doctrine-making body had ever declared that women have no souls or that black people would become white in heaven, it wasn’t an actual belief. I argued back that just because it wasn’t an “official doctrine” didn’t mean people didn’t believe it. In fact, the very fact that doctrinal gatekeepers felt it necessary to state outright that women had souls was strong evidence that the opposite was a common belief that they felt was necessary to contradict. 


For the same reason, when you see lines like this in multiple books written by different authors in different centuries, it is strong evidence that it was a widely held belief, even if no doctrinal gatekeepers ever asserted it. It is also an example of how white supremacy as an ideology runs far deeper than personal prejudice. It is woven into the fabric of our culture, which is why it isn’t just white people that have these underlying beliefs in the superiority of whiteness. 


Another line that was interesting described the coming of winter malaise and its effect on people. 


The people dreamed and fought and slept as much as ever. And by habit they shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.


That’s a great description. How many people do you know who don’t want to think beyond tomorrow - particularly in a way that anticipates change that may not be welcome to them, and so they shorten their thoughts? 


One of the most haunting scenes in the book is when Singer realizes that he cannot keep his hands still. His primary communication has always been sign language, and he has nobody who shares his language. His communication was without thinking, and without effort. And now, he talks to himself. 


Imagine if you will, moving to a foreign country with a different language. You can kind of get by in that other language, but it isn’t natural to you, and often you can’t keep up or express yourself in a way that you are understood. 


Now imagine that there is literally nobody in your life who speaks English. How much would you pine for someone - anyone - who you can just speak with naturally? That is what Singer experiences throughout this book. 


McCullers also touches on an issue that my wife and I have talked about a lot over the years. Bakersfield is a racially diverse town, even if the racist white element gets the most attention and still holds the political power. All of the hospitals have staff of many ethnicities, but even more to the point, the patients are a cross-section of the town, racially and economically. 


My wife is now ICU manager at a local hospital, and part of her job is dealing with difficult family members. This is a job that requires a lot of emotional intelligence, because there are always layers to any problem, and the immediate issue is rarely the root issue. 


So, a recent incident (but of a recurring nature) arose when the family of a patient was convinced that their family member was dying because of substandard care. This wasn’t entirely crazy, because the family is from an ethnicity that has, historically speaking, received substandard care here in the United States. In this particular case, the patient was receiving the same care as everyone else - that is one of my wife’s central goals for the unit, to be aware of cultural bias and actively work to assure excellent care to everyone. 


But you have to go a few layers below that. Here is what Dr. Copeland thinks about it, after a run where several of his patients have died. 


The five patients had not been lost because of any negligence on his part. The blame was in the long years of want which lay behind. The diets of cornbread and sowbelly and syrup, the crowding of four and five persons to a single room. The death of poverty. 

And that is the point. My wife’s patient was, in that sense, a victim of racial prejudice. Not in the ICU, but in the social issues that led to them being there in the first place. The death of poverty. The death of systemic injustice. 


In the course of the senseless argument between Dr. Copeland and Jake later in the book, Jake expresses the central question that eventually destroyed my right-wing belief system, the one I inherited from the family and subculture I was raised in. 


“We live in the richest country in the world. There’s plenty and to spare for no man, woman, or child to be in want. And in addition to this our country was founded on what should have been a great, true principle - the freedom, equality, and rights of each individual. Huh! And what has come of that start? There are corporations worth billions of dollars - and hundreds of thousands of people who don’t get to eat.” 


This is still true - possibly even more true - 80 years later. The billionaires are now hundred-billionaires, while real wages have declined over my lifetime for most people. We still lose over 80,000 people a year to treatable medical issues, because we refuse to treat healthcare as public infrastructure. (Those are those victims of poverty mentioned above - when you can’t afford to treat your diabetes or heart disease or cancer.) 


Jake is right about this. And so is Dr. Copeland in his response to Jake’s assertion that America will either fall to fascism, or it will have to reform. 


“And the Negro. Do not forget the Negro. So far as I and my people are concerned the South is Fascist now and always has been.”


We so easily forget that Hitler and other fascists of the 20th Century were inspired by the United States. Our genocide of Native Americans, and our segregation and brutalization of blacks. Yes, the Jim Crow south was fascist by any reasonable definition in the 1930s. And in increasing ways, it is trending that direction again. The appeal of Trumpism is that it is the kind of fascism we have already had, and that an awful lot of white people still look on with nostalgia and longing. 


Sometimes, as in this case, I go into a book knowing very little about it, and not really having set expectations. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised by just how good it is, not just a decent book, but a true classic. It is a shame that it seems to be less known and celebrated than other works of Southern literature. It is every bit the equal - and one might even say better - than the names everyone knows. 


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