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Carson McCullers  

Born in Columbus, Georgia, Carson McCullers was a novelist, short story writer, playwright and poet who wrote in the Southern Gothic tradition.
Last Updated: Dec 15, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Carson McCullers (1917-1967)


Brief Biography

Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia to  middle class parents.  Her father was a skilled watchmaker who was from Alabama.  Her mother had an Irish background.  McCullers had two younger siblings.  Columbus at that time was a religious,  conservative town. The Smith's were not religious-rather they were interested in social causes.  As the oldest child, McCullers was given special attention by her mother.  She began studying the piano at 10 and progressed quickly.  After she grauduated from the local high school at 17, she travelled to New York City planning to study the piano at the Juilliard School of Music.  Her plans were altered by illness-she contracted rheumatic fever and was forced to return to Columbus to recuperate.  While regaining her health, she changed her mind about studying music.   The illness may have contributed to strokes and a heart condition not too many years later.  She decided to become a writer.  Returning to New York, she worked at a variety of jobs while taking creative writing courses at Columbia University and Washington Square College of New York University.  In 1936 she published her first work, "Wunderkind" an autobiographical story about the insecurities of a musically gifted adolescent.  McCullers was always given the impression by her mother that she was special and destined for great things.  This attitude could be grating on some of her friends, but she did have literary talent as is evidenced by her novels.  She pursued her literary ambitions while being married.  She wed Reeves McCullers when she was only 20 and they moved to North Carolina where Reeves  found work.  The marriage was complex and troubled.  They were divorced in 1941, only to be remarried in 1945.  She attempted suicide in 1948.   While they were both living in Paris, Reeves tried to convince her to commit suicide with him.  Horrified by the idea, she left him again and returned to the United States.  Reeves finally committed suicide in Paris in 1953.

When McCullers was a young woman, she had the first of a series of strokes.  Eventually her left side would be paralyzed and she would need a cane.  This disability did not stop her from writing.  She published one of her best know works, "The Heart Is a Loney Hunter" in 1940.  The book was well received and introduced her to the literary world.  She wrote in the "Southern Gothic Tradition."  Her books often dealt with isolated, lonely, handicapped ( either emotionally or physically or both) individuals who feel "different" and separated from others.  These people seek love and connection but are rarely successful in their quests.  Her stories do not end happily.  She was skilled in her descriptions of the southern towns in which these stories take place.  A sense of place is always important in her works.  The decade of the 40's was a productive time for McCullers.  In addition to "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter," she published "Reflections in a Golden Eye," and "The Member of the Wedding" ( adapted into a play in 1950).  "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" was published in 1951.  Her last novel "Clock Without Hands" was published in 1961.    She also wrote short stories, a play, a collection of poems for children , essays and an autobiography that was published more than 30 years after her death.

McCullers, throughout her life suffered from illnesses and pain, especially during the last twenty years of her life.  She had several strokes and a serious drinking problem.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1962.  She was fortunate in one respect--her dramatization of "The Member of the Wedding" ( with the help of her friend Tennessee Williams) and the sale of movie rights-left her financially secure. While she married a male, her true sexual orientation was towards women.  She was not shy about pursuing various women but  she never, at least it appears, entered into a satisfactory relationship with any of them.  She had many gay friends-among them Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote.  Some of these friendships lasted over the years, others did not.

McCullers was a Southern writer, but for most of her adult life she live either in Paris, New York City or Nyack, New York.  Her mother bought a house in Nyack and McCullers bought it from her. After her mother died, she employed a nurse-housekeeper who lived with her for the last thirteen years of her life.   Most of that time, McCullers was confined to bed. She died in 1967 from a massive brain hemorrhage, after lingering in a come for over forty days.  She was only 50 years old.  She is buried near her mother in a local cemetery near her home overlooking the Hudson River.

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