The ‘Sad, Happy Life’ of Carson McCullers


Mary V. Dearborn’s new book, “Carson McCullers: A Life,” is the first major biography of this essential American writer in more than 20 years. It is competent and professional, as if built from solid pine and good plaster. It is dispassionate and well researched. Reading it is brutal because McCullers’s life was brutal to endure.

It is Dearborn’s poor luck that the best-known biography, Virginia Spencer Carr’s “The Lonely Hunter” (1975), is a masterpiece of the form, as formidable in its way as Leon Edel’s life of Henry James. Carr’s book is a dense work of literature as well as a biography, and it contains vastly more detail, nuance, savvy, twisted humanity and practical magic.

Contrast, to take the easiest example at hand, these books’ openings. Here are Dearborn’s first two sentences:

And here’s Carr, flicking the lights on right away:

Multiply these styles across hundreds of pages. Dearborn’s style is clean; we’re in a doctor’s office or a museum, and McCullers’s life is in a lighted display box. Carr’s style was often low-lit and ground level; we’re in a nightclub, or the back seat of a rumbling car. You felt you were with McCullers in real time. Carr allowed you to see more things out of the corner of your eye.

“Carson McCullers: A Life” is a necessary book, though. It builds on Carr’s work and considers newly released material, including letters and journals and, most tantalizingly, transcripts of McCullers’s late-life psychiatric sessions with the female doctor who would become her lover and gatekeeper.

It has been seven years since McCullers (1917-67) had her centennial, when the Library of America released her complete works in two volumes. That was an occasion, which many critics took, to revisit her work, which includes the novels “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (1940) and “The Member of the Wedding” (1946), and the story collection “The Ballad of the Sad Café” (1951).

Special notice was paid, and justly so, to McCullers’s gifts for portraying loners and misfits, for addressing taboo topics such as mental illness and alcoholism and same-sex relationships. As Joyce Carol Oates put it in The New York Review of Books, “McCullers seemed to have identified with whatever is trans- in the human psyche, seeing it as the very fuel of desire.” Dearborn elaborates on these themes but essentially tells a straightforward story, vastly more in touch with the life than with the work.

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