Carson McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when most of the world (and especially the American south) was ruffling its feathers against the racial tensions boiling in the south and boiling over in the north American states. The story was set in small town Georgia in the 1930s and rocked the literary and readership public with well-drawn misfit characters and bewitching sensitivity of humanity at its best and worst in June of 1940. In addition, she was a mere twenty three years of age and the wisdom and writing craft showed well-honed talent more befitting someone who might have been writing for four times as many years. In short, she was an immediate literary sensation with a best selling book when most people that age are still trying to figure out their smart phones these days.
Last Sunday, what would have been her 100th birthday is a milestone year. She died of a stroke at 50 but her voice and keen insight lives on in all her writings, many of which showed the same sharp eye into the inner person of her characters. Her masterpiece will always be her first title but she went on to write several novels: The Member of the Wedding, Reflections in a Golden Eye and more. She was also a poet, playwright and short story writer with a big collection anthologized years ago and with a recent LOA collection of all her works, out this year. This new collection also features a memoir of her life in the south, a teleplay and essays she wrote and even travel writing pieces!
Back in 2004, Oprah Winfrey championed her book as a classic and it has enjoyed resurgence ever since with a new literary crowd. I imagine that Oprah perhaps spied herself in Mick, the teenage girl who is making her way to adulthood with an intensely personal search for beauty- in herself, the world and others around her- with alternating success and failure with each encounter. Her mind opens like a wildflower to a friend in a deaf/mute man and their relationship stays neutral while they seesaw out of emotional control together. All the other characters swirl around them in a morass of the tensions of the times, the depression and conventional to curious southern ways. The abrupt and sad end to the story has a poignancy you will not easily forget.
It was set to film in 1968 with some known and unknown Broadway and film actors with Sondra Locke in the role of Mick and Alan Arkin as the most convincing deaf/mute ever portrayed on the screen, in my opinion. He received his second Academy Award for Best Actor in this role. The music is brilliant, overall, with the less prominent characters excellently acted by Stacy Keach, Percy Rodrigues, Cicely Tyson and Chuck McCann. However, the film altered the story in an homogenized fashion to the film-watching public of the day and that marvelously alliterated narrative of McCullers pen doesn't translate quite to the screenplay. Instead, we get an attempt to convey the feelings that the book incites by other means and it was successful for the cinema. This is one of those novels which must be read and then read five more times to discover the layers of meaning and pathos.
If you enjoy literature in its purest form you owe it to yourself to obtain a copy and read it undisturbed for the full length of the book. I was riveted at 17 and forty years later it is almost like reading it anew.
Yep. It's that good.
The Castle Lady
The mind is like a richly woven tapestry in which the colors are distilled
from experiences of the senses
and the design drawn from the convolutions of the intellect.
- Carson McCullers