Thursday, August 28, 2014

Writers and Society—2: Carson McCullers

From the Writers and Society series published in the June-July 1956 issue of Forum

The subject of the first article in this series was William Faulkner, an American novelist, who writes mainly about the South. Carson McCullers is another American whose novels are set mainly in the South, but there the similarity ends. McCullers writes in a much clearer and more straightforward manner than does Faulkner and generally speaking, her characters spring from a completely different world. The people in her novels, are generally "much nearer home" in the sense that they are often working-class town-dwellers who lead lives recognisably akin to our own, whereas Faulkner writes almost entirely of impoverished Southern aristocrats, misfits, criminals and the like.

Very few of her novels and stories have been published in this country, but those that have so far appeared have been of an extremely high quality. One of them—The Member of the Wedding—has been filmed by Stanley Kramer and those who have seen the film will have gained a fairly accurate idea of McCullers' approach, for the film was an extremely successful adaptation of the book, which is an account of an adolescent girl suffering the pangs of growing-up.

This novel, which is probably the most appealing of Carson McCullers' novels, deals with this girl, Frankie, and her development through adolescence. She is plain, awkward and almost friendless, and considers herself too old to play with the children in the dust of the streets, but she in turn is considered too young to be allowed to join the local youth club. Her brother, on his return from the forces, is about to be married, and Frankie, in her loneliness, fixes all her hopes and desires upon the wedding and decides to go away with them. Eventually of course, the result is unhappy disillusionment, and near-tragedy, but the resulting impression is not one of morbidity but of what Walter Allen called "the beauty that comes from a comprehensive and quite unsentimental pity for her characters." The other main characters in the novel, John Henry, the little boy next door, and the Negro cook-housekeeper, are also drawn sympathetically and the total picture is that of a sympathetic presentation of life as it really is and not a glorified picture-postcard substitute.

Her characters, particularly the children, are in general, human and likeable, drawn with a firmness and delineation that is quite unlike Faulkner, and as one reads, one can feel the characters developing during the course of the narrative. There is also no lack of ideas in her novels. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, for instance, contains characters with shades of left-wing views. There is an old Negro doctor who is embittered by his people's struggles and wishes to lead Negro marchers to the Capital to seek human rights for his downtrodden people. Then there is the wanderer who thinks that the Negro problem is only one of the many social problems, which itself merits no special attention, and who considers that marches and the like merely fritter away the resources of the working class and who is all for spreading the word of the revolution. The resulting argument between them reads almost like a Hyde Park wrangle.

This novel is an account of how four people's lives become entangled by their association with a mute who becomes their confidante. The Negro doctor; the labour agitator; a lonely and philosophical cafe proprietor; and an adolescent girl, all turn to the mute as the one person who can help them sort out their own problems and ease their frustrations, although ironically, he is not really in sympathy with any one of them, and a large part of the time he does not even understand what they are talking about. The mute's death leaves a void in their lives and life becomes once more drab and lonely. The wanderer continues on his way, the cafe proprietor goes back to his observation of people, the Negro doctor is forced to rest from his struggles by serious illness, and the girl, who feels cheated by life, goes to work in Woolworths for a few dollars a week—("What good was it? That was the question she would like to know. What the hell good it was. All the plans she had made, and the music. When all that came of it was this trap—the store, then come home to sleep, and back at the store again. The clock in front of the place where Mr. Singer used to work pointed to seven. And she was just getting off. Whenever there was overtime the manager always told her to stay. Because she could stand longer on her feet and work harder before giving out than any other girl.") As an examination of Southern small town life the book is fascinating and extremely readable, but more than this, as a tale of human beings' attitudes to and their struggles against the crushing weight of capitalism's problems and frustrations, the book is a near-masterpiece.

Reflections in a Golden Eye is a novel in a completely different vein to the two mentioned above. It deals with the lives of officers, their wives and a private soldier in an American army camp in peace time. The suspense and tragedy of the story is admirably drawn, as are the character portraits of the soldiers, their officers and the officers' ladies. The viciousness, monotony and pointlessness of army life is portrayed to great effect. ("One old corporal wrote a letter every night to Shirley Temple making it a sort of diary of all that he had done during the day and mailing it before breakfast next morning.") The horror of these people's empty lives leads up to a climax of tragedy which is as impressive as almost anything in modern literature.

Another short novel, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, is a somewhat Faulknerish tale of stunted lives in an American backwoods town. It has all the remarkable insight and invention of Faulkner with what most people would consider the added advantage of a clear prose style and sympathy which that writer lacks.

McCullers has been described (by David Garnett) as "the best living American writer" and if one's criterion of good literature requires humanity and sympathy of approach as well as sheer brilliant writing, then this statement is probably not far wrong. As V. S. Pritchett has described her she is "the most remarkable writer to come out of America for a generation. Like all writers of original genius she conceives that we have missed something that was plainly to be seen in the real world . . . . an incomparable story-teller."

This brief summary can only give a bald and inadequate outline of McCullers' work but anyone who takes the trouble to get hold of her novels and short stories will not be disappointed—there is a freshness, warmth and skill in her writing that is unmistakable, and that this writer finds irresistible.
Albert Ivimey

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