by Carson McCullers
Publication Date: September 8, 1940
Genre: classic, southern gothic
Project: a century of women, classics club round 2
Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine.
Carson McCullers was 23 when she wrote The Heart is the Lonely Hunter, and already married to Reese McCullers. In 1934, she left home, in Columbus, Georgia, and went to New York City to study at Julliard, by herself, with $500.00 pinned to her underwear. She was 17 years old.
It’s hard, in 2019, with a 23 year old daughter of my own, to imagine anyone having the life experience to write The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at that age. Carson McCullers was, obviously, remarkable. She died young, 3 years younger than I am right now, her body worn down from illness and alcoholism. She wasn’t a prolific writer, leaving behind a small body of work: 4 novels and a dozen or so short stories, as her claim to immortality. But what a claim she makes.
There is research that demonstrates that reading, and especially reading literary fiction, improves the reader’s ability to empathize. Reading a book like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter makes that statement almost laughably obvious. Of course, reading fiction improves empathy. How could it not?
This book is painfully resonant. McCuller’s characters are so real that they nearly leap off the page. The center of the book is John Singer, a deaf-mute who, at the beginning of the book is living with his best friend, Antonopoulos, a fellow deaf-mute. Their lives are very simple – they rise, they go to work at their disparate employments, they meet after work and return home to dinner. Singer speaks with his hands, and talks all evening to his friend. Antonopoulos does not speak in return, and it’s never clear to anyone, including Singer, that he understands what he is being told. Singer is deeply, and non-sexually, committed to Antonopoulos. After a while, Antonopoulos begins acting out in town, and his cousin has him committed to a mental institution, which is the event that really starts the book.
Singer moves out of the apartment he shared with his friend because it is too painful for him to live there alone, and he moves to the home of Mick Kelly, a teenage girl who is, to me, the true heart of the book. He begins frequenting the New York Cafe, owned by Biff Banner. He meets Benedict Copeland, the black doctor in town, and Jake Blount, usually drunk and always scrappy. And he, somewhat inexplicably, becomes the sun around which all of these characters orbit.
BY MIDSUMMER Singer had visitors more often than any other person in the house. From his room in the evening there was nearly always the sound of a voice. After dinner at the New York Café he bathed and dressed himself in one of his cool wash suits and as a rule did not go out again. The room was cool and pleasant. He had an icebox in the closet where he kept bottles of cold beer and fruit drinks. He was never busy or in a hurry. And always he met his guests at the door with a welcome smile.
We never do find out very much about Singer – his interior life is largely closed to the reader. We know that he visits his friend, Antonopoulos, in the institution and those visits give us just the smallest glimpse into Singer. But, he really serves as the catalyst for us to learn about the interior lives of the other characters.
McCuller’s portrayal of the black community in this small town in Georgia was astonishing. When I was digging around on the internet after finishing the book, still in the throes of the emotional weight of the story, I found quotes by James Baldwin and Richard Wright, author of Native Son, who said, of McCullers that she had the ability to “embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”
Dr. Copeland says:
“‘My people were brought from the great plains, and the dark, green jungles,’ he said once to Mr. Singer. ‘On the long chained journeys to the coast they died by the thousands. Only the strong survived. Chained in the foul ships that brought them here they died again. Only the hardy Negroes with will could live. Beaten and chained and sold on the block, the least of these strong ones perished again. And finally through the bitter years the strongest of my people are still here. Their sons and daughters, their grandsons and great-grandsons.’”
Mick Kelly is Scout Finch, if Atticus had been an out-of-work watch repairman with too many children and not nearly enough money, and if Scout had been a musician. Mick is the character who broke my heart into one million pieces, with the futility of her love of music and the chains of her birth circumstances tightening around her as the novel progresses. She is Thea Kronberg, from The Song of the Lark, without wings to lift her. There are no happy endings here, as she submits gracelessly to her fate, working at Woolworths, saying goodbye to her dreams, for the $10.00 a week that will help her feed her family.
And then we have Jake Blount, the drunken communist with a dark past.
“And the reason I think like I do is this: 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 book was written during the grimmest part of the Great Depression, and yet the more things change, the more things stay the same. Like all of the very best fiction, it shows the reader things that are true in the way that only fiction can be true. I think that I could read this book a hundred times and I would get something different out of it with each reading.