Posts Tagged ‘ Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach ’

Carson McCullers at 100 (Pt. 3)

The Childish Longing for Protection and Belonging

There was only knowing that she must find somebody, anybody,
that she could join with to go away. For now she admitted
she was too scared to go into the world alone.
The Member of the Wedding

In her unfinished autobiography McCullers tells of an incident in June 1940 shortly after she had moved to New York with the money that Houghton Mifflin paid her for the publication of her story “The Heart” (and anticipating payment for her soon-to-be-published first novel). She had long been desperate to move out of the squalid one-family house she and her husband Reeves McCullers shared with eight other people in Charlotte. But their marriage was already in such a state that when the good news came, instead of going together, Reeves accepted an invitation to sail with a friend to Nantucket, while Carson rode to New York alone on a bus. She took lodging in a cheap boarding house on the West Side and was still there when The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published on June 4.

That month her editor at Houghton Mifflin telegrammed her an invitation to lunch at the Bedford Hotel. Pleased to finally enjoy a social occasion she bought a new dress just for the meeting. As it happened, staying at the same hotel was Erika Mann (Thomas Mann’s eldest daughter, to whom McCullers had written requesting an interview in connection with a story she planned about a Jew from Germany). After lunch, while McCullers was in Mann’s room, Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach entered. McCullers neither knew the Swiss heiress and literary dilettante, nor was she expecting her. But that day would begin an intense (but not sexual, at least not consummated, according to McCullers) short-term intimacy between the southern precocious naif in a failing marriage and the liberated, world-traveling gay sophisticate who had been addicted to morphine since she was 18. The relationship would survive Reeves’s abusive jealousy, Carson’s excessive dependence, Annemarie’s commitments to asylum’s and suicide attempt and even the latter’s escape first to Africa and then to Switzerland. (Reflections in a Golden Eye is dedicated to Clarac-Schwarzenbach, and Clarac-Schwarzenbach was planning to translate it.) Switzerland is where she died, however, in a bicycle accident on a mountainside. But what is important for this discussion is not the subsecquent relationship, but simply is the very moment the two met. McCullers describes it as something like an emotional singularity. “She had a face that I knew would haunt me to the end of my life, beautiful, blonde, with straight short hair. There was a look of suffering on her face that I could not define.” She immediately thought of Prince Myshkin’s experience meeting Nastasya Filippovna in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot—which brought him a sensation of “terror, pity and love.”1

A moment like that, filled with the agitation of intense emotional excitement together with the vague suspicion of its potential for chaos and ruin, is at the heart of McCullers’s fourth novel.

[Part 1 of this series is found here; Part 2 can be read here.]

The Member of the Wedding (1946)

19442 was a disruptive year for 12-year-old Frankie (Frances) Addams. Her best friend had moved away to Florida. Her slightly older friends would not let her join the club they formed. “She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.” She was growing at an alarming rate. And she had become a criminal after she stole a three-way knife from the Sears and Roebuck. But that was not all. She took her father’s pistol and shot it in an empty lot. She committed a “secret sin” with Barney MacKean in his parents’ garage, and she hated him for it and wanted to kill him. These things made her afraid, first of the law, and then of her father, and then of not belonging to anything. The summer was lonesome and hot. “Every day she wanted more and more to leave the town to light out for South America or Hollywood or New York City. But although she packed her suitcase many times, she could never decide on which of these places she might go, or how she would get there by herself.” So she spent her time hanging around the kitchen and being “too mean to live.”

We learn all these things from the narrator, who tells them in desultory manner, merely as background to what takes place mainly during a three-day period in August and its aftermath seen on one afternoon three months later. And mostly what takes place happens around a cheap table in a kitchen whose walls are marred by the drawings of children and inside one of those walls we occasionally hear the scratchings of a rat.

At this table are always the same three characters. In addition to Frankie, there is the African-American cook/housekeeper, Berenice Sadie Brown, and Frankie’s six-year-old cousin, John Henry West. This trio is very similar to one we encountered in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. One of the five main characters in McCullers’s first novel, 14-year-old Mick Kelly, occasionally is found in the kitchen with her younger brother, George (“Bubber”) Kelly, and the black cook, Portia Copeland. Mick and Frankie, though two years apart in age, are somewhat alike. Both have some creative inclinations: Mick is obsessed with music; Frankie, though she gave it up that summer, used to write “shows” that were performed under a tree outside. (Carson McCullers herself, when she was a child in Georgia, studied piano and wrote plays that her siblings performed for the family.) Both had unpleasant first sexual encounters (although Frankie reacted much more violently than Mick). Both are out-of-sorts, trying to figure out how they fit into the world. Both long to travel north, to see snow, and to become famous and important. Bubber Kelly and John Henry both look up to the young protagonists, and while they both play important roles in the plot at the end, their roles before then are quite limited, not much more than accessories. The two cooks are also very similar. Both are something like a mother or older sister substitute. In the first novel Mick’s mother is too busy running the boarding house to have much interaction with her and her older sisters ignore her; in the second Frankie’s mother had died in childbirth and Frankie is an only child. Both cooks have experience with marriage. Portia is currently married to Honeyboy, whose involvement in the plot is so limited that we never know his last name. Berenice has been married four times; the first time to a loving and respectful man, Ludie Freeman, who treated her well. He once bought her a fox fur stole, which she still had. He took her to Cincinnati where they saw snow and where they lived for nine months. Ludie made a decent living there as a brick mason. (Note his name and the place Berenice keeps returning to in her memories. Frankie is not the only one who is confined in Georgia.) The rest of Berenice’s husbands were one worse than the other, as she puts it. The last one put out her eye, and now she wears an odd blue glass eye. In both cases the cooks provide the conservative, common sense, “adult” point of view. Portia is more grounded in mainstream religion (the gospel of submission as her father sees it). Berenice relies on known sayings to guide her life, and she is less mature and accepting than Portia. She is often combative and frequently butts heads with Frankie. The two also spend Sunday evenings dressed in their finest, promenading about town with two men: in Portia’s case her husband Honeyboy and her brother; in Berenice’s her gentleman caller, T.T. Williams (the owner of a restaurant but “he and me is just good friends,” Berenice says), and her brother Honey. In both cases the brother becomess caught up in the racist legal system.

The points of comparison are true but largely irrelevant because The Member of the Wedding is not a narrative in the way The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is but rather, in essence, something like a philosophic dialogue. But unlike, say, Hume or Berkeley, the dialogue is not built on a scaffold of intellectual steps. Nor is it even like the overheated set piece dialogues throughout Dostoevsky’s major novels. At times it reaches for Buber’s idea that dialogue confers meaning by uniting the participants into one,3 but at others it descends to talking over each other’s head as in Chekhov’s plays or even into outright outbursts or altercations. MacDowell describes this dialogues thus:

“When Frankie and Berenice talk philosophically and with deep emotion, one sometimes hears dynamic dialogue as the women clash with each other and alternately reveal the anger and the tenderness they feel for each other. More often, however, one hears a rising antiphony in which one woman speaks, the other speaks in a contrasting tone, and finally the two join to achieve unified utterance, sometimes revealing a deep accord, sometimes a frustrating inability to communicate. In these antiphonal scenes, the two women do not necessarily speak to each other or to John Henry. Rather each speaks aloud to herself or to a vaguely conceived and undefined audience, which may or may not include he other two people present.”4

McCullers herself described the contributions of the three participants as “fugue-like parts.”5  (She was discussing the work as it had been translated by her into a play that had a long run on Broadway, but the approach to the dialogue was the same.) By that I think she meant that, as with a fugue, the two (and sometimes three) voices sometimes create a harmony, sometimes are heard in unison, frequently produce counterpoint and at some points create a cacaphony. Where the metaphor fails, however, is that the two (or more) statements made by the voices in a musical fugue are essentially the same (with certain changes permitted by the rules of fugal writing) simply begun at different times. So in a fugue the effects created by the different voices are inherent in the statement itself when played against different parts of itself. But that’s not how the dialogue worked in this novel (or the later play).

The points of view of Frankie and Berenice are diametrically opposite. Most of the attention of the story is on Frankie so the novel is often described as being “about” alienation, specifically adolescent alienation. While it is certainly true that Frankie is out-of-sorts and that she is constantly brooding about how she doesn’t belong or is unconnected to the world, Berenice has the opposite complaint. She believes she is fixed by the racist structure of society, trapped in her position and cares and wishing only to “burst free.” She doesn’t reveal this to Frankie at first, but it informs all of her advice to her and also all of her criticisms and disparagements of her. But until the last Friday in August, the two just talked past each other “their voices saw against each other, saying the same words,” as this conversation when Frankie’s cat ran away:

“‘If only I just knew where he has gone.’

“‘Quit worrying yourself about that old alley cat. I done told you he ain’t coming back.’

“‘Charles is not alley He is almost pure Persian.’

“‘Persian as I is,’ Bernice would say. ‘You seen the last of that old tomcat. He gone off to hunt a friend.’

“‘To hunt a friend?’

“‘Why, certainy. He roamed off to find himself a lady-friend.’

“‘You really think so?’

“‘Naturally.’

“‘Well, why don’t he bring his friend home with him. He ought to know I would be only too glad to have a whole family of cats.’

“‘You seen the last of that old alley cat.’

“‘If only I just knew where he is gone.'”

And then on that last Friday6 in August that ends Frankie’s “scared Spring” and her “green and crazy summer,” Frankie’s brother, Jasper, who had been serving in  the U.S. armed forces in Alaska, came home on leave and brought with him his fiancée, Janice, who lived in Winter Hill, 100 miles away. They stayed for lunch, brought Frankie’s father a bottle of liquor and Frankie a china doll, invited the two to the wedding to be held on Sunday in Winter Hill and then returned by train. Frankie had not expected much (except a present from Alaska) when she heard they were coming, but when she saw them, she was transfixed. As she was coming into the living room she first was startled by the quiet, for Jarvis had turned off the radio in the kitchen which had been playing all summer, night and day, providing a background noise of sweet jazz and war news that everyone had grown accustomed to. When she saw the betrotheds, however, she received another, bigger surprise: “She stood in the doorway, coming from the hall, and the first sight of her brother and the bride had shocked her heart. Together they made in her this feeling that she could not name. But it was like the feelings of the spring, only more sudden and more sharp. There was the same tightness and in the same queer way she was afraid.” It was the same emotion that McCullers herself describes erupted in her when she met Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach.7 This moment would animate the next two days with meaning and terror.

After the couple left to return to Winter Hill, Frankie would brood about the encounter. As the trio played cards at the kitchen table, Frankie repeatedly asked Berenice for her impressions of the couple and her conduct. Berenice at first teased her sarcastically by saying she was “jealous” of her brother. But Frankie could not let it go. All afternoon she returned to the subject until Berenice, out frustration or spite, taunted her by repeatedly saying “Frankie got a crush! Frankie got a crush! … On the Wedd-ing!” Unable to take the mockery Frankie picked up a kitchen knife, much alarming Berenice, but she again taunted Frankie into throwing it. “The empty house seemed to be waiting. And then there was the knife whistle in the air and the sound the blade made when it struck. The knife hit the middle of the stairway door and shivered there. She watched the knife until it did not shiver any longer.” The act calmed Frankie, but Berenice could not let the hostility end. “You are not fit to live in a house.” And here Frankie revealed a resolve instantaneously formed at that moment by instinct. “I won’t be living in this one much longer.” Berenice again scoffed at her, asking where she was going. Frankie replied with a sudden resolve: “I’m going to Winter Hill. I’m going to the wedding. And I swear to Jesus by my two eyes I’m never coming back her any more.” The seriousness, and suddenness, of this resolve, is emphatic.

“She had not been sure that she would throw the knife until it struck and shivered on the stairway door. And she had not known that she would say these words until already they were spoken. The swear was like the sudden knife; she felt it strike in her and tremble. Then when the words were quiet, she said again:

“‘After the wedding I’m not coming back.'”

One of the remarkable talents of McCullers is her ability to show the inner world of a character by his actions. Not simply by a single act but by a pattern or sequence or repeating motif. What her characters think is usually revealed, even to them, in what they do. (This insight is consistent with, as I understand them, current neurological findings.) This is not an adolescent trait, but rather she applies it to all alike. It is perhaps one reason that some critics have called her work “clinical” or “cold” or her characters “freaks” or “unrealistic.” Like everyone else book reviewers and literary critics react to challenges by denying their validity.

Once Frankie articulates the way she intends to resolve the conflict that has been building within her, she experiences great relief. She now understands “connectedness.” The same sense of belonging that she sees others have, she now finds in her connection to her brother’s marriage. The betrotheds are, as she puts it, “the we of me.”  When she joins the marriage she will be complete. The thought grew within her all night, even after Berenice left, until it became a twin certainty within her—a certainty that it would happen and a certain that it was meant to happen. “At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going. She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding. The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together. And finally, after the sacred spring and the crazy summer, she was no more afraid.”

Like all who discover the thing that truly completes them (whether it is god or ideology or movements or a lover or the Truth), Frankie became an immediate enthusiast. And all enthusiasts become evangelists.8 So Saturday, the day before the wedding, Frankie ventured into the town, not circumspect and quiet like she used to, but with a new confidence and, more importantly, a desire to tell everyone of her new determination. And like many who have begun a new life after a revelation, Frankie took on a new name. She now called herself F. Jasmine, so that she could share the Ja- of Jarvis and Janis. Everything about her and everything around her was new.

Her day began with her father at breakfast. She no longer felt the resentment that began last spring; she even felt tenderness towards him, for she realized he would be lonely without her. Outside, the children foolishly trying to dig a swimming pool (whom she no longer led during this year of dissatisfaction) awakened in her a sense of nostalgia, as did the scattered evidences of her childhood which she regarded with the eye of one who would never see them again. When she reached town, her view of the place was not now colored by her desperate desire to escape. Instead, as though she were a traveller who stopped in this one town for only a day, she took in everything with much interest. She was especially attracted to the people. She looked at them directly in their eyes. And with everyone she felt a “connection.” She wanted to tell each of them how she was about to be a member of the wedding. And she went looking for people to tell, from the Portuguese manager of the Blue Moon (the seedy bar/flophouse that catered mostly to the servicemen from the army base nine miles outside of town) to a man operating a tractor as part of a crew laying tar on a road, who she ran along side of, cupping her hand around her mouth ro amplify her voice over the noise of the tractor. No one disputed her claims. Indeed, no one seemed to have much of a response at all. All of this F. Jasmine took as confirmation of her membership and the proof of her connection.

By mid-day she circled back to her father’s shop near the Blue Moon Café, where she learned that John Henry’s great-uncle Charles had died. Since his death had nothing to do with the wedding (he was not a blood relation of her or her father), she gave it no thought beyond expressing the pity of it. More importantly, she got permission from her father to buy a wedding outfit, although it was at the local clothing store where he had a credit line. Having to buy a wedding dress at a cheap local store annoyed her, but it was a minor annoyance all things considered.

On leaving her father’s shop, F. Jasmine heard the sounds of the monkey man whom she had not seen all summer. She went to find him for it would be her last visit with the man and his darling monkey, both of whom she had grown fond of over the years. But when she located him, a soldier was quarreling with him and shoving a fist full of money his way. He was evidently trying to buy the monkey, who was cowering on the ground away from both. F.. Jasmine came closer, and the monkey quickly climbed up her and perched on her shoulder where the monkey man was able to snatch him and disappear, leaving F. Jasmine alone with the soldier. After an awkward exchange the drunken soldier led the bewildered but intrigued 12-year-old back to the Blue Moon Café, where he bought her a beer and persuaded her to return at nine that night so that they could go dancing. On the way home, after buying her wedding dress, F. Jasmine passed an alley. Out of the corner of her eye she glanced a “half-seen thing”—an apparition of her brother and his fiancée. It was an alarmingly real image, so much so that she had to slowly turn around to look again, even though she knew that the two were 100 miles away. But when she brought herself to look, she saw nothing except two “colored boys,” one with his arm on the other’s shoulder. It surprised her, and she contemplated it the whole way home.

Once home, John Henry and Berenice were in the kitchen and informed her they also would be attending the wedding because John Henry’s parents had to make arrangements for Uncle Charles’s funeral. That his new arrangement might encroach upon F. Jasmine’s wedding caused her to display her annoyance, which set off another round of hostile exchanges. Berenice grilled her about her morning, then belittled her not only for her plans but mostly for telling strangers about them. F. Jasmine had wanted to tell Berenice about the soldier, but each time she was about to begin, something warned her off. The exchange reached a climax when Berenice demanded to know what she would do if the couple refused her. She would kill herself, F. Jasmine said defiantly, with her father’s pistol.

At dinner the conversation took on a different tone. Berenice began something like an ode to love, or at least the virtues of having a beau. F. Jasmine for the first time listened to such a talk. Previously she had never believed in love. But she balked when Berenice turned the conversation to F. Jasmine having a beau, particularly Barney MacKean. But with fits and starts, interrupted by the unresolved scales of a piano tuner in the distance, they eventually transcended the particular and began talking not only about universals but also to each other. Berenice told of her vision for a better world—one where there were no colored race, where everyone was the same and one family; a world where there was no war, no bodies hanging from trees and no armies of young people leaving in uniforms; and no hunger. “No killed Jews and no hurt colored people. No war and no hunger in the world. And finally, Ludie Freeman would be alive.” F. Jasmine and John Henry added their fine tuning. Then F. Jasmine told of her apparition which turned out to be two boys in an alley. This launched Berenice into a narrative of how each of her husbands was introduced by a similar apparition out of the corner of her eye, like Frankie’s. What she wanted Frankie to learn was that this all came from inside: “I loved Ludie and he was the first man I loved. Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward.” F. Jasmine lingered in the doorway, because she knew this would be the last conversation they would in the kitchen, or perhaps anywhere. Yet she could not express what troubled her and what her aspirations were. Instead, she began marching about and speaking in a jumbled way, “but they were the wrong words, not what she had meant to say.” Berenice grabbed her and pulled her onto her lap and then began the last “queer conversation”:

“We are all of us somehow caught. We born this way or that way and we don’t know why. But we caught anyhow. I born Berenice. You born Frankie. John Henry born John Henry. And maybe we wants to widen and burst free. But no matter what we do we still caught. Me is me and you is you and he is he. We each one of us somehow caught all by ourself.”

She explained how she, as a black woman, was especially trapped. She was caught like everyone else and “they down drawn completely extra bounds around all coloured people.” But the problem is universal:

“The point is that we all caught. And we try in one way or another to widen ourself free. For instance, me and Ludie. When I was with Ludie, I didn’t feel so caught. But then Ludie died. We go around trying one thing or another, but we caught anyhow.”

The conversation made F. Jasmine “almost afraid.” John Henry needed comfort as well and tried to hang onto Berenice from the back of the chair. F. Jasmine saod that when she looked at people she saw them “loose” and while that is almost the opposite of “caught,” she said they meant the same thing. “I mean you don’t see what joins them up together.” She agreed with Berenice that there was birth and death, but “what is it all about? People loose and at the same time caught. Caught and loose. All these people and you don’t know what joins them up. There’s bound to be some sort of reason and connection. Yet somehow I can’t seem to name it. I don’t know.” There was silence for a few moments. Then F. Jasmine uttered what was on her mind while they were all close together, touching, for the very last time: “Here we are—right now. This very minute. Now. But while we’re talking right now, this minute is passing. and it will never come again. Never in all the world.” And a moment later all three began to cry.

And that was the last of their kitchen conversations.

The final fifth of the book follows the transformation from F. Jasmine to Frances during the approximately 30 hours from Saturday evening to early Monday morning with a final view of the result one afternoon in October. Unlike the rest of the novel, this is not an exploration of her interior monologue, for she does not engage in introspective thoughts. Since she has finally begun to act, she is forced to make decisions not based on rational plans, but rather by improvisation, because she never considered things realistically, never considered what others might do or thing, never doubted for a moment that her impulsive desire would come to fruition and solve all the unresolved longings and conflicts that buffeted her.

The night began with a trip to Sugarville, where Berenice’s mother, Big Mama, and her brother, Honey, lived. F. Jasmine would ask for Big Mama to tell her fortune by reading her palm. John Henry tagged along, wearing one of the costumes F. Jasmine had given him (because she would no longer need childish things). They passed the penitentiary, and John Henry heckled a prisoner looking out from behind his barred window. When they arrived F. Jasmine made John Henry wait outdoors, while she heard the fortune she only half believed. Outside again they talked to Honey as he was on his was to Forks Falls and his own destiny. When F. Jasmine reached the town again, she made John Henry go home. But “as she watched him going away from her down the crowded street, she felt a hollow sorriness—he looked so babyish and pitiful in the costume.”

Then came her encounter with the soldier, which proved a formidable challenge to her self-reliance and left her terrified of the consequences. Then the next day brought the tedious bus ride to Winter Hill, the prelude to the wedding where she was treated as an inconsequential child, the wedding itself, which she finally ruined, the miserable bus ride home, and then the fulfillment of the threat, when she set off at night with her father’s pistol. It will end again at the Blue Moon.

These scenes contain a sense of terror and humiliation that often mark plot turns or character revelations in Dostoevsky, but McCullers employs none of the melodrama. Her writing is perfectly measured and expository. In fact, when something surprising takes place anywhere in the novel, the narrator will take pains to explain it or relate it to something more ordinary. We are not to take any of it as out of the ordinary, much less entertaining; it is all simply more scenes of the human comedy.

Three months later we see Berenice and Frances (as she now is) in the late afternoon. Everything has changed. The kitchen has been painted over, and the furniture, except for the kitchen, is gone, because Frances and her father are to move the next day. Berenice will not be going because she has decided to marry T.T. But there is another reason—Berenice has been inalterably changed. She has seen John Henry die in great agony from meningitis in the course of a week. She is haunted by the last thing she said to him that he understand: “Run along for I don’t have the patience to fool with you.” She said it because she had a headache, and John Henry said he had one too, but she thought he was simply imitating her.

Berenice helped the nurse with him every day, as he was dying, and she couldn’t bear it. “‘I don’t see why he has to suffer so,’ Berenice would say: and the word suffer was one she could not associate with John Henry, a word she shrank from as before an unknown hollow of the heart.” Around the same time Honey was arrested. He was now on a chain gang sentenced to eight years. And so Berenice became smaller, less assured. She was sitting in a chair wearing an old raveled sweater with her fox fur in her lap. Frances was busily making fancy sandwiches for her new friend, Mary Littlejohn. They met in the middle of October when the troubles with John Henry and Honey were going on. In fact, they went to the Fair the week that John Henry was in the midst of his ultimate agony. The two were now obsessed with art and poetry, and they planned to travel the world together when Frances was 16. “I am just mad about Michelangelo,” Frances would say. Frances suspected that Berenice did not like Mary, because she had long braided hair, because she was Catholic. So Frances used the words that were designed to hurt: “You could not possibly understand her. It’s not in you.” Berenice no longer challenged Frances.

And so we see how Frances has become, after the wedding (which she never spoke of again), and it is something of a surprise. What we have been through was not a Bildungsroman, however much we expected it to be. It fact Frankie Addams is one of the more unusual children in Western literature. Dickens established the customary way children were used in literature. They are essentially guileless, innocent receptacles who need nothing more than protection. They have only potential and are empty of the selfishness, cruelty and greediness which is only acquired later in life. They are, in short, the only representatives who truly constitute Rousseau’s man in the state of nature. This portrayal, especially if uniformly rendered, make children the perfect vehicle for exciting emotions of empathy from the reader. Even in Dostoevsky, children are almost always innocent, and so when an ultimate outrage is to be depicted, it is perpetrated on children (consider the crime in Stavrogin’s confession), or when the utter baseness of corruption is needed, it is a child who is corrupted (for example, Kolya). That is how McCullers treats John Henry. Entirely innocent, he seems to have no trace of cunning, duplicity or deceipt about him. He is unerringly loyal to Frankie. When she tells him that her former frineds had spread the rumor that she smelled bad, he hugged her and said, “You smell sweet. … Like a hundred flowers.” He seems to not resent the numerous insults, put downs or malice she hurls at him. He is an undemanding font of love.

McCullers uses this same ingrained presumption to reveal a truth in Frankie—that even a child is fundamentally selfish, indifferent to others and unfazed by the tragedies around him. Frankie’s dream of fulfillment is fundamentally self-absorbed and self-delusional. Those two aspects are what doom her plan.

And it is there that we see a hint that this behavior of Frankie is not simply a case of adolescent immaturity. There is one metaphor that recurs throughout the novel—that of moths and butterflies. These insects are of course the prime example of metamorphosis in nature. Each transform into an adult from a larva through a pupa stage. From the beginning we are teased with the prospect that the story will be transformative. Frankie seems to hope for it: “I wish I was somebody else except me.” The first time we see the insects, they are moths attracted by the lamp in Frankie’s room. John Henry says: “Those beautiful butterflies. They are trying to get in.” Frankie associates their plight with her own: “To me it is the irony of fate. The way they come here. Those moths could fly anywhere. Yet they keep hanging around the windows of this house.” After she writes the run-away note addressed to her father (which she signs “Sincerely yours”), the “green and white moths were nervous at the window screen and the night outside was queer.”

Butterflies are associated with adult skillfulness. Frankie notices her father’s hands (the hands of a jeweler) hover over tiny watches “as carefully as butterflies.” And Honey, who was an educated and articulate person, forced by racism beneath his station, was able to talk like an educated person, with lips “as light as butterflies.” But at other times, when weighed down with oppression, he would only talk “with a colored jumble that even his own family could not follow.”

But butterflies did not signify metamorphosis. They did not even associate themselves with the joy that John Henry saw in them, for the day of his death was “a golden morning of the most butterflies, the clearest sky.” He gradually recedes in the mind of Frankie, until he is barely thought of except “occasionally at twilight time or when the special hush would come into the room.” Instead Frances’s search for “we-ness” is directed towards Mary Littlejohn and their planned trip around the world. Although the object has changed, Frances’s essential idea of what would complete her (partnership with another and escape from her present environs) remains the same.

It is worth pointing out here that McCullers does not solely rely on literary techniques like metaphors to create a juvenile or immature worldview. It is inherent in all the narrative. Not only does she have a superb ability to capture the manner of speech of the characters, including the children (without making them sound oddly foreign, as is often the case in Mark Twain’s stories). But she was also able to reveal the point of view in the voice of the narrator and the manner of narration (without having the narrator adopt the child’s voice). Descriptions of things visible is a perfect example. For example, when F. Jasmine thinks of the monkey man and his animal as she remembers him from past summers, the narrators describes him as follows:

“The old Frankie had always loved the monkey and the monkey-man. They resembled each other—they both had an anxious, questioning expression, as though they wondered every minute if what they did was wrong. The monkey, in fact, was nearly always wrong; after he danced to the organ tune, he was supposed to take off his darling little cap and pass it around to the audience, but likely as not he would get mixed up and bow and reach out his cap to the monkey-man, and not the audience. And the monkey-man would plead with him, and finally begin to chatter and fuss. When he would make as if to slap the monkey, the monkey would cringe down and chatter also—and they would look at each other with the same scared exasperation, their wrinkled faces very sad. After watching them a long time, the old Frankie fascinated, began to take on the same expression as she followed them around.”

The description manifests the kind of close attention that a child would have for the monkey and his keeper. By depicting the details of the monkey’s behavior that would most amuse a child it describes the viewer as much as what is being viewed.

Another example is the representation of what Frankie saw when she looked into the bedroom of the dying Uncle Charles:

“He looked like an old man carved in brown wood and covered with a sheet. Only his eyes had moved, and they were like blue jelly, and she had felt they might come out from the sockets and roll like blue wet jelly down his stiff face. She had stood in the doorway staring at him—then tiptoed away, afraid. They finally made out that he complained the sun shone the wrong way through the window, but that was not the thing that hurt him so. And it was death.”

In this case, the child focuses on the frightening aspect of the dying man’s appearance. An adult would more likely sympathize with the fate than a child. And for Frankie death really is simply something that appears in dreams to frighten her.

McCullers’s ability to convey something close to a non-idealized, but still sympatheic, view of childhood and adolescence is not simply a matter of autobiographical recollection. Although she did not create a large body of short stories, by the time she wrote The Member of the Wedding, she had written a handful that dealt with children. In each of them, McCullers has the child dealing with a problem of adult perplexity. And instead of treating the child as solely (or even largely) a receptacle for adult sympathy, she sees the problem through the child’s point of view, and by doing so she brings the adult reader into complete empathy with the child, even when the child is acting selfishly or immaturely. “Breath for the Sky” is an example. That story treats the condition of a child with a serious lung infection (possibly tuberculosis) who is about to be sent to a sanitarium 300 miles away. She struggles with her resentment of her family, who seem to be enjoying their lives despite her sickness, and her hatred for her nurse. “Wunderkind” tells of a 15-year-old girl who was once proclaimed a musical prodigy who has come to grips with the fact that she has been defeated in her quest to be a concert pianist. “The Haunted Boy” tells of a boy who having experienced the attempted suicide of his mother comes home to an unexpectedly empty house. His terror turns to fury when his mother returns unharmed. These stories treat children as agents fully capable of facing the crises before them and also responsible for their choices. It is this view of children that makes them fit subjects on their own for serious literature.

Frances in the end is also responsible for her choice, however much she fails to live up to our own expectations of how she should have acted. It is quite true that she has been given limited options in life, and that, like Mick Kelly, she will probably be forced to give up and expect the confined existence of a backward Georgia mill town. After all, Berenice, who in the ends proves capable of deep empathy and heroic efforts, ends up having to settle for a life below her expectations. Frances still pursues a dream that is inherently incapable of fulfillment, but to do so she ignores the suffering of Berenice and John Henry, the only two who showed her any real affectionate regard, despite her poor treatment of them.

So how does this all related to McCullers’s “One Big Idea” that we began this series with? By probing how this adolescent attempts to account for what seems an existential void at the center of life, McCullers makes several points. First, meaning is not the same thing as gratification of self-love. The latter can never be obtained or if once tasted is soon lost (as Berenice testifies). Second, a person does not achieve his “true purpose” at the expense of others. Finally, the more frequent metamorphosis is not one where a childish wish matures into a noble purpose but rather one where a person uses self-delusion to settle for what is convenient.

McCullers would only publish one more novel during her life and that would be 15 years after The Member of the Wedding. In the last post of this series, we’ll look at that novel and see what generalizations we can make about her fiction.

 Notes

1Carlos L. Dews (ed.), Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Auobiography of Carson McCullers (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), p. 21.  To call this work “unfinished” gives the impression that it is at at stage of completion that it had yet to achieve. In fact, it is a collection of drafts of incidents without any organizing principle (not even chronological). Basic facts are omitted, and scenes that seem to describe specific incidents often cover longer periods collapsed by dropping details and sequences. It is frequently difficult to tell how one paragraph is supposed to relate to what precedes or follows it. It has none of the direct and simple eloquence that her published prose shows. In other words it is not particularly rewarding in its own right. It would have taken much more work to turn into something that could be published, and the editor of this edition does very little by way of notes or explanations to render the manuscript very useful. It does, however, contain interesting photographs from the Photography Collection of the University of Texas, which has a collection of McCullers’s papers. [Return to text.]

2The year is never specifically stated in the novel but can be deduced from events heard on the radio (citizens chasing Germans from Paris, Patton marching across Europe). Given the year, the novel begins on August 25, 1944 (“the last Friday of August.”) This is confirmed when we learn that Frankie was born the same month that Berenice’s first husband died, November 1931. When Frankie, in figuring how fast she is growing, considers that she is “twelve and five-sixths years old,” it shows that it is August 1944. [Return to text.]

3Buber’s Ich und du was translated as I and Thou and published in New York in 1937. The concept of existential dialogue had become familiar among New York intellectuals by the time McCullers had arrived there. [Return to text.]

4Margaret B. McDowell, Carson McCullers (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980), p. 87. [Return to text.]

5Carson McCullers, “The Vision Shared,” in The Mortgaged Heart ed. by Margarita G. Smith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), pp. 262–65. This essay was originally published in Theatre Arts (April 1950). The paperback edition was published by Bantam in 1972, and this essays is found on pp. 297–300 with the quoted passage on p. 300. [Return to text.]

6There is a curious chronological mistake (as far as I can tell) that has greatly bothered me, enough to look at several editions of the novel to see if it was simply a typographical mistake, but all editions (including the first) that I consulted have it, and I cannot account for it. The mistake is that in the first two pages of the novel, it is made clear that the day is “the last Friday of August” and that as Bernice recounted, “Your brother come home with the girl he means to marry and took dinner today with you and your Daddy.” And yet several pages before the end of the first part, the narrator says: “So that Sunday when it happened, when her brother and the bride came to the house …” The latter cannot be a simple printer’s error, because it is the day that Berenice “changed into her Sunday clothes” and goes out with her brother and beau on her night off, Sunday night. Nor can it be a mistake that the novel sets the arrival of the brother and his fiancée on Friday, for it is on that day that Frankie makes her decision, which sets in motion what takes place the next day, Saturday, the day before the wedding, which is the subject of Part II. What makes this oversight hard to explain is that this novel was worked over by McCullers herself to convert it into a play, and surely she must have noticed this problem. Perhaps there is some other explanation, but if so, I cannot see it. [Return to text.]

7In Illumination and Night Glare McCullers describes how she received the “illumination” that Frankie’s reaction to the wedding was the key to the story. In McCullers’s drafts to that point, Frankie “was just a girl in loved with her music teacher, a most banal theme.” On Thanksgiving Day, she and her Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis hosted a dinner in their house in Brooklyn. That night McCullers and Gyspy Rose Lee stepped outside and “the fresh air after the long, elaborate meal cleared my head and suddenly, breathlessly I said to Gypsy, ‘Frankie is in love with the bride of her brother and wants to join the wedding.'” (p. 32). [Return to text.]

8Enthusiasts, etymologically, have been “inspired” or “inhabited” (en) by a god (theos). The ancient Greeks regarded madness as the immanence of the divine. Evangelists are those who announce (angellos, the same root as “angel,” who are simply divine messengers) the good (news) (eu).  [Return to text.]

Carson McCullers at 100 (Pt. 2)

McCullers on Love and Isolation

… every lover knows this.
He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing.
The Ballad of the Sad Café

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter became a best seller and allowed McCullers (and her husband) to live in New York City permanently. She was quickly introduced to and became friends with some of the most eminent literary and artistic figures in New York. Her lifestyle almost immediately became immensely more complex as her relations with her husband cooled and her unconventional attachments to others became the norm. (The first such relationship was with Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a gay woman estranged from her gay husband and given to suicide attempts.) She would divorce and remarry her husband and then reluctantly divorce him again when he forged her name on checks. (In this her emotions seem remarkably like Lucile Wilson in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.) Throughout the rest of her life she would be subject to serious physical ailments, including a stroke that took place before her second novel was published in 1941 and temporarily blinded her. Depression plagued her incessantly until she began psychotherapy with Dr. Mary Mercer in 1958. She died in New York in 1967. During the 27 years from the publication of her first novel, she wrote four long-form fiction pieces, none of them, however, nearly as long as the first one. And while her life since her first major publication would never again resemble the world of Columbus, Georgia, where she was raised, she continued to write exclusively about people with confined lives, living in the Deep South. Within eight months of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter her second novel was published, and on first impression, was considerably different from her first. But we will see that that novel and the one that followed really were part of her continual pursuit of that One Big Thing she knew. These two novels were an inquiry into one aspect of that thing: Whether love is the means to break out of the aloneness in which we are trapped.

[The first part of this piece is found here.]

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

 McCullers’s novel Reflections in a Golden Eye had a smaller scope than her first one. Its subject was the domestic intrigues of two married couples, officers on an army base in the South and their wives. One officer, Capt. Weldon Penderton, a repressed homosexual, is locked in a toxic marriage to a wife, Leonora, who is having an affair with her husband’s superior and their next door neighbor, Major Morris Langdon. Langdon’s own wife, Allison, is psychically crushed by the death of her small child three years before. The pain of that loss and the humiliation from the recent discovery of her husband’s affair caused her, in a moment of extreme crisis, to commit a particularly brutal act of self-mutilation four months ago. While the couples frequently dine together at the Penderton’s, Allison, has no affection for the other three and spends her days indoors listening to classical music tended to by her flamboyant Filipino houseboy. One additional character adds the sinister aspect to this conventionally dysfunctional set of relations: Private L.G. Williams, one of the post’s stableboys—a quiet, backward, brooding loner who becomes a voyeur of Leonora and a strange object of Penderton’s desires. In all these loveless relationships communications have ceased altogether by circumstances that have stunted each person. Only the two most superficial characters, Langdon and Leonora, maintain a semblance of love, purely erotic, only because they have no essence to share with anyone.

In many striking respects this novel is quite unlike The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The action, location and characters are circumscribed to the point of claustrophobia. The setting of the story is largely responsible. The (male) characters are not only military men, they all live on an army base. The military prizes above all else conformity and mindless obedience: “once a man enters the army he is expected only to follow the heels ahead of him.” Regularity induces boredom: “Things happen, but then they happen over and over again.” The physical plant reinforces the tedium: “the huge concrete barracks, the neat rows of officers’ homes built one precisely like the other, the gym, the chapel, the golf course and the swimming pool—all designed according to a rigid pattern.” In short, the characters are cut off from the world, and their lives are distinguished by enforced meaninglessness.1

The second difference is that there are so few characters (Weldon Penderton and Alison Langdon are really the only characters given any depth) and their attitudes toward each other are vivid and without nuance. The major’s wife, Alison Langdon, the least self-delusional of the lot, sums up the other three characters: “Morris Landon in his blunt way was as stupid and heartless as a man could be. Leonora [Penderton] was nothing but an animal. And thieving Weldon Penderton was at bottom hopelessly corrupt.” And given how the narrator describes the characters, this, if anything, is charitable.  And it does not even include Private “Ellgee” Williams, who the narrator tells us “had neither an enemy nor a friend … In his eyes, which were of a curious blend of amber and brown, there was a mute expression that is found usually in the eyes of animals.”2  There is none of the empathy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

The combination of the first two differences also produces a third; namely, that not much happens in the lives of these characters outside their interactions with each other. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter each character was motivated by the search for his own “meaning” or the pursuit of his “real true cause.” Here the Army is the overriding purpose and therefore none of them has any individual life. This means that the narrative is much tauter and the scope appears much narrower.

Finally, let me suggest that the fundamental difference is in approach. While The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is deadly earnest in its approach to the characters, their losses and the universal application of the lessons, Reflections in a Golden Eye is in its construction, approach to the characters, plot turns and tone a very black comedy. This does not mean that there is anything particularly funny that occurs. Nor does it mean that there is a happy ending. The happy ending was a contrivance of Renaissance comedies, and we are definitely deeply within a post-Renaissance period. Chekhov after all had suicides, bankruptcies and failed murder attempts end his comedies. But if you take a far enough view, all human endeavors are part of a grand comedy (which was recognized even at the beginning of the Renaissance by Dante, who produced the most famous unfunny and divine comedy). The modernist tragico-comedy depends on finding that the unexpected dread derives from the fabric of the banal. While in this novel all the characters are trapped in a banal existence, the emergent dread comes from the two principal characters.

The two figures around whom the novel revolves are fundamentally defective, but in nearly opposite ways. Penderton “was something of a savant.” He stuffed his heads with facts and statistics of all variety and could write three languages. But it was empty of ideas, because that required fusing two or more facts and “this the Captain had not the courage to do.” By contrast Williams, for all the narrator tells us, seems to have nothing in his head but ideas, or if not ideas, then at least ill-formed concepts devoid of facts or even contours, for at the important events of his life he was able to prepare the way and bring them about without having any conscious intention to do so. This is how he became a voyeur and how he could get into the Penderton house (and Leonora’s bedroom) every night. “The mind of Private Williams was imbued with various colors of strange tones but it was without delineation, void of form.”

When it comes to psychological adjustment (in one respect), Penderton “on the whole had  lived a most rigid and unemotional life,” while Williams would daily ride a horse to an abandoned field where he sunned himself naked. As for social conformity, Penderton (though impotent) married the attractive and appealing (though dim-witted) daughter of a General, while Williams is terrified of women, having been drilled by his Bible-thumping father that women carry in their bodies loathsome diseases (a belief reinforced by the Army’s monthly check-ups testing for venereal diseases). Penderton grows to long for the communal life and imagined camaraderie of the privates. Williams has no friends at all. He seems to have no need of them. Although he lives surrounded by enlisted men, he remains on the periphery, and they are happy to ignore him as well. This is what allowed him to slip out of the barracks at night to stare at Leonora.

In one respect, however, both have what might have been called at the time “deviant” sexual orientations. (It is here that Bloom’s reference to Freud might be useful, although he was not applying it to this novel.) Williams may seem to represent pure id, but until he saw Leonora naked (she had flung her clothes off in the living room with the windows open in front of her husband to outrage him), his superego thoroughly repressed it. The vision, however, awakened his id. He would become obsessed with her and eventually become trapped in his voyeuristic compulsion. Penderton also became obsessed, but with Williams. Penderton’s feelings are a form of love, translated through the mind of a person so psychologically malformed that it is expressed as one of its variants, hate. “There are times when a man’s greatest need is to have someone to love, some focal point for his diffused emotions. Also there are times when the irritations, disappointments, and fears of life, restless as spermatozoids, must be released in hate. The unhappy Captain had no one to hate and for the past months he had been miserable.” He despised Allison and her Filipino houseboy Anacleto but he did not hate them in this sense. He had several unpleasant encounters with Williams to that point but nothing to rise to the degree of white-hot intensity. That would change over an encounter with his wife’s horse.

Firebird was a spirited horse, once thought unridable especially by a woman. Leonora was a good equestrian and determined to ride this beautiful animal, which she eventually mastered, although they would have daily ritualized struggles before he yielded to her leadership. Penderton was a timid man, not a good rider, certainly inferior to his wife and Major Langdon, who usually rode together. (This was where their attraction began and was first consummated—in  a berry patch a couple of hours after they first met.) The enlisted stableboys admired Leonora for her beauty, friendliness and horsemanship. They called her “The Lady.” Williams took care of Firebird. He was especially good with animals, something akin, I  suppose, to a “horse whisperer” and he therefore greatly prized Firebird. One day, as the frustration  and self-loathing reached a peak, Penderton decided to mount Firebird alone. He came to the stable, ordered Williams to prepare the horse and mounted him. Williams let the animal go, on Penderton’s command, and watched as he warily went forward with this awkward rider. As they proceeded further, Penderton yanked the reins up short; the horse nearly lost his balance and had to rear but he suppressed his anger. The captain repeated his maliciousness twice more. The third time the horse stopped short, turned his head back to look at the captain and then flattened his ears and lowered his head as though to throw Penderton. The gesture terrified the captain, but the horse did not throw him, so they galloped on again. When they reached the top of the ridge, however, the horse plunged down the other side at breakneck speed. The horse took the helpless rider into the woods with the same perilous momentum. Penderton held the horse’s neck for dear life. The ride became hallucinogenic as the scattered images reached the petrified mind of the captain in a blur, and he was unable to comprehend what was going on around him. He even once thought he saw a naked man lying on a rock in the woods. At the point the captain concluded that he was about to die the ride became exhilarating: “A great mad joy surged through him.” He did not know how long the ride lasted but eventually the horse emerged from the woods and slowed down to a trot and then, exhausted, stopped. Penderton warily dismounted, tied the horse to a tree, then viciously beat the horse over and over with his whip until the horse gave a cry and hung his head down. Exhausted, bloodied from thorns and branches and a rash from the horse hair his face and neck clung to, the captain collapsed on the ground, began sobbing and passed out. When he awoke he saw Williams walking naked from the woods towards him. “He looked at the Captain with vague, impersonal eyes as thought looking at some insect he had never seen before.” He stepped over the prostrate captain, and took the horse’s reins and led him back to the stables.

And this was the beginning of Penderton’s obsessive hate towards the private. The passion became all consuming. Penderton would contrive ways to see Williams, to pass by him during the latter’s routine or to watch him from his car. Penderton was stalking the private during the day, as Williams was entering Penderton’s house at night to watch Leonora sleep. Penderton’s emotion as he passed Williams was charged with sexual excitement. Soon he was pitying himself for not being young like Williams and sharing in the enlisted men’s routines.

As this dynamic moves towards its inevitable climax, the major’s life is upended by what happens to his wife Allison, which everyone believes is a nervous breakdown. This would soon enough separate her from him, and the loss profoundly affects Langdon. Even though he had neglected her (and worse betrayed her) and considered her strange and weak, he could think of nothing else when the break came. It affected the lives of Penderton and Leonora as well, although the captain soon tired of pitying the major. At one point the major even shows regret at losing the Filipino (who he felt was effete, ridiculous and frivolous). He tells Penderton that his barbs that Anacleto should join the army to be made into a man were simply jokes, but he really did believe that he would have been better off, even if more miserable. Penderton asks the major if he meant that “it is better, because it is more honorable, for the square peg to keep scraping about the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it?” Langdon affirms that is what he meant and asked whether Penderton agreed.

“‘No,’ said the Captain, after a short pause. With gruesome vividness the Captain suddenly looked into his soul and saw himself. For once he did not see himself as others saw him; there came to him a distorted doll-like image, mean of countenance and grotesque in form. The Captain dwelt on this vision without compassion. He accepted it with neither alteration nor excuse. ‘I don’t agree,’ he repeated softly.”

After this the actual climax seems something of a plot device to end the story, excused only by its near inevitability.  No neat resolution of the psychological or moral contortions that the characters are put through is attempted. So how does this show McCullers’s One Big Idea? The novel is her first try at an answer to this question: This isolation we we find ourselves trapped in, can it be broken through by means of love? The answer seems to be no, because love of any sort makes demands on the other which cannot be reciprocated. Of course in Reflection in a Golden Eye the “love” expressed by each of the characters is stunted, self-interested, not tender and not “normal.” But even the conventional “love” expressed between the major and Leonora does not seem to have any merit in this regard; it is their own banality, their inability to see beyond their basic desires, and not an achievement of meaning or purpose, that allows the two to avoid existential doubts and their “love” to be frustrated by lack of reciprocity. Major Langdon believed that only two things mattered: “to be a good animal and to serve my country. A healthy body and patriotism.” Leonora didn’t even think on this level of abstraction.

That this view of the uselessness of love to resolve the existential dilemma or our absurd predicament is universal, and not limited ot the stunted characters in Reflections in a Golden Eye, can be more easily seen in the next long fiction work of McCuller’s, The Ballad of the Sad Café, a novel that was published in the August issue of Harper’s Bazaar. It did not receive much critical attention, however, until it was published (unrevised) in a collection of her short stories (together with her first four novels) by Houghton, Mifflin in May 1951.

The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943 / 1951)

As she did after finishing her first novel, McCullers plunged right into completing another long fiction work after completing Reflections in a Golden Eye. Much of the work on The Ballad of the Sad Café was done at the Yaddo arts colony in Saratoga Springs, New York in June–August 1941. She was also working on another work that year and the next that would become her fourth novel. She finally completed The Ballad of the Sad Café in November 1942.

As with her second novel this one also adopted a new narrative format. The story is called a “ballad” not because it follows any of the literary rules of the romantic ballad, but rather, I think, because the folk ballad was not only the most prominent form of folk poetry/song in the American South, it was also the form of folk art that collectors (and eventually students) of Southern folk traditions most carefully curated and catalogued.3 A study of the folk ballad of the first decades of the twentieth century summarized its two features as: (1) its “dramatic presentation of action is the ordinary narrative method”; and (2) “impersonality of approach of the theme is the ordinary narrative attitude.”4  McCullers makes both of these choices in The Ballad of the Sad Café, but enhances the folkloric ambiance of the story by setting the action in an utterly isolated Southern town, by employing almost fairytale-like features and by stripping down the plot to its essential simpleness.

  The setting is not just remote, it is cut off from normal human commerce. It is visited only by the likes of the tax man or an agent of a store who comes to see if a resident is creditworthy enough to buy some small appliance on installments (he never is) or travelers who became lost and are seeking the way to their true destination. The train is so far away that a faint whistle is only occasionally heard on very still winter nights. The Greyhound bus station is three miles away. McCullers makes this unnamed town something like Macondo at the beginning of the story:

The town itself is dreary, not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street, only a hundred yards long. On Saturday the tenants from the near by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world.

The three main characters are taken right out of a fairy tale and dropped into this Southern equivalent of the Black Forest. Miss Amelia Evans is first introduced, and we get a full picture of her in two paragraphs. But given the deliberate pace of McCuller’s prose, we see her character revealed slowly, the way we would see a corpse whose body is exposed when the morgue’s winding sheet is pulled back. At first she is quite unremarkable. The building that once housed the café of the title, was before that a store which sold mainly farm supplies and staples (like feed, guano, meal and the like). She became the proprietor at 19 when her father (her only parent) died. She also sold the best liquor in the county which she made herself from a still located in the swamp. We then learn of her appearance. “She was a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles of a man.” But she still might have been attractive if she were not cross-eyed. But it did not matter, because she cared nothing for love. And yet at one time she had “a strange and dangerous marriage, lasting only for ten days, that left the whole town wondering and shocked.” She had an unusual ability to make things with her hands. But with people she had no talent and ultimately only one use: “to make money out of them.” She also had a strange intolerance for perceived injustice and indeed slights of any kind for she was constantly involved in litigation. Not just to recover money owed her but also over anything that annoyed her. “It was said that if Miss Amelia so much as stumbled over a rock in the road she would glance around instinctively as though looking for something to sue about it.” She was 30 years old at the beginning of the ballad and with the combination of physical and personality characteristics, she was a force to be reckoned with. The picture we see is of a woman not given to talk but who was propelled by principles that were stored deep in a well inside her that was almost never explored. She is as inert as one of Chekhov’s peasants.

She would have gone this way indefinitely except that the second character mysteriously enters the town: Cousin Lyman. He is the one “freak” in all of McCullers’s long-form fiction. One evening in April close to midnight, Miss Amelia was standing on the porch of the store while three men and two boys sat on the steps in front of her. (Although she was reclusive, she allowed her customers to drink the liquor she sold them on the porch if their wives objected to having it at home; it was only good business.) A stranger came down the street. From the distance one of the boys first thought a calf had gotten loose. The other corrected him when it got close, saying it was someone’s youngun. When the strange figure arrived, he was seen to be a dwarf with a hump on his shoulders. His head was large and his chest was “warped,” but he had thin legs, barely able, it seemed, to carry his disproportionate body. He was dressed in dirty clothes and carried an old suitcase. While his physical appearance was odd, it was the personality that he would reveal as he wormed his way into the center of the town that marked his strangeness. As he became secure in his position, he became an unctuous meddlers in others’ business. He has some of the attributes of Rumpelstiltskin or Norse trolls.

The third major character does not enter the story until late, but we know of him even before his entrance, for he is Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia’s husband. He is a fairy tale villain. His backstory is laid out much as Miss Amelia’s was. We learn that he was one of seven children abused and neglected by the “wild younguns” who sired and bore them. “T]he first thing they learned in this world was to seek the darkest corner of the room and try to hide themselves as best they could.” One winter when the mill closed for three months, the parents left town abandoning their children. Marvin Macy was luckier than most of his siblings for he was taken in by a kind and loving widow, Mrs. Mary Hale. The rescue was not enough. As the narrator notes: “the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.” And Macy grew up self-centered, lazy and extremely cruel. But then he saw the 19 year old Miss Amelia and fell in love with that “solitary, gangling, queer-eyed girl.” This love changed him. Too shy to make his love known, he nevertheless reformed over the course of two years, became polite, saved his wages and even became religious. When he finally declared himself (“carrying a bunch of swamp flowers, a sack of chitterlins, and a silver ring”), she accepted. She proved a strange bride at the church and afterwards, walking home two paces before her husband. And over the next 10 day she proved a strange wife and eventually threw him out. The experience reverted Macy to his previous character with a vengeance. “For the true character of Marvin Macy finally revealed itself, once he had freed himself of his love.” He left town, robbed gas stations and a grocery store with a sawed-off shotgun and was rumored to have killed a man. His name was in all the newspapers until he was eventually arrested, tried and committed to the state penitentiary in Atlanta. “Miss Amelia was deeply gratified.”

This decade-old story was never forgotten by the town folk, who were at first amused by the humiliation and squalid nature of the affair. But they never spoke of it to Miss Amelia. Yet the narrator warns us (like a balladeer): “do not forget this Marvin Macy, as he is to act a terrible part of the story which is yet to come.”

Perhaps a fourth character should be described as well—the town’s men folk. I say men folk, rather than “community,” because, aside from Miss Amelia (and Mrs. Hale in Marvin Macy’s back story) there are no women actors in this tale. And apart from Miss Amelia there is only one woman’s voice in the story. It was a voice heard by Cousin Lymon one moonlit summer night when he was bored and lonely: “Somewhere in the darkness a woman sang in a high wild voice and the tune had no start and no finish and was made up of only three notes which went on and on and on.” Unlike these three women, the men folk never acted alone. They came to conclusions as a group; they acted collectively. They are not seen as coming to anyone’s aid, but they are always ready to ridicule, they delight in other’s misery, and they always seem to be on the verge of violence. Like the time that the rumor spread that Miss Amelia had murdered Cousin Lymon. A group of eight men got themselves up and went to Miss Amelia’s store. They did this unconsciously, as though guided by a power outside them:

“Some eight or ten men had convened on the porch of Miss Amelia’s store. They were silent and were indeed just waiting about. They themselves did not know what they were waiting for, but it was this: in times of tension, when some great action is impending, men gather and wait in this way. And after a time there will come a moment when all together they will act in unison, not from thought or from the will of any one man, but as though their instincts had merged together so that the decision belongs to no single one of them, but to the group as a whole. At such a time, no individual hesitates. And whether the matter will be settled peaceably, or whether the joint action will result in ransacking, violence, and crime, depends on destiny. So the men waited soberly on the porch of Miss Amelia’s store, not one of them realizing what they would do, but knowing inwardly that they must wait, and that the time had almost come.”

They stood on the porch watching Miss Amelia working on her books in her office. When she shut the door they were looking through, it triggered their action:

“Now to the group on the porch this gesture acted as a signal. The time had come. They had stood for a long while with the night raw and gloomy in the street behind them. They had waited long and just at that moment the instinct to act came on them. All at once, as though moved by one will, they walked into the store. At that moment the eight men looked very much alike — all wearing blue overalls, most of them with whitish hair, all pale of face, and all with a set, dreaming look in the eye. What they would have done next no one knows.”

But then they see Cousin Lymon unharmed and their collective resolve evaporates. This “collective” is alway in the background, always provides the ominous undercurrent. For the men folk, as a group, enforce the conservative, misogynist, racist, embittered ethos of this place. There are some men, however, who are not part of this collective, for example, Henry Macy, Marvin’s brother. In every respect he was unlike his brother. Not only kindly and honest, but also “a shy and timid person with gentle manners and nervous ways” There are others like him, but they don’t take action or effect change. They are feckless. They withdraw at the sign of trouble. They become emotional and frightened. Just as Miss Amelia is the Man-Woman, they are Women-Men.

Cousin Lymon was one such a Woman-Man. When he slinked into town to throw himself on the charity of Miss Amelia, his supposed cousin, the three men and two boys watched him cry when he thought he would be turned out. The five on the porch assumed that Miss Amelia would physically throw him out of town on his ear. For Miss Amelia was more of a man than they were, and that is what the men folk would do. But she surprises them all. She first gives him a bottle—for free!—of her prized liquor. Then she takes him in and feeds him. The rest was not seen by those five.

After many days it became clear to the town that what Miss Amelia had done was even stranger than murder, and to many even more grotesque. Miss Amelia had taken Cousin Lymon in permanently. It was an odd development. What was even odder was that Miss Amelia had fallen in love with this little hunchback. She cleaned him up. Made sure he was fed and comfortable. She attended his little wants. This great change in Miss Amelia was the source of much rumor in the town. This six foot woman with bulging biceps and the manners of a farmer, who wore overalls and physically abused and ejected her husband, was now in love. But what kind of love? The majority believed they were living in sin. Some minority of “good people” excused this: “if those two had found some satisfaction of the flesh between themselves, then it was a matter concerning them and God alone.” But the opinion of “all sensible people” was “a plain, flat no.”

But if not physical, it was certainly transformative, this love. For Miss Amelia gave him the run of the place, and he responded by becoming puffed up, soon comfortable in the notion that he could have what he wanted and take without even asking. Those who saw this change were astounded. But the most astonishing product of this love was the café. The beginning was that night when the eight men saw Cousin Lymon, who came down and spoke with them sociably. And soon there would be drinking in the store, and one thing led to another and the store was turned into a full bore café. The town had never seen anything like this before. The concept was strange: a place to go to have polite social intercourse while dining. But it soon proved salubrious to the town’s psychic and social well-being. It was a civilizing force:

“For people in this town were then unused to gathering together for the sake of pleasure. They met to work in the mill. Or on Sunday there would be an all-day camp meeting—and though that is a pleasure, the intention of the whole affair is to sharpen your view of Hell and put into you a keen fear of the Lord Almighty. But the spirit of a café is altogether different. Even the richest, greediest old rascal will behave himself, insulting no one in a proper café. And poor people look about them gratefully and pinch up the salt in a dainty and modest manner. For the atmosphere of a proper café implies these qualities: fellowship, the satisfactions of the belly, and a certain gaiety and grace of behavior. This had never been told to the gathering in Miss Amelia’s store that night. But they knew it of themselves, although never, of course, until that time had there been a café in the town.”

Is this the effect of love? To improve the conditions of those about the lovers and add one small drop to the well of general happiness of the world (usually at drought level)? Well, that is not born out by the story. As with all love, evidently, the object is never satisfied. Cousin Lymon, who was exalted by the grace of Miss Amelia, and truly without any desert on his part, soon grew restless with his situation. He began instigating trouble with the customers and soon began to worry Miss Amelia. And then the crisis came. Marvin Macy was released from the penitentiary and was returning to town. He brought with him an ill wind, but no tornado at first. Yet Miss Amelia watched warily because Cousin Lymon was the kind of weak, defenseless, guileless sort that Macy would squash for sheer pleasure. As the inevitable builds, it is Lymon who betrays Miss Amelia, but even that does not defeat her. She goes on to stage a monumental battle with Macy, which excited the town’s bloodlust but left her beaten in every respect. The café, of course, is boarded up, and only occasionally does anyone get a glimpse of her peering from an upstairs window. What they see is “a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams—sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief.” She has replicated the pattern that undid Marvin Macy himself, love. What the narrator said about his desire, now applies equally to her: “though the outward facts of this love are indeed sad and ridiculous, it must be remembered that the real story was that which took place in the soul of the lover himself. So who but God can be the final judge of this or any other love?”

The story ends with an epilogue entitled “Twelve Mortal Men.” In two paragraphs it tells of the chain gang where every day they are set to work digging at the hard clay and rocks to widen the road out of town. And every day there is the music of their work song, their ballad:

“One dark voice will start a phrase, half-sung, and like a question. And after a moment another voice will join in, soon the whole gang will be singing. The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright. Then slowly the music will sink down until at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great hoarse breath, the sun, the sound of the picks in the silence.”

What type of gang is this? asks the narrator. The same kind of gang that watched ominously as evil undid love and destroyed what was civilized among them. The kind of gang that Miss Amelia was capable of facing down, until she let her guard down, until she became a lover. “Just twelve mortal men who are together,” the narrator concludes.

Before returning to McCullers’s One Big Idea, I should say something about the writing here. In my view this is the most tightly written and graceful of McCullers’s five novels. It is deliberately paced and probes the corners of the story with an attention to what envelops the plot that some might take for languor. In fact, V.S. Pritchett criticized the writing because McCullers “winds her way backwards and forwards into her people in a way that is sometimes too dilatory.”5 But he is quite wrong. The narrator turns his (for, though the narrator is not one of the men folk, he does not challenge the prevailing sexual, moral or social realities, all of which are the province of the men folk) attention to those persons, actions and objects that justify comment, and those comments are patiently amassed into the argument that the story ultimately delivers. And that point is that Love is not the answer to humanity’s prison of solitariness. And this is why it fails: it requires an impossible congruence between the Lover and the Beloved:

“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring—this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.”

The object of love is arbitrary (there is no predetermination of it, there is no explanation for it), a “preacher may love a fallen woman,” and there is the perfidy:

“The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else—but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.”

And this is where the Beloved has his say, for it is better in this case to be the lover than the beloved: “the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being be loved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

Love is a state of disequilibrium; it cannot last. From the beloved’s part, it is intolerable to be loved. From the lover’s it is a state that creates more rather than less isolation. It is thus not the solution to the existential question that McCullers first posed in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

These two novels are McCullers’s only treatment of sexual, erotic, romantic (however you will) love. It is perhaps here that Bloom’s recourse to Freud’s theories (quoted in the first part of this series) might be appropriate. But Freud is looking at a different phenomenon, and he goes about his investigation by a method distinct in two ways: He treats only one person (the lover), and he sees it in a developmental context. McCullers rejects the supposition that there is a normal or even ideal (as in “ego ideal”) form of love to be aimed for or diagnosed. There is nothing “abnormal” in Captain Penderton’s, or Private Williams’s, or Marvin Macy’s or Miss Amelia’s desires. Only the town’s gossipers enforced by the men folk judge love in that manner. And McCullers, unlike Freud, is looking for a metaphysical solution to the dilemma of human solitude. In these two novels, she strikes off love as the answer. She will look at mechanisms for avoiding the problem rather than ameliorating it in her final two novels, which we will look at in the next post.

Notes

1Some time during the cold war and certainly after the Vietnam misadventure had produced its impression on public opinion and the popular media the idea of the military as an organization filled with soulless automatons who cannot think for themselves became commonplace (perhaps best summarized by George Carlin’s quip illustrating the word “oxymoron” with the phrase “military intelligence”) But at the time McCullers wrote the work (1940) and when it was published (1941), the United States was facing a very perilous world and while most hoped the United States would stay out of the global conflagration, it was a not popular conception that the U.S. military was anything other than heroic. They after all “won” the Great War. It is therefore no wonder that McCuller received such push back, especially from Fort Benning in Georgia, which was assumed to be the model for the novel. [Return to text.]

2McCullers is fond of this construction, where the eyes or expression betrays something found elsewhere. It occurs twice in this novel. You may recall she also uses a similar construction (more memorably) at the end of the first chapter of her first book to describe John Singer, also without friends or enemies: “In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise.” The same vacant expression is described differently depending on how the narrator wants us to feel about the character. [Return to text.]

3For an early example of how studiously collectors tried to catalog Southern ballads, see Reed Smith, “The Traditional Ballad in the South during 1914,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 108 (April–June 1915), pp. 199-203, which can be seen on JSTOR (open access). [Return to text.]

4Gordon Hall Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), pp. 10–11. [Return to text.]

5V.S. Pritchett, “Books in General,” The New Stateman and Nation (August 2, 1952), pp. 137–38 reprinted in Beverly Lyon Clark & Melvin J. Friedman (eds.), Critical Essays on Carson McCullers (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996), at 41. [Return to text.]