Today: the Queen of Southern Gothic, Carson McCullers herself.
Her first and most famous novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, set the stage for the kind of things that Carson explores in her fiction: isolation, the experience of social misfits and outcasts, forces of oppression and their consequences on a personal level.
She was born Lula Carson Smith in Georgia. She learned piano when she was a child, and started getting into writing around 15, when her father gave her a typewriter. After graduating high school, she took off for NY. Her plan was to study piano at Juilliard there, but this was cut short by a bout of rheumatic fever. After returning from Columbus, GA, where she’d gone to recuperate, she worked a series of menial jobs while in parallel actively pursuing a writing career and attending night classes at Columbia. Her first story, an autobiographical piece, was published when she was just 19. She married Reeves McCullers, another aspiring writer, the following year, and they moved to Georgia but they divorced in 1941, at which point she headed back to NY and formed close friendships with many of the writers there. After WW2, she lived mostly in Paris, and in 1945, she remarried Reeves.
The later part of her life was overshadowed by chronic illness, alcoholism, and depression. In 1948, she attempted suicide; in 1953, Reeves tried to
convince her to commit a double suicide with him. She fled but he did go through it. By her early thirties, she had complete paralysis on her left side, a consequence of the strokes she endured in her youth. She ultimately died of a brain hemorrhage in 1967.
Carson may have been married to Reeves, but she certainly performed a lesbian persona in her public life. She wore men’s clothes, and aggressively pursued women, though it appears that none of her attempts to seduce women were successful. Her most famous love was the Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach. In an article for The Nation, Sarah Schulman writes about McCullers’s complicated relationship with women, gender, and sexuality:
In the absence of reciprocated lesbian love and the inability to
consummate lesbian sex, McCullers still wore a lesbian persona in
literature and in life. She clearly wrote against the grain of
heterosexual convention, wore men’s clothes, was outrageously aggressive
in her consistently failed search for sex and love with another woman,
and formed primary friendships with other gay people.
Schulman actually develops her exploration of McCullers’s identity and modes of identification in a New Yorker article, noting that
I started to realize that McCullers’s gender trouble was not of the
homosexual kind, and it slowly dawned on me that, had she been alive
today, not only would McCullers (and Williams and Capote) have probably
been in A.A. and on antidepressants, she might have been living as a
transgender man. She did once tell Capote, “I think I was born a boy,”
which doesn’t, in and of itself, mean much—but how many of us, as little
girls, have never had that thought? Most.