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The Boston Phoenix Soul Searching

Though elusive about the events of her life, Carson McCullers's memoirs shed fresh light on her work

By Graham Christian

OCTOBER 4, 1999: 

Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers, by Carson McCullers and edited by Carlos Dews (University of Wisconsin Press), 280 pages, $24.95.

Imaginative writers, as a general rule, do not like to tell the stories of their lives. A casual glance at a bookshelf -- Patrick White, Jean Rhys, Lillian Hellman, W.B. Yeats, Isak Dinesen -- shows the range of the problem: too often, their recollections are coy, fragmentary, or selective to the point of dishonesty. To write one's life suggests a dreadful finality; the autobiography, to the writer, implies a completed structure and the end, perhaps, of one's creative labors. The writer's memoir is, very often, a kind of concession -- to fame, to time, to poverty.

The splendid Southern writer Carson McCullers is no exception. By the time she dictated her memoirs, she had tasted early successes, shaming failures, and two marriages (to the same man), and had begun the long descent into her final illness. This memoir, long withheld from the public by her literary estate, is a kind of apology for the dwindling of her talent and a summation of the ideas and images that haunted the last years of her life.

McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917, and she labored for several years under her mother's ambitions for her musical gifts until she fled to New York, where she studied writing at Columbia University, among other places. With the notable forthrightness that was also a hallmark of her writing, she got herself published in Story by the age of 19, and married the following year. Her choice of husband was Reeves McCullers, a handsome man of no discernible occupation; their marriage was complicated by their attraction to each other's lovers, of either sex, but she filed for divorce only after she discovered that he had been forging her name on rather large checks. By the time The Member of the Wedding opened its highly successful run on Broadway in 1950, the better part of McCullers's writing career was over, and the remainder of her life was a series of disappointments: Reeves's suicide in Paris, the critical and popular failure of a play, and the assaults of several catastrophic illnesses on her body.

It would be taken as a sign of insufficient respect to McCullers's elders -- William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Ellen Glasgow -- to say that she invented the Southern gothic manner, with its lonely misfits, peeling walls, and secret sins. But it can't be denied that McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, published in 1940, fixed the territory in American literature. Eudora Welty's Curtain of Green (1941) and Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) must have seemed, at the time, like provinces in a country McCullers had discovered and claimed.

Her style was distinct, and almost Irish in its lyricism of simple statements: there are pages in McCullers that read almost like a translation of James Joyce or Edna O'Brien into the American idiom. It seems, from the handful of novels and stories, that her conclusion about the condition and future of the South, and more broadly of the human drama it represented to her, was not encouraging -- all her works conclude in pathos ("the awful tyranny of pity," as she says in the memoir), love having worked a final and crushing defeat on the isolated and abandoned wretches that populate her hopeless little towns.

Such were her ideas, which, in the best Modernist manner, she embodied in things. Illumination and Night Glare was to have embodied a few more -- to "provide future generations assistance in dealing with early success," as well as a study of people who had "triumphed over adversity" -- but by 1967, she was able only to dictate a few sentences a day in painful gasps, and the result is a charming, chronologically loose rattle-bag of anecdotes and impressions. Exhaustion robbed her of the colors of her trademark lyricism, but there are a few moments that leap into clarity: "What is the source of an illumination? To me, they come after hours of searching and keeping my soul ready. Yet they come in a flash, as a religious phenomenon."

McCullers is beyond evasive about the true complexity of her life -- her love for Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, or her tormented dealings with her husband's lover, David Diamond -- but the people she knew and loved best, her mother and her hopeless husband, recur like musical themes, obsessing her. The memory of Reeves remained so important to her that their anxious, high-toned correspondence during the Second World War, on the eve of their second marriage, is included here: the letters' vitality and candor give McCullers and her husband a poignant immediacy. She wants us to know that she hobnobbed with all varieties of greatness -- how many people could honestly say that they counted both Edith Sitwell and Gypsy Rose Lee as friends? -- but such people drift through her paragraphs like phantoms. It is McCullers, and the dwarves and hunchbacks she created to explain herself and those she loved, that have the greatest reality. Like any fine literary memoir, Illumination and Night Glare returns us, with renewed sympathy, to the fruits of its author's distinctive genius.

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