Sunday, February 28, 2010

Book Forty-One: The Heart is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Few things are more enjoyable than discovering a great book everyone else already knows about, but which you have passed over for years. Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years, and this reading project of mine prompted me to pull it down.

McCullers became an overnight literary sensation when she published this novel at age 23, prompting no less than Tennessee Williams to call her "the greatest prose writer that the South [has] produced," and Richard Wright being impressed by her ability "to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness." But the praise can go further. McCullers goes deep into the human condition and explores what we miss as well as what we know. Most impressive is her portrayal of a range of people and cultures without appearing stereotypical or sentimental. Published in 1940, the novel is set in the 1930s and includes some insightful comments on the integration of Jewish people along with the rise of Hitler as seen through the eyes of Americans.

The book centers around John Singer, a deaf mute who becomes many things to many people, namely because he serves as a reflection of the people speaking to him. Although he is the unifying character in the story, the narrative moves away from Singer to focus on other stories. There is Dr. Copeland, an intellectually driven African-American doctor with hopes of raising his race through the lens of Karl Marx. His daughter, Portia, is a servant in the Kelly house and also plays a significant role in the novel, although she does center around Singer. The Kelly's are an Irish-American family, large but poor, who rent out rooms, including to Singer. Mick Kelly is one of the daughters who is separated by her intelligence and love of classical music, although the family cannot afford any instruments or even a radio. Biff Brannon owns the local cafe/bar where the white characters meet up at times. Finally, there is Jake Blount, a hard drinking labor organizer who shows up in town alone and tries unsuccessfully to unite the workers.

Singer loses his best friend, another deaf mute, early in the book. While Singer is devoted to his friend, it is clear to the reader that his friend is annoying, lazy, and just plain fairly unlikable. When he is sent to an asylum to live, Singer takes a room in the Kelly house. A engraver at a jeweler's store, Singer takes his dinners in Brannon's cafe, where Blount finds a willing listener. Blount is so wrapped up in his own thinking that he talks with Singer several times before he realized that Singer is deaf and mute. Singer can read lips and learns to keep up with the different ways the characters have of talking to him.

Eventually Mick, Biff, Dr. Copeland, and Blount all find there way to Singer's simple room where they talk with him about whatever they want. Blount sees Singer as a supporter of his cause to unite workers, Copeland him finds him to be the only white man who understands the African-American condition, and Mick finds him to be the man she would like her father to be (this could be debated, but it is my current thought). Biff has less to project on Singer because his life lacks clear direction -- he is simply lonely. Singer becomes almost god-like in who people view him, but as McCullers shows us with Singer's initial relationship, he too projects himself onto others.

Of course, as the title indicates, this book is about loneliness. All the characters are looking for a connection to others, but can only find it in a man who offers them no feedback. In a short, but remarkable scene, all the characters find themselves in Singer's room at the same time and fall strangely silent. Singer cannot understand why this happens, but it is clear to the reader that the characters can only connect to someone they think is like them. They are not united in their own uniqueness, but  instead by their inability to reach out and connect with others. In some ways they have all been excluded by society, and in other ways they have separated themselves. 

As important as the theme of loneliness is that of communication, and they tie into one another. All the characters find communicating difficult, thus they are left alone. Singer cannot communicate with others so he is lonely. Copeland cannot communicate his desires for raising his race to his family or community and feels alone. Blount hears only derision for his labor demands, and is thus isolated. Biff loses his wife early on and has no one to communicate with even though he often thinks of what could be. Mick is separated from her family by her intelligence and love of music, although she is not even fully aware of how lonely she is. By communicating with Singer they all find a way to temporarily connect, but only because he serves as a sounding board.

There are many other themes to ponder in the book. Race relations, religion, facisim, and sexuality are just some of the other themes to be explored.  One of my personally favorite themes is a character as the reader, which I look at everytime a deaf and/or mute character (possibly representing the reader) appears.  That McCullers put this all together at the age of 23 is astounding since it shows someone who has been closely observing society for some time. But clearly she knew what she was aiming for. In an interview she remarked:

"I do believe that anybody who makes his own life is to be lonely, and I think this loneliness implies a condition of moral isolation." [From an interview with Hans de Vaal, Litterair Paspoort (April 1953)]
The phrase "moral isolation" is applied to this story quite a bit, and it is a loaded phrase. It implies not the isolation of physical space, but of a common connection. Few stories can be summed up in two words, but in this case, it works.

As for McCuller's herself, allow me to steal from her publisher: Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia. A promising pianist, McCullers enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York when she was seventeen, but lacking the money for tuition, she did not attend classes. Eventually she studied writing at New York University and Columbia University, which ultimately led to the publication of her first short story, "Wunderkind," in Story magazine. In 1937, Carson married fellow writer James Reeves McCullers. Less than three years later, when she was twenty-three, she published her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. She went on to write Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding, The Ballad of the Sad Café, and Clock Without Hands, among other works. The recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships, McCullers also won awards for her Broadway stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding. Plagued by a series of strokes, attributed to a misdiagnosed and untreated case of childhood rheumatic fever, Carson McCullers died in Nyack, New York, at age fifty.

 Note on her photo: Melancholy is the best way to describe the images you see of McCullers (try a Google image search). But I chose a laughing picture, because anyone who is truly as sad as her pictures would have ended her own life quite early. 

If you want more on McCullers visit or Houghton Mifflin.
Up Next
I have two very busy weeks coming up with several night obligations and papers to grade. I'm looking at Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow, but may end up elsewhere. I also want to reread the The Scarlet Letter in the next few weeks since it was released around this time 160 years ago.

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