Posts Tagged ‘ William Faulkner ’

Carson McCullers at 100 (Pt. 4)

“… how can the living go on living when there is death?”

When The Member of the Wedding was published in March 1946, Carson McCullers had published four novels within six years, all before she was 30. This time, however, she did not immediately commence work on the next one. In fact, it would be five years before she took up work and 10 more before she published her fifth and final novel, Clock Without Hands. The book was a popular success, remaining in the top 10 of the New York Times best seller list for four months. Its critical reception, however, was mixed, with nearly all agreeing that the latest novel did not have nearly the same merit as her previous novels, although they contradicted each other on how the novel fell short. And much of the criticism had more to do with preconceived notions than the actual text.

[The first three parts of this series are linked here:  Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.]

Clock Without Hands (1961)

McCullers’s last novel was in many ways quite different from the four others. Perhaps the most important difference is that it has no major female characters. This characteristic itself gives the work an unfamiliar cast. Unlike the other four novels, there is no character who faces the prospect of a life trapped in gender bonds, who has unwillingly accommodated herself to them or who faces communal retribution for breaking them. This undoubtedly disappointed some. Moreover, there are no themes of economic privation. Money is not at issue for the main characters in this novel.

The four main charters are: (1) a middle-aged pharmacist, who, although married, is physically and emotionally estranged from his wife, who plays almost no part in the story; (2) a very old judge and former congressman, who is a widower and has only one relation, his grandson; (3) that teenaged grandson is a repressed homosexual, who never knew his parents (first his father committed suicide, then his mother died in childbirth), who develops a close relationship with a young black man; (4) that black man seems to have no friends of either sex and eventually becomes a secretary to the old judge. The judge has an African American cook, but she plays a very minor role, unlike the housekeepers in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding.

The second departure can be seen in the architecture of the novel. It is true that each of her four previous novels employs a different narrative method, but in each of them the major elements (themes, characters, images, subplots, etc.) were tightly bound to each other. This is the case whether the plot played out over many years (as in The Ballad of the Sad Café) or in a couple of days (as in The Member of the Wedding). So important to McCullers was adhering to a recognizable structure that she sometimes points the reader to the struts and ties (as with the spokes-of-the-wheel metaphor with Singer at the center in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or the title of The Ballad of the Sad Café). Clock Without Hands, by contrast, seems at first like two barely related stories. The two stories are regularly connected as a matter of plot (although sometimes these connections seem a bit forced), but thematically they are not effectively related (at least by anything the narrator says).

The first story is about the 40-year-old pharmacist, J.T. Malone, a man who has led an entirely uneventful life, almost, in retrospect, a purposely uneventful one. He has been guided by a vague sense of what was expected of him. That was how he got married; his wife was the daughter of the pharmacist from whom he bought his store. She was, it now seems, part of the package. He did not set out to become a pharmacist either. He once had been a student in a Northern medical school, but he was not one of those who “studied every night in the library until closing,” as he remembered it, and so he flunked out. And it seemed to him that from then on all his life amounted to standing behind the counter “listening to complaints, prescribing medicine, making cokes and sundaes, compounding prescriptions.”

This realization did not come to him until he was diagnosed with leukemia. The news was delivered by his good friend and customer Dr. Kenneth Hayden, who practiced on the second floor above Malone’s drugstore. The consultation during which Malone learned his prognosis is given in painful detail. He learned that he has no more than 12–15 months to live. The news flummoxed him and caused him to lose his composure. When he gathered his thoughts his reaction was to hate: first, his friend Dr. Hayden (who he now realizes is a Jew, like the Jews who drove up the curve in medical school and caused him to flunk out) and then everything that would survive his death. He looked back over his existence and realized he had not really had a life. So a question plagued him, How could he die if he hadn’t lived? He would begin his last chapter facing a mysterious drama, which terrified him. “The terror questioned what would happen in those months—how long?—that glared upon his numbered days. He was a man watching a clock without hands.”

In his remaining months he fitfully seeks to make sense of his life in the face of death. Some have said that this story is McCuller’s Death of Ivan Ilyich. There are indeed some indications that McCullers had Tolstoy in mind in connection with her tale, not the least of which is the similarity her novel has to the famous “unhappy families” opening of Anna Karenina. Her novel begins: “Death is always the same, but each man dies in his own way.” And perhaps Anna Karenina is what led McCullers to believe that she could attach the second story to Malone’s. After all, the sub-plot involving Konstantin Levin, which introduces many themes that might be thought incongruous to the main story, often seems entirely unmoored to Anna’s story. So let’s look at the second story in McCullers’s case.

Here we see the third departure from McCullers’s other novels. Instead of introspective character-examination almost entirely removed from the larger world, this story is steeped in the political-social ferment of racial politics in the South in the early 1950s. This might be strange enough given her output (not only the novels but also her play and the stories she wrote and published in the 1950s), but her method for this examination is also utterly unexpected, for she employs broad satirical portraits of the characters, close to burlesque. The old judge, Fox Clane, is described as “an enormous man with a red face and a rough halo of yellow-white hair.” His weight is not simply a physical attribute; it helps explain his peculiar habits and for the narrator it is a reason for ridicule. The judge, for example, took baths around 9 at night and 4 in the morning every day. Says the narrator: “The Judge held that a person as corpulent and free-sweating as he was needed two baths a day, and those who were around him would agree with this. So at those crepuscular hours the old Judge would be splashing, snorting and singing … his favorite bathtub songs were ‘On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ and ‘I’m a Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech.'” He is not only ridiculous but also remarkably ignorant. But that did not prevent him from holding his opinions tenaciously. It did not matter how trivial his opinion, he obstinately held onto it rather than make even the simplest accommodations to reality. After the only doctor he trusted died, the judge developed a severe tooth ache. But instead of finding another doctor he “went to Doc’s brother who was the best mule doctor in the country” and the veterinarian extracted the tooth “with novocain and antibiotics which he uses for mules.” Yet the judge’s own mulishness got him into his ninth decade, and he had cheated death more than once. While his wife (Miss Missy she is called!) was alive, the judge suffered a stroke. She kept him on a diet that maintained his weight under 300 pounds. But after her own death, he went back to his preferred diet filled with gravy-soaked biscuits and sweets. He again had a stroke, this time while teaching his grandson to golf. He fell into a pond, and it took his son and the “little colored caddy” to save him. They were both seven at the time, and the event took place 10 years ago. He went to Johns Hopkins after this stroke, and the doctor gave him the choice of eating as he wanted and dying soon or going on a diet. After much agonizing and seeing that the diet said nothing one way or the other about liquor, he agreed, and then had his grandson secretly supply him with bourbon. (He had brought his young grandson along on the trip because he was afraid to die alone in a place with nothing that belonged to him.)

Among the many unappealing ideas maintained by the judge was one that reached far back into Southern social history and mythology—white supremacy and the need to maintain it strictly. The enforcement of Jim Crow was a large part of the judge’s judicial career. In Congress he battled to limit federal intrusion into Southern ways (which largely consisted of opposing economic and racial justice). But as we will find out in the novel, the judge not only supported legal and quasi-legal means to subordinate blacks economically, socially and educationally, he was also willing to promote vigilante-style violence. These were not quirky beliefs of a senile grandfather. They were those of a terrorist. And the judge harbored these beliefs not as an idiosyncrasy but viscerally, as part of his tribal beliefs, replete with the fears of sexual contamination/forbidden allure that lay at its heart. To him, the slightest relaxation of the Southern regime of repression was a threat to whites, particularly their beloved women. He articulated this fear by his question to his grandson, who seemed to the judge rather dull on the issue of segregation: “How would you like to see a hulking Nigra boy sharing a desk with a delicate little white girl?” He was proud when he learned that the Atlanta Constitution called him a reactionary, because, he explains, a “reactionary is a citizen who reacts when the age-long standards of the South are threatened.” The judge himself, who wanted nothing to change, is himself a clock without hands.

Everything considered, the judge is a buffoonish character, and this raises a number of objections. Dorothy Parker saw the judge as one of “the old familiar idiots” that authors about racial relations in the South “feel obliged to use … to drive home their point.” What surprised Parker was that McCullers had never found the need to resort to such tired stereotypes in the past.1 Parker seems to have wished the novel was more “realistic,” a common enough perspective of newspaper and magazine critics (the”how-I-would-have written-it” review). This perspective makes her miss any other feature of the novel while she counts the ways in which the judge’s family is a “type.”

Irving Howe, the Times reviewer, was also disturbed with how unrealistic the judge was. (He panned the book more generally though.) What he found particularly unbelievable was the judge’s proposal, which the judge thought would propel him back to the House of Representatives and once there to immortality as one of the great American statesmen. The judge disclosed his plan to his grandson during a Sunday dinner at the beginning of the novel. He explained that no vanquished country had been allowed to languish in poverty and that the victors had always “redeemed” the currency (perhaps at some discount, he allowed). He pointed to the mark, the lira and even the yen. It was only good policy, therefore that the federal government allow the South to get back on its feet by redeeming the paper money issued by the Confederacy. This was fair, according to the judge, not only owing to the physical destruction of the war but principally to compensate the South for emancipation, because slavery was the key feature of the Southern economy. A matter of self-interest was also important in the judge’s calculus—the family had bought up large stashes of this currency which was now stored in a safe in the judge’s library. His grandson was stunned by the peculiarity of the proposal and wondered whether the strokes had significantly impaired his grandfather. Howe sees this proposal as a fundamental flaw of the novel, “for a man shrewdly realistic enough to be a Southern politician,” he assures us, “would hardly succumb to anything so fatuous as redeeming Confederate money.”2 It is curious that Howe would believe that reactionary politicians could not have fatuous ideas. One wonders if the likes of Louie Gohmert and Steve King are only an invention to mock our current politics. But this criticism, like Parker’s, fails to see the portrayal of the judge as anything other than an attempt to describe a more-or-less realistic character in a conventional political narrative. We will see later how this proposal functions not only as a plot device (as Howe sees it) but also as part of the larger view McCullers had in creating the character.

The judge’s grandson, John Jester Clane, is 17.  He is on the verge of adulthood but is plagued by doubt, indecision and lack of “passion,” according to the judge. Jester was stung by the accusation because he agreed with it, although the two attached entirely different meanings to the word. For the judge “passion” meant “the passion of the posse, the passion of the Southerner who defends his womankind against the black and alien invader.” To Jester, it was heterosexual desire, and Jester was a virgin. Jester’s father, the judge’s son, also had passion, but of a type the judge did not approve of or understand. At the beginning of the novel Jester has tentatively come to the conclusion that his grandfather is wrong on the race question, but it takes all his strength just to offer his opinion. He was trapped between his affection and duty to his grandfather, who constantly prattles on about race, and his own nascent feelings about justice. Two things allowed him space. The most important one was flying. He saved his own money and without seeking his grandfather’s approval took flying lessons at the local airport. His other personal buffer zone was music. He spent much time practicing classical music on the piano. It was this latter interest that caused him to meet the fourth major character, a young black man his own age.

Sherman Pew boards in a house owned by his foster brother not far from the judge’s house. It is so close in fact that Jester was able to hear from his bedroom Sherman singing and playing the piano. (Perhaps the building is a former servants’ quarters, but the novel really gives no reason why the Judge happens to live so close to the lodgings of a black man. That it does not seem to bother the judge makes what happens in the novel all the more remarkable.) Jester, who was dispirited from the quarrel with his grandfather over segregation and his proposal, gravitated to the sound, and Sherman invited him in. During this first encounter Sherman revealed his odd character. He saw himself as a distinguished gentleman, one who serves only Lord Calvert whiskey and brags of eating caviar. He preens himself on his possessions, his vocabulary and his knowledge of German lieder. It was the singing of such a German art song that attracted Jester’s attention. How an orphaned black child in the deep South of the 1940–50s, now alone at 17 and apparently living off odd jobs, could have learned to sing and play Schubert is never explained. But this talent soon disappears from the novel once it has served its purpose of showing us that Sherman has personal ambitions above what was available to him in the time and place he found himself. In the first meeting with Jester, Sherman constantly belittled his new friend. Jester did not react because he was erotically attracted to Sherman. We learn that Sherman does not know his mother, who he believes was raped by a white man. (Sherman has blue eyes and was abandoned shortly after birth inside a church—hence the last name he was given.) Attempting to construct a bridge to him, Jester gives Sherman the idea that Marion Anderson might be his mother, a foolishness that propels Sherman to write a letter to her (addressed to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial). Sherman also has delusions about his role in avenging white oppression. He pretends he is a member of an organization, the Golden Nigerians, who pledged their lives to register and vote.

Sherman Pew is thus something of a complement to the judge. Both are self-delusional and have vaguely romantic notions of their importance. It is therefore not odd, for purposes of the story’s structure, that the judge hires Sherman to administer his daily insulin injections and to act as his personal secretary (his “amanuensis,” as the judge called him), however unlikely that would have been in reality. Tying the fates of the three together more closely, it is revealed that Sherman Pew was the young caddy who dragged the judge out of the pond on the golf course ten years before. But their relationship has also a mysterious deeper dimension to it, one that involves also Jester and ultimately even Malone by the end. While Jester, the judge and Sherman are almost destined to unravel their secret interdependency, Malone’s involvement is his own doing, an accidental result of his own restlessness following the diagnosis of his terminal disease.

After his initial diagnosis, Malone was admitted to the hospital for further tests. When the diagnosis was confirmed, he was cut loose from humanity. He found himself “surrounded by a zone of loneliness.” He was so alienated from his wife that he did not even tell her of his condition, afraid that this might provoke her to display affection that he was unwilling to reciprocate. He realized that the subject was one that people recoiled from discussing, at least with the terminally ill patient himself. Even Dr. Hayden fumbled with his letter opener and avoided eye contact with Malone when delivering the death sentence. So Malone wandered about the town looking at things in disbelief, unable to accept that ordinary objects would exist after he was gone. He walked about with “the bewildered look of an absent-minded person who seeks something but has already forgotten the thing that is lost.” Thoroughly bourgeois, Malone believed in things of financial worth. And to him the First Baptist Church had the imprimatur of wealth. The leading citizens of Milan, lawyers, bankers and the mill owner, all attended. Wealthy men were its trustees. And one of the founders of Coca-Cola left the church a half-million dollars to construct a wing. Even the judge, the first citizen of Milan according to a local paper, was a regular (and we later learn that his wife was a member of the choir). So Malone prized the teachings of this church and when, shortly after his diagnosis, the preacher delivered a sermon in which he proclaimed that salvation had drawn a bead on death, he was at first impressed. But the more he considered it, the more nonsensical it seemed. So he left church to return to the drugstore no more fulfilled than before, when the banality of his family life and his daily routine “swirled around him as dead leaves ring the center of a whirlpool, leaving him curiously untouched.”

It was on this Sunday that Malone broached his illness for the first time. The judge was in the habit of dropping by Malone’s store after church each Sunday where he would chat with locals and eventually retire to the compounding room to have a drink with Malone. It was then that Malone asked the judge to make his will, as an opening to tell someone he had leukemia. The judge feigned ignorance and insisted that doctors could not be trusted in such matters. And then he turned the conversation to himself: how he had cheated death, how his doctors were wrong, and especially how he suffered in the past with the death of his own son (17 years ago). By the end Malone, the terminally ill, found himself comforting the judge, over a tragedy 17 years past. The scene is our introduction to the judge and shows both how monumental his ecocentrism is and how that self-promotion has a hypnotic effect on listeners like Malone. Malone, of course, was predisposed to believe in the eminence of the judge and had followed him politically all his career. But it took only minor blandishments (about things Malone wanted to hear) that not only calmed and flattered Malone but also made him grateful to the judge. Now that the judge became his only confidant in this dark knowledge, Malone would take the opportunity to see the judge more frequently.

Malone thus becomes an occasional and mute witness to the judge’s relations with Jester and Sherman, both of whom he disliked. Malone is also witness to the casual cruelty of the town towards its black citizens, but he has no reaction, even when an innocent boy is killed by a policeman who unnecessarily struck his head with his club. As time goes on, he seems less perplexed, less lost. He was so concerned at the beginning that he visited the Baptist minister at his parsonage and asked him point blank what was behind death. But the minister was uncomfortable with the question and dodged it so obviously that Malone politely left him without further discussion. Perhaps Malone realized then that there was no point seeking opinions from others. Perhaps he came to agree with the judge, who answered his question with a more responsive, if no more enlightening, answer: “No, I don’t believe in eternity as far as religion goes. I believe in the things I know and the descendants who come after me. I believe in my forebears, too. Do you call that eternity?”

It was not until Malone’s health declined significantly that his questioning revived, although by accident. In November about eight months after his diagnosis, a relapse forced him back into the hospital. Bored with a murder mystery he was reading, when the book cart was wheeled past him, he took a book he knew nothing about, attracted by its title: Sickness unto Death. But Malone found nothing interesting in Kierkegaard’s turgid writing and soon dozed  off. When he awoke, he came across the sentence: “The greatest danger, that of losing one’s own self, may pass off quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, that of an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc., is sure to be noticed.” The sentence awakened something in his mind, but he could make sense of nothing else in the book. Yet he pondered back over his life to find out when he lost himself. It was the certain knowledge of death that “quickened his livingness” and made him desire the answer. He resolved to make this his priority as he remained in the hospital, “but even while he was there he was worried about the twenty-dollars-a-day bill.” Even though Malone did not become a Christian existentialist from reading Kierkegaard, the quote would help him save his “immortal soul” when the crisis came. And in the end, he ultimately played out the essence of Kierkegaard’s thought by giving up all forms of despair.

The judge on the other hand was wrapped up in himself. All of his memories and interests were fascinating to him, and he believed others would find them so too. He was excessively vain for an old obese man. Despite his diabetes, he believed he followed his motto: mens sana in corpore sano. Nor can he believe that his weight was excessive. “Fat man: of course not. I was just stout and corpulent.” Indeed he finds nothing about himself objectionable.  Even his bathroom odor pleases him: “since he was pleased by anything that belonged to him, and his feces were no exception, the smell rather soothed him.” The judge wastes no time in despair over the loss of himself, because it was clear to him that being alive was the ultimate virtue (at least being alive as Judge Fox Clane). He tells his secretary Sherman Pew the reason he preferred being himself to Shakespeare or Julius Caesar or Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain or Babe Ruth: “Because I’m alive. And when you consider the trillions and trillions of dead people you realize what a privilege it is to be alive.” To him death was what happened to other people. As for his connection to it, he did not conduct deep searches into Kierkegaard or any other professional thinker. Instead, he dredged his wisdom from the Ladies’ Home Companion, a magazine he studied for its pictures of food that accompanied the recipes. The magazine had occasional sidebars with inspirational quotes—”the sayings of Emerson, of Lin Yutang, and the great sages of the world.” What he remembered was a saying from an Indian proverb: “How can the dead be truly dead when they are still walking in my heart?” Always susceptible to sentimentality (he would have Sherman read him Dickens and the judge would cry over the mistreatment of orphans), the saying comforted him over the loss of relatives. As for himself, his hopes were pinned on ever longer life.

The contrast between Malone and Judge Clane is not meant as a debate between legitimate viewpoints. If it is offered as a contrast at all, it only further shows how untethered to serious concerns the judge has become. His proposal comes from this same state. It came about when he was convalescing from his second stroke. He worried that his productive life was over, that he  had nothing to offer. And then gradually he began to see how everything interrelated, how he could be the instrument for a New Deal for the South, how it was supported by objective considerations of justice and historical practice and how it would not only send him back to Washington, but also insure his fame for generations to come. It was, in short, a desperate gambit, by an old man who had, really, only one more chance for glory. Perhaps all his latest peculiarities were from the same source. Perhaps his common sense was as palsied as his left hand. But it is useful to note that the judge’s proposal is designed (notwithstanding the aspects of self-interest) as a means to ingratiate him among the only constituency he cares about, the South of mythology. The principal attraction of the proposal was how it would make him beloved. (Walking in the heart of others?) His need to be admired and esteemed was at the root of his peculiar history of making people love him. It became easy among whites once the judge attained prominence. As with Malone, all the judge had to do was draw his listener into his orbit of intimacy. With blacks it require strange gifts and little liberties. He “spoiled” his servants (as his cook saw it). He had a history of giving them expensive (but useless to them) gifts. After fishing him out of the pond, for example, the judge gave the seven-year-old Sherman a watch engraved with the motto mens sana corpore sano. When he hired Sherman as his secretary, he treated him like a protégé or perhaps like a dependent relative. Although he did not allow him to eat lunch with the whites, he did not require him to eat in the kitchen with the cook, instead permitting him to make “fancy sandwiches” and eat in the library. He indulged him in ways that seem inconsistent with his proclaimed bigotry. Indeed, so long as the strict Jim Crow rules were obeyed, the judge seemed quite willing to treat blacks with more than a modicum of decency. But when any African American asked him for anything as of right, he immediately resisted. He lost his cook rather than pay his share of her Social Security contributions. And when Sherman Pew made his much greater demand in the face of Jim Crow, the judge was thrown back into his role as the enforcer of segregation and racial inequality.

I will not here follow that story through because it is deftly handled by McCullers and deserves a fresh reading. Considering how the political part of the novel functions both psychologically and thematically (for example, by having the peculiar personality traits so prominently displayed earlier now operate to make the climax inevitable), it is easy to dismiss Howe’s complaint that the novel is so “fragile in its structure” that “the symbolic scheme fails to carry strength or conviction.” I will go a step further. While maintaining its thematic and symbolic purpose, the climactic scenes offer an entirely realistic account of how anonymous racial crimes are committed—their spontaneous origin, their liquor- and testosterone-fueled plotting, their haphazard execution—showing how it comes from a roiling boil of insipidness and terror. It recalls the shuffling feet of the village men silently deciding on how to deal with Miss Amelia in The Ballad of the Sad Café. 

The events sweep J.T. Malone up into a conspiracy he did not want to be part of. His new vague sense of what it means to have lived, however, served him in making a courageous decision to disassociate himself. He does not prevent the crime or even urge others to give it up, for the pathology of Jim Crow is too powerful for a man like Malone, who spent his life uncritically conforming to the mores of a morally corrupt society. But having for some time (even if only very late in his allotted life) considered his purpose, he was able to make a decision for himself. Living involves making such decisions.

McCullers does not let us reach an easy conclusion, however. A memento mori is not a moral guide. The judge, after all, despite trivializing his strokes as “falling-off spells,” understood how close he came to death. And he told Sherman that “if I hadn’t gone through the shadow of death I might never have seen the light.” The light, however, did not show the judge a morally ordered universe; rather, it showed him his proposal, the one that would turn the clock back a hundred years, as Sherman put it. “Livingness” is one thing, properly living is entirely different. In fact, the conditions of both Malone and the judge are described by Kierkegaard as types of sicknesses (he calls them “despairs”) that result from misunderstanding one’s place in the universe. Malone’s is the simplest. He is unable to see himself separate from his finite limitations. The judge is caught in a separate despair, for he cannot see himself outside of his “immediacy.” Both lead to inauthentic existences because those suffering such despairs have yet to see how their lives are part of an enveloping purposefulness.

It is in the denouement that McCullers returns to the question that propels all of her novels. This time instead of negating the possibility of meaning, she seems to offer a path, one grown over with weeds, perhaps, but nonetheless, not one blocked by the negations of her earlier novels. Jester, who has resolved his questions (“Who am I? What am I? Where am I going?”) with the decision to emulate his father by becoming a lawyer to work for social justice, in the end must decide whether to succumb to the desire for the instant gratification of revenge or inform his new found direction with forgiveness. He makes his decision in an airplane he is piloting. It is largely based on the pitifully hollowness of the criminal. It was an aesthetic rather than a judicial decision. But once the decision was made, he was able to take a larger picture of life.

Looking downward from an altitude of two thousand feet, the earth assumes order. A town, even Milan, is symmetrical, exact as a small gray honeycomb, complete. The surrounding terrain seems designed by a law more just and mathematical than the laws of property and bigotry: … The earth is finite. From this height you do not see man and the details of his humiliation. The earth from a great distance is perfect and whole.

That is not the height that men, in their self-centered obsessions, are able to see the world. Perhaps it is an unnatural perspective.

[T]his is an order foreign to the heart, and to love the earth you must come closer. Gliding downward, low over the town and countryside, the whole breaks up into a multiplicity of impressions. … As you circle inward, the town itself becomes crazy and complex. You see the secret corners of all the sad backyards. Gray fences, factories, the flat Main Street. From the air men are shrunken and they have an automatic look, like wound-up dolls. They seem to move mechanically among haphazard miseries. You do not see their eyes. And finally this is intolerable. The whole earth from a great distance means less than one long look into a pair of human eyes. Even the eyes of the enemy.

This seems totally at odds with the teachings of Kierkegaard, which Malone gave up trying to understand. It suggests that it is not simply “despair” that keeps man from uniting with creation, it is part of man’s makeup. He must connect with others, not the whole, in order to continue living, at least as we have been taught to live.

For Malone too there was need for a pair of human eyes. A year ago, in March 1953, after an unusually bitter winter, he thought spring had brought him a fever. Death had crept up on him so furtively that “for a time he confused the end of life with the beginning of a new season.” But the spring of 1954 did not confuse him. Living with death for a year had changed him.

[T]here was no longer a revulsion against nature, against things. A strange lightness had come upon his soul and he exalted. He looked at nature now and it was part of himself. He was no longer a man watching a clock without hands. He was not alone, he did not rebel, he did not suffer. He did not even think of death these days. He was not a man dying … nobody died, everybody died.

He eventually becomes confined to his bed, and while there his resentment towards and alienation from his wife disappear. On May 15, 1954, Malonoe’s new doctor came twice, the second time having a private consultation with Mrs. Malone in the living room. That night she gave her husband a bath and put cologne behind his ears. “Malone said, ‘Darling, no man has ever had such a wife as you.’ It was the first time he had called her darling since the year after they were married.” He would call her that twice more before he died.

Two days later he read in the paper about a man who had died saving a boy from drowning. Although he did not know either the man or the boy, he cried. That day the life seemed to drain from him. In the evening, the judge arrived in an apoplectic state. He announced that the Supreme Court had made a decision about school integration and that he was going to fight it, first by going that very night to the radio station to give a speech about resistance. “It will be a historic speech and will do you good, dear J.T.” Malone barely understood what was going on around him. And when his wife turned on the radio to hear the judge, the speech turned into a disaster. The judge was so seized by “passion” that he was unable to form a coherent thought, and instead recited an oration that was entirely the opposite of his opinion. There was confusion in the studio and Malone’s wife said she did not understand what happened. “‘Nothing, darling,’ Malone said. ‘Nothing that was not a long time in the making.'”

As Malone died that night, “living assumed an order and a simplicity that Malone had never known before.” He asked for a glass of cold water, but before his wife returned, he died.

And so the hedgehog McCullers ended her pursuit of the one Big Idea that dominated her long fiction. She probably did not plan this as her last word on this subject. But sickness (she developed breast cancer) and treatment for old ailments (she had surgery on her palsied hand) and new calamities (she would break her hip in a fall) combined with various businesses related to her old properties (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter became a movie and Edward Albee staged a Broadway production of The Ballad of the Sad Café) to prevent any further long fictions. She suffered another stroke, went into a coma and 47 days later died in 1967.

This, her last treatment of her big idea, was not entirely successful. In her first novel she anticipated the concept of the “absurd” that Camus would begin examining the following year. And in her last novel, she seemed to circle around the existentialism of Kierkegaard. But there is nothing in the work that suggests that she really engaged in the writing of Kierkegaard. I suppose that she had been directed to the Danish author either by Dinesen or, more probably, by W.H. Auden. From 1940–41, McCullers lived with Auden (and several other New York intellectuals and oddly Gypsy Rose Lee) in a brownstone in Brooklyn. Throughout the 1940s Auden, who was also obsessed with the isolation of each person, sought his cure in Kierkegaard. In 1952 he edited a collection of the writing of the Danish theologian/philosopher.3It is probable that McCullers received regular does of Kierkegaard from him, at least second hand. I also suppose (but on this point I depend only on what I have gleaned from the novel, having never closely compared McCullers’s writing with Kierkegaard’s, although I believe that someone might pursue a graduate degree in this area) that McCullers herself had not much more interest in Kierkegaard than did Malone. She never showed any interest in theology, existential or otherwise (although I noted echoes of Martin Buber in The Member of the Wedding). Indeed, Malone’s interview with the town’s Baptist minister was a strong argument that theology was irrelevant on important existential questions. It is true, on the other hand, that Kierkegaard himself disdained the comfortable religiosity of the type displayed in Milan, but there is no indication that McCullers subscribed to Kierkegaard’s more severe form or any other type.

Consider, for example, what is missing from McCullers’s fiction. There is almost no treatment of nature (broadly what Kierkegaard considered as “the creation”). Animals and birds are almost wholly absent. The most memorable are the rat behind the kitchen wall and the moths outside the window in The Member of the Wedding. The horse in Reflections of a Golden Eye, Firebird, is less Black Beauty and more Moby Dick—metaphysical rather than entirely natural. Plants and natural landscapes receive little mention. When Jester flies above Milan, he see cultivated land and the city plan, not a vista of natural beauty. In the Ballad of the Sad Café the only prominent natural feature outside of town was a swamp. The creation that is found in McCullers’s books is one made by man—cotton mills, diners, houses (some quite shabby), roads under repair by convict laborers. If there is “grotesque” in McCullers, it is in her natural world, not her characters. Some of the characters long for a world of natural beauty. Frankie Addams and Mick Kelley desire to visit a place covered by snow. Martha Malone dreams of seeing the ocean. J.T. Malone wants to go to Vermont by himself. Everyone in the fictional world of McCullers longs to be anywhere but where they are: in a sad, poverty-plagued, bigoted backward town in the deep South, that finds itself further and further behind the rest of the world.

So if McCullers is not underwriting Kierkegaard’s resolution of the existential question, what does she offer in this her final novel? It might be argued that she suggests that nature will take care of everything. After all, Malone slowly descends into death without pain and without any terror. Perhaps, we should accept that is what it is. But this does not explain how one can live in the face of death. Perhaps Jester is the answer: take on a romantic or heroic quest and dedicate one’s life to it. But McCullers hardly makes any effort to sell that thought. And Jester is probably the least realistic character in all of her long fiction. And it is unlikely that she actually is lauding the work of liberal white Southern lawyers as heroes. This book is not To Kill a Mockingbird with its white savior (who actually does not save anyone) at the center of the story. And that brings up one last feature of the time theme in Clock Without Hands.

The final deus ex machina of the novel is the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That case and its follow-up decision directed integration “with all deliberate speed.” When McCullers novel was published in 1961, that decision was already seven years old, and almost nothing had taken place, except when federal marshals were used. White Southerners had tried all varieties of subterfuge to avoid integrated public schools, including disbanding public schools altogether. Litigation had achieved, at best, very small gains and created a very big backlash. The hope generated by the Court’s decision would be weakened even further in the years after 1961 as Nixon’s court watered down the rules and circumscribed remedies, most especially by allowing states to hide behind the artificial boundaries of school districts to prevent bussing from one district to another. The Supreme Court did not in fact go very far to solve the injustices of the South, and everyone knew this by 1961. So Jester’s decision about how to lead his life looked less heroic and romantic in retrospect, and, in any event, there is no guaranty he would follow through. For all we know he became a partner in a corporate law firm in Atlanta. In any event, far from producing results “with all deliberate speed,” the Supreme Court’s promise of justice itself became a clock without hands.

It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that McCullers’s conclusion was that there is no answer at all to the existential isolation she probed her whole life. And furthermore the ending seems to show there was no hope that any social justice would come to the socially corrupt South, whose social organization was based on inequality and oppression. The judge makes that point to Malone clearly when he explains to Malone that segregation is necessary as a matter of justice to poor whites

[Y]ou and I have our property and our positions and our self-respect. But what does Sammy Lank have except those slews of children of his? Sammy Lank and the poor whites like that have nothing but the color of their skin. Having no property, no means, nobody to look down on—that is the clue to the whole thing. It is a sad commentary on human nature but every man has to have somebody to look down on. So the Sammy Lanks of this world only have the Nigra to look down on. You see, J.T., It is a matter of pride. You and I have our pride, the pride of our blood, the pride in our descendants. But what does Sammy Lank have … ?

This pessimism, and the foundation for it, subjected McCullers to criticism from both conservatives and leftists. The reviews of Parker and Howe principally derided the article for not presenting a version of the tale which would have more neatly packaged the liberal version of the Southern racial problem: uniquely venomous bigots who oppress blacks from motives of pathological greed and spite (Harriet Beecher Stowe, after all, furnished a view of the South that rallied Northerners under a similar programme.) Conservatives, unwilling to enter the fray over the origins of and solution to the Southern pathology over race, took up a different, and frankly irrelevant, criticism—that McCullers did not write a artistically or realistically satisfying “Southern” novel.

Delma Eugene Presley was the most strident of this approach and her 1974 article in The Georgia Review4 influenced many academic critics whose approach to literary criticism is of the “sorting” variety. Things either fit into pre-defined categories or they don’t, so much the worse for the latter. Presley herself was a teacher of English at a small Georgia college, which remained all white until 1965 (four years after Clock Without Hands was published.) Among her other duties would be to run the school’s Museum of the South. Presley has written several journal articles on Southern writers, all of which tend to opine on how faithful their work was to the Platonic ideal of a Southern novel. As for her critique of McCullers, the thesis is that the quality of her work varied inversely to the time McCullers spent away from the South. Her first novel was written in the South (North Carolina, but that’s closer to Georgia than New York City) and the rest were written in the North after McCullers permanently moved to New York City. Of course, Clock Without Hands is the worst because it is the longest from her stay in the South, and significantly so because it was considerably farther than her stay in writers’ Eden. What McCullers was doing after publication of The Member of the Wedding that prevented her from writing another novel until much later, Presley helpfully speculates: “After 1946, she embarked on a slow voyage in the shallow waters of uncritical public acclaim. It was to be an undistinguished tour of life’s harbors—a journey which ended only at her death some twenty years later.” When she was unable to form a self-satisfied sneer, Presley was forced to rely on the worst sort of unreliable sources to fill in her view of McCullers’s biography. A principal font of insight into the mind of Carson for Presley were letters written by the troubled alcoholic Reese McCullers, who after a first divorce, begged Carson for a second chance, which she granted until she found that he had passed forged checks on her account. After the second divorce Reese eventually committed suicide. (Presley says that his friends considered him “a disciplined young man whose goals and accomplishments were noteworthy.” At the time she wrote that she had to know this turned out differently. She, however, decided to take the part of the serial killer’s neighbor who says that he was a nice quiet guy.) She also quotes unpublished remarks about McCullers delivered by her high school math teacher to a Milledgeville, Georgia book club in 1969, 30 years after this teacher knew McCullers.  If anything else were needed for Presley to analyze the shortcomings of McCullers’s inner life, she was able to find in her writings. After all, a novelist’s characters are clearly an unerring source of insight into the psychology and biography of the writer. You don’t have to run a Museum of the South to know that. It hardly matters, however, that Presley was factually wrong in a way that invalidates her critical theory. McCullers, for example, tells us in her unfinished autobiography that she substantially wrote The Ballad of the Sad Café in Columbus, Georgia. Because Presley did not know that she rates it lower than the previous two novels which were closer in time to when Presley last thought she was there. The point is this: Faulkner stayed in the South (except when he was in Hollywood or Europe) and that’s that. The fact that Tennessee Williams hardly set foot in the South after he left Missouri when he was eight (except for a brief stint in New Orleans) does not affect her view of his work. But her essay on him proceeded on a different critical theory. (The fact that Williams was one of McCullers’s most fervent supporters also does not faze Presley.) But when you finish the essay, you are left with the question: What exactly is it that demonstrates the deterioration of her talent once she was deprived of Dixie’s healthful atmosphere? Well, she quotes Howe (not his radicalism of course, just his panning of her last novel in The Times). And she gives us the helpful portrait of an indifferent math student who actually worked on her novel rather than prepare herself by reading up on current literary trends as her husband Reese did. (In the end Reese would never publish anything.)

But a good, albeit unsupported, theory should never go to waste. And Presley’s concept that McCullers belongs among the “Southerners” (except that she wasn’t good at it) has a long heritage. Klaus Lubbers shortly after the last novel lumped her in with two other Southern women writers (a group that she remains chained to), Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. Helpfully he defined the criteria of the Southern novel, based on the “basic Faulknerian themes” of “lust, disease, mutilation, defeat, idiocy and death.”5 (It might have surprised Euripedes, not to mention Shakespeare, that Faulkner invented these themes in 20th century Mississippi.)

It is interesting that Presley, the guardian of Southern aesthetic virtue, never discusses what McCullers herself had to say about Southern writing. In July 1941 a month after The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published, McCullers wrote in Dissent an article entitled “Russian Realists and Southern Literature.” This remained one of McCullers’s few efforts in literary theory/history. She did not expressly include herself in a Southern literary tradition (having published only one work at the time, it would have been pretentious to do so), but she found the source of the tradition to go back before Faulkner and located it in late 19th century Russia. The reason for the similarity in literary approaches was sociological. According to McCullers both Tsarist Russia and Jim Crow America treated life as worthless.

People are born into a world of confusion, a society in which the system of values is so uncertain that who can say if a man is worth more than a load of hay, or if life itself is precious enough to justify the struggle to obtain the material objects necessary for its maintenance. (p. 288.)”6

While realism had developed in Western Europe just before the middle of the 19th century, according to McCullers, it took the politics of brutality and degradation in Russia to propel their literary figures to become moral agents. She points to Dostoevsky especially.

It is almost as though having a long looked on life and having faithfully reflected what he has seen in his art, he is appalled by both life itself and by what he has written. And unable to reject either, or to delude himself, he assumes the supreme responsibility and answers the riddle of life itself. … Dostoievsky demands magnificently, but his solution, the “new Christianity,” does not answer; it is almost as though he uses Christ as a contrivance. (p. 298.)

It is interesting here to note, in connection with the discussion earlier on whether McCullers accepted the conclusion of Kierkegaard, that in 1941 she not only rejects  the “new Christianity” (albeit in Dostoevsky’s not Kierkegaard’s garb) but seems to suggest there really can be no answer.

The important effect of the political situation is not to propel moral thinkers to an answer to the dilemma of whether living has meaning, but rather on how it impacts literary art.

But the measure of success achieved by these metaphysical and moral exploration is not of the greatest importance in itself. Their value is primarily catalytic. It is the way in which these moral problems affect the work as a whole that counts. And the effect is enormous, for Dostoievsky, Tolstoi, and the minor moralists brought to Russian realism one element that had hitherto been obscure or lacking. That is the element of passion. (p. 290.)

So at the beginning of her career the quality of passion was singled out as preeminent. Its degraded use by the judge in Clock Without Hands must be significant to McCullers. It is yet another imposture by the man who claimed he could have been as great as Shakespeare (or at least Ben Jonson). But he can only recite great sentiments (as he does at his final, disastrous, public performance in what he considers the gravest of perils—his radio address designed to gin up opposition to Brown v. Board of Education). Political hucksters in the end cannot usurp the power of art.

This passion that she evokes is “a new tenseness, a gathering together of resources, a radically tightened nervous tone.” (p. 291.) It is something that Southern literature had not fully arrived at. That is why, according to McCullers, critics pointed to the “cruelties” of Southern literature. She acknowledged that there was some truth to the charge. Writers had reached the point of acknowledging the spiritual inconsistencies of life, however, “without asking the reason why, without attempting to propose an answer. Undeniably there is an infantile quality about this clarity of vision and rejection of responsibility.” (p. 292.) McCullers believed that Southern literature had to take the next step.

Southern writing has reached the limits of a moral relativism; something more must be added if it is to continue to flourish. As yet there has been no forerunner of an analytical moralist such as Tolstoi or a mystic like Dostoievsky. … If and when this group of writers is able to assume a philosophical responsibility, the whole tone and structure of their work will be enriched, and southern writing will enter a more complete and vigorous stage in its evolution. (p. 292.)

In Russian literature McCullers believed that only two writers had reached that level—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And while McCullers acknowledged that Tolstoy was the more beautiful writer, she was always closer to Dostoevsky. I hope over the last three essays I have demonstrated the connection. Let me give one more. The metaphorical concept of Clock Without Hands is the moral dilemma of a man who knows he is soon to die but not knowing the day or hour. Dostoevsky treats the converse of that situation in The Idiot. Prince Myshkin on his first day in Moscow (having travelled from Switzerland where he was undergoing a cure for his seizures) twice explains the problem of the man who has been condemned to death. Myshkin believes that the most inhumane part of this is how it makes the condemned man concentrate his mind on dividing up the time until his death which he knows will take place at a specific time. In desperation he tells himself on the way to the scaffold how many streets are left and tries to convince himself that there is plenty of time, an eternity of time, before the next street is reached. It is only when the hood is about to be put over him that he realizes, or is no longer able to deny, what faces him. And at that moment Myshkin saw the most extraordinary transformation: “he suddenly grew as white as a sheet of paper, a sheet of white note-paper. His legs must have grown weak and wooden and he must have felt sick too—as though something were choking hi and that gave him a sort of tickling sensation in his throat … I can’t help feeling that, for instance, in a moment of unavoidable destruction, if a house is collapsing on top of you, you are suddenly overcome by a desire to sit down, and close your eyes and wait—come what may! … It is odd that people seldom faint at those last moments. On the contrary, the brain, tremendously alive and active, must, I suppose, be working hard, hard hard, like an engine going at full speed. I imagine all sorts of thought—all unfinished and absurd too, perhaps, quite irrelevant thoughts—must be constantly constantly throbbing through his brain: ‘That man is looking at me—he has a wart on his forehead—one of the buttons on the executioner’s coat is rusty. …’ and all the time he knows everything and remembers everything; there is one point which one can never forget, and one can’t faint, and everything goes round and round, round that point.” (pp. 87–88.)7 Malone acts out that same drama, in his own way, watching Dr. Hayden fumble with his letter opener, on the first day he knew of his sentence.

Malone at first, without the deadline, tries to make every moment count, but really cannot. None of us can. In the face of death, we continue to muddle on. And this too Myshkin anticipates on the same day during his conversation with the Yepanchin daughters. He tells them of an execution that was called off, something that the author Dostoevsky was quite familiar with, since a similar thing happened to him. Myshkin describes a group of prisoners lining up for a firing squad. The first three were tied to the posts and long white smocks were put on them before white caps were pulled over their eyes. (This scene follows Dostoevsky’s death sentence farce, following his arrest for political crimes.) The convict who told Myskhin of this story is not among the first group as so he too divides up the rest of his short time and plans how to use it. “The uncertainty and the feeling of disgust with that new thing which was bound to come any minute were dreadful, but he said that the thing that was most unbearable [according to Myskin] was the constant thought, ‘What if I had not had to die! What if I could return to life—oh, what an eternity! And all that would be mine! I should turn every minute into an age, I should lose noting, I should count every minute separately and waste none!’ He said that this reflection finally filled him with such bitterness that he prayed to be shot as quickly as possible.” (p. 83.) The prisoner (like Dostoevsky) received an unexpected reprieve. After a moment of silence, one of the daughters eventually asks Myshkin “Well, what did he do with with that wealth afterwards? Did he count every minute separately?”

“‘Oh, no, he told me himself—I asked him about it—he didn’t live like that at all, and he wasted many, many minutes.’

“‘Well, let that be a lesson to you. It seems it’s impossible actually to live ‘counting every minute separately.’ Whatever the reason, it’s impossible.’

“‘Yes, whatever the reason, it’s impossible,’ the prince repeated. ‘I thought so myself. And yet I somehow can’t believe it. … ‘” (p. 84.)

Malone, as we have seen, first sets off to make every minute count, wandering the streets to look at the things that will outlast him, taking in the teachings of those he thought were spiritually wise than he. But eventually, he drops his quest and falls back into his routine, perhaps more resentful and occasionally dreaming of a change, a trip to Vermont, but nothing comes of it, because it is really impossible to contemplate “livingness” every moment. But when the end comes he dies much like Myshkin’s reprieved convict thought he would die: “There was a church not far off, its gilt roof shining in the bright sunshine. He remembered staring with awful intensity at teat roof and the sunbeams flashing from it; he could not tear his eyes off those rays of light: … he felt that in three minutes he would somehow merge with them.” (p. 83.) Although Malone was much weaker, to weak for any kind of intense scrutiny, he died in much that same way, by merging into his surroundings: “his livingness was leaving him, and in dying living assumed order and a simplicity that Malone had never known before. The pulse, the vigor was not there and not wanted. The design alone emerged.”

McCullers and Dostoevsky were two hedgehogs who knew the same big thing: that one can tug and sniff and rattle the question, but death confers a mystery on life that really cannot be resolved by some edifice of philosophy or belief in orthodox spirituality. There is simply the intense desire to hold on to livingness. When McCullers accepts a challenge posed by Dostoevsky that is the best she can do. But perhaps it is the best even Dostoevsky could do. For if you take away all the breathless writing, all the bizarre characters whose characterization borders on the burlesque, all the operatic plot devices, all the tumult of words of half-formed ideas (all of which McCullers recapitulates in a less grandiose way in Clock Without Hands), does Dostoevsky have anything more to add? Stavrogin in the Demons (The Possessed) says that a man would accept to live in a four by two space rather than die. In the same book, a radical, who has promised to commit suicide as an act of anarchic revolution, has terrified second thoughts at the last minute. Is this any more than McCullers asserting that “livingness” takes priority over everything?

McCullers, of course, is not Dostoevsky. But she was following down the path of intense moral scrutiny of the ultimate question. That she did not find the answer is not as important as that she was one of the few American writers who even cared to ask the question.

Notes

1Dorothy Parker, “Clock Without Hands Belongs in Yesterday’s Tower of Ivory,” Esquire (December 1961), pp. 72–72, reprinted in Beverly Lyon Clark and Melvin J. Friedman (eds.), Critical Essays on Carson McCullers (New York: G.K. Hull & Co., 1996), pp. 58–60, at 58. [Return to text.]

2Irving Howe, “In the Shadow of Death: The Clock Without Hands,” New York Times Book Review (September 17, 1961), p. 5. [Return to text.]

3W.H. Auden, The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, Presented by W.H. Auden (New York: D. McKay Co. [1952]). [Return to text.]

4Delma Eugene Presley, “Carson McCullers and the South,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 28, no. 1 (Spring 1974), pp. 19-32. (JSTOR; subscription required.) [Return to text.]

5Karl Lubbers, “The Necessary Order: A Study of Theme and Structure in Carson McCullers’ Fiction,” Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien, Bd. 8 (1963), pp. 187-204  (quote at p. 187). (JSTOR; subscription required.) It is slightly unfair of me to lump Lubbers in with Presley since the former has many useful things to say about McCullers’s work. [Return to text.]

6The essay is reprinted in the collection entitled The Mortgaged Heart ed. by Margarita G. Smith, originally published in 1971. The page citations are from the Bantam edition (1972). [Return to text.]

7The quotations from The Idiot were translated by David Magarshack. The page citations are to the Penguin edition (1955). [Return to text.]

“… before an unknown hollow darkness of the heart”

Carson McCullers at 100

Isaiah Berlin based his most famous essay1 on a fragment of Archilocus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin forced this enigmatic apophthegm into a classification for writers and thinkers: “there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.” The first group are the hedgehogs, and the second the foxes. He illustrated this division by putting, among others, Plato, Dante, Hegel, Dostoevsky and Proust among the hedgehogs and Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin and Balzac with the foxes. His use of this dichotomy is something of a rhetorical trick, because his essay is about Tolstoy for whom he says the division does not apply. But it is, perhaps, much better suited to the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967), who, unlike almost all  American novelists, is a hedgehog.

When one considers the celebrated novelists of the first half of the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine any of them conceiving of the need for a systematic organization of thought into a single way of looking at things. Such thinkers are rare enough throughout history, and American fiction writers, with the exception, perhaps, of Hawthorne and certainly, of Melville, have not been been systematic moralists or practicing metaphysicians; rather, they have usually preferred psychological, and occasionally political, approaches to stories, and both are notoriously digressive methods.

Nabokov hated the kinds of novels hedgehogs produced, deriding them as books with “messages.” But all novels more-or-less have messages, even Tolstoy’s. (Anna Karenina after all begins with the epigraph: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”) The difference with hedgehogs, however, is that the central view is not a moral of a particular story or even an organizing principle for a work; it is rather a way of looking at the world which informs (and usually is the reason for undertaking) a writers total output. And given that the author so concentrates on that central vision (it is perhaps the reason why he becomes an author), it casts the story in a slightly heightened light, immediately noticeable, often by the adoption of a tone that is emotionally noncommittal and measured, although Dostoevsky’s prose is often urgent and frenetic.

T.S. Eliot (descendant of the Puritans, America’s quintessential hedgehogs) may have been America’s chief literary hedgehog. But the system he tried to construct, involving old -fashioned reactionary politics and unintelligible Catholic-Buddhist mysticism, was too solipsistic to be seriously entertained by anyone. McCullers was quite different. Her systematic quest was the result of experience and self-knowledge, and it appealed viscerally. And regardless of any limitations she might be accused of, one always feels she is driving at something beyond ordinary literary insight.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

From the beginning of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter it is obvious that McCullers had in her sights the roots of human isolation. “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together,” is the opening sentence. The picture it produces is the paradigm of isolation. Cut off from the rest of the town not only by their disabilities but also by the social segregation the disabled suffer, they have only each other. The chapter describes, in precise, unsentimental prose, the life these two lead. One, John Singer, a tall, thin, impeccably neat and refined man; the other, Spiros Antonapoulos, short and obese, and, we soon learn, mentally challenged. The two, over the course of the decade they lived together, made a life out of their simple and unvaried routine. Antonapoulos worked for his cousin, the owner of a fruit store. Singer was a silverware engraver. They would walk together to work, arm in arm, and come home together at night, where Antonapoulos cooked the meal (food was his one joy), and Singer washed the dishes. Singer did all the communicating, often signing for great stretches of time. Antonapoulos rarely “spoke,” except before bed when he prayed to “Holy Jesus” or “Darling Mary.” Silver did not know how much his friend understood of what he signed. “But the two mutes were not lonely at all.” Until one day, when Singer was 32, Antonapoulos became ill. He was ordered on a strict diet—a great privation for him—and he blamed Singer, who enforced the doctor’s regimen. Antonapoulos became spiteful and soon began acting out by committing small misdemeanors and indecencies in public. Eventually, without consulting Singer, Antanapoulos’s cousin had him committed to the state mental institution. The loss of his friend was a devastating blow from which he struggled to recover. At first, and for a long time, Singer wandered the streets of this deep Southern town until late at night. Singer was not of this place (“more like a Northerner or a Jew,” the town’s African American doctor concluded after receiving a small kindness from him), and this made him even lonelier. After weeks of this solitude, his grief changed him: “His agitation gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. 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.” He reached that state of numbness that is the only outcome of deep heartache.

That first chapter, we realize after finishing the novel, is really an encapsulation of the entire novel, like a sonata movement in a Classical era work, whose statements would be developed in various ways by the rest of the work. But Singer’s fate is not just emblematic; it sets him on a course that would make him a central character in the lives of others. In fact his relationships with the other major characters becomes a unifying plot device as well as a central metaphor in its own right. In each of the next four chapters we meet in turn the other four main characters who would become unlikely (and unsought for) disciples of Singer and whose stories unfold as something like variations on the theme of Singer’s.

The second chapter introduces us to Bartholomew “Biff” Brannon, the owner of the town’s dinner, the New York Café. Biff was not a man of action: “[h]e usually stood in the corner by the cash register, his arm folded over his chest, quietly observing all that went on around him.” His perch on the edge of this world allows him to watch, cogitate and try to puzzle together the half-conclusions he comes to. We meet his wife, Alice, who has no respect for him, and it’s clear that there is no longer any love in this marriage. Their current point of contention is a drunk, Jake Blount, who has taken up something like permanent residency in the diner. Alice wants him out, but Biff is too passive to take action. And he finds Blount an interesting object of his contemplation. Meanwhile, as Saturday turns to Sunday, Blount passed the stage of inebriation and has become a sloppy drunk, trying to declaim radical politics to the late-night diners and drinkers, most of whom consider him an object of ridicule. As a result of the outcome of that evening Blount would become a major character in his own right.

In this second chapter, we meet the two other new major characters, Mick Kelley, a 14 year old member of a large, downwardly mobile family who operate a run-down boarding house. Mick is one of six children and is barely supervised by her overworked parents, and this explains how she is at the diner past midnight buying cigarettes. Biff finds himself strangely attracted to the tomboyish girl. In this chapter we also meet the town’s African American doctor, Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland, who in the middle of that night is brought by Blount into the diner and is enraged when he believes that he has been tricked into coming to a segregated eating establishment soley to be mocked. Even John Singer is there, having during his wanderings made arrangements with Biff to take all of his meals at the café every day. Through Mick we learn that Singer has taken up lodgings at the Kellys’ boarding house, and after Blount that night makes a scene owing to acute alcohol poisoning, Singer offers taking Blount to his room for the night. To continue the symphony analogy, this chapter is something like a scherzo, and there are three movements left.

The third chapter follows Mick’s around the next day, Sunday, and shows us her family and acquaints us with her aspirations, at the same time both unrealistic and cramped. She is obsessed by music. But her parents cannot afford any additional expenses (even if they knew her interest); almost any connection she might have with music is out of the question, so she listens outside the room of a boarder who has a radio. She discovers that the music she is particularly entranced by was written long ago by someone named “Motsart.” She dreams of someday having a piano, but for now she has tried to make a violin from a broken mandolin and wires. When she realizes it won’t work, she is disgusted with her own foolishness. She wonders why she so enthusiastically worked on a thing that was so ridiculous. ‘Maybe,” she thinks, “when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.”

We also discover in this chapter that the black cook at the boardinghouse, Portia, is Dr. Copeland’s daughter, and while she maintains her filial regard for him, she tells Mick of his estrangement from the family. She attributes his loneliness (despite being “full of books”) to his rejection of religion,. Religion gives peace, she explains, like what she, her husband, her brother Willie (who works in the kitchen of the New York Café), and their boarder Mr. Singer. (By using the same word as the narrator, peace, to describe the current state of John Singer, Portia ironically compares the numbness of personal devastation with the grace of God.) She warns Mick that she will experience the same emptiness of her father without God. “Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t have love and you don’t have peace.” Mick is cut to the quick by the accusation that she hadn’t loved, but she keeps her own counsel. When she wanders off she is gripped by an indescribable agitation and wrestles with an unquenchable longing for what she knows not. While sitting on the stairs hoping a boarder will turn on her radio she became lost in thought: 

“She thought a long time and kept hitting her thighs with her fists. Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want—I want—I want—was all that she could think about—but just what this real want was she did not know.”

In the fourth chapter we come to understand the obsession that Blount was unable to articulate during the previous night’s binge. Having been cleaned up by Singer he goes off to look for work. In the want ads he learns of a broken down amusement show looking for a mechanic. He finds the owner and tells him of his experience in all sorts of mechanical work is hired to run the flying jinny, an aging and splintered carousel that is taken from one vacant lot to the other to provide amusement for the town’s underbelly—mill hands, children and blacks. After taking the job he walks back through the white mill workers’ part of town. The buildings and inhabitants are both dreary and hopeless. He sidles up to three workers with “mill-sallow, dead pan faces” sitting on a porch. After offering them tobacco, he begins asking about strikes and their opinions about the owners of the mill. He asks them if their exploitation makes them mad, but all he can elicit is mocking laughter. “The men laughed in the slow and easy way that three men laugh at one.” He is enraged, but returns to Singer with bottles of beer because he knows that Singer is an empathetic soul and can provide him solace. He explains how he has spent his life studying the system that chews up people for profit on capital. He tells Singer that they are two of the very few who understand and when two such find each other it is something like a miracle. Singer, who clearly does not understand, writes a question on a card: Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Blount looks into Singer’s eyes, which seem to hypnotize him. “‘You get it,’ he said in a blurred voice. ‘You know what I mean.'”

Chapter five tells the story of Dr. Copeland, a man dedicated to the liberation of his people. So certain of the righteousness of his goal, he tried to enlist his children into the fight, giving them the names Karl Marx, Hamilton, Willie and Portia. Hs book study and life experience have taught him what it will take for the Negro to reclaim his rights: discipline, hard work, dignity and exemplary behavior to emulate. He knows this to his core; spreading this word has become his “real true cause.” He saw his children as agents in this work and hoped to teach them of their special places and their own real true cause, but they wanted to fit in with their peers, to avoid the stigma of being “uppity.” Dr. Copeland’s wife did not openly resist him, but she sided with them. She allowed the children their minor vices and childish wishes, and worse, she took them to church and instilled in them “the cult of meekness.”  It was more than he could bear, and the result of the conflict was his wife moving to the farm of her father and taking the children. She died, but the children remained estranged. Only Portia occasionally visited her father, but neither she nor any of the others became the scientists, lawyers and teachers Copeland knew his people needed, and he was now bereft of his family and his dreams.

These introductions are followed by the large central part of the work, where the destinies of these characters play out. The stories are presented much like the introductions, with one chapter for each of the characters, although the stories occasionally cross paths. Each chapter has subtly different narrative language appropriate to the character whose story is told.  Words or phrases that peculiar to a particular character are inserted in a non-intrusive way, and this softens the artificiality of an omniscient narrator’s voice. But these insertions do not substitute for the characters’s internal dialogue, they merely illustrate the level of intellectual maturity and social adjustment of the character. The narrator’s tone remains the same throughout: sympathetic without pathos, exposition without any unnecessary emphasis, objective rather than like-minded, all accomplished with clear expository sentences designed to show the reader external events and the characters’ responses, suggesting some deeper meaning, but without idiosyncratic style or obvious technique. She always allows the structure of the narrative (with occasional rhetorical emphasis) to permit the reader to form conclusions of a deeper sort.

As for the key feature of the structure most critical comment has focused on the relation of Singer to the three who most avidly seek out his attention. (Biff is too busy at the café to spend much time with Singer at the boarding house and doesn’t sit with him at the diner. Besides, his interest in Singer is clinical: Unlike the other three, he sees that Singer does not understand what they offer up to him. He tries to understand why they delude themselves.) The three become more and more dependent on Singer: “Each person addressed his words mainly to the mute. Their thoughts seemed to converge in him as the spokes of a wheel lead to the center hub.” Singer does not seek this position, nor does he do much to maintain it. He barely understands what they tell him, and they interpret his smiles or nods as suits them. He is happy for the company but finds them strange. One night he has a dream where Antonapoulos was knelling atop a set of stone stairs holding something above his head and he seemed in an attitude of prayer. Below him Singer himself, also naked, was looking up at Antonapoulos. Below Singer were the four other main characters looking at him. The dream ends when the stairs crumble. Much has been made of the metaphorical implications of Singer’s relation to the others. And just as Singer’s “disciples” attribute to his reactions the meaning they wish them to have, critics have assigned as the meaning of the metaphor their own hobbyhorses. I’ll give one example: Harold Bloom, one of America’s most prolific critics, and one who often appeals to non-academic readers, sees this metaphor in terms of classic (early) psychoanalysis and refers to Freud’s “The Dynamics of Transference” (1912) to note that inability to love results from early channelling of libidinal impulses in ways that withhold it from conscious personality (etc., etc.).2 But McCullers in this novel does not addressing the expression of erotic love by this metaphor. She is not even dealing with any of he other forms of love that bear Greek names (such as agape or philos). What the “disciples” want, is not “love,” but rather affirmation of the meaning they have chosen for their lives, the meaning they have selected consciously, not as a result of innate drives. This may or may not be susceptible to psychoanalytic description, but not in the reductive way Bloom suggests.

In much the same way other academic critics have forced this work into the confines of their own specialties. Let’s put aside feminist and queer theory critics and look at earlier critics who regarded the novel as another of the Southern Gothic genre begun by Faulkner. Most of the support for that categorization stems solely from the southern location and the supposed treatment of “freaks” and “outcasts.” (The reed that often supports the claim that McCullers is obsessed with “freaks” is Biff’s statement to Alice that “I like freaks.” But when he thinks of it Blount (to whom he applied the term) is not a freak, and those he was thinking of do not appear in the novel.) That the characters were ground down by poverty, the Depression and racism does not make them freaks or otherwise bizarre. In fact, McCullers treats each of the characters with a kind of respect, and thereby gives them a dignity that is apparent even in the first glance. McCullers’s characters are overall much more articulate than Faulkner’s, her African American characters in particular are real people rather than props. Her style and narrative structure avoid any self-referential “literary” technique. Nor does she emphasize the morbid or construct elaborate but implausible plot developments. In short, there seems really very little in common between McCullers and Faulkner. But for me the most important difference and what makes McCullers unique is how she can make a novel of ideas out of people and events that remain realistic throughout. In this novel almost all the characters are living on the edge of financial disaster. Privation distorts their possibilities as well as their relations to others. And yet in addition to trying to retain their dignity, the main characters are also searching for deeper meanings to life, and it is that quest and the answers they tell themselves that are at the heart of the mystery that we feel reading her novels.

Characters searching for meaning was not a Southern, or even American, literary commonplace. Of course, there were all sorts of existentialist theories and treatments of existentialist themes and outlooks from as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. (One could even go earlier with Büchner’s Woyzeck.) But whether one could (or even should) define a meaning for one’s self was a question that would become a central issue only in the middle of the twentieth century and later. An important early step in that direction was Camus’s The Stranger, but that novel was published a year after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And the French work dealt only with the preliminary issue: the absurdity of our isolation (to translate it into more McCullers-friendly concepts). Camus would elaborate his concept (and its consequences) in many essays and criticisms, which gave him intellectual heft among academics. McCullers was never an accomplished essayist, possibly because she formulated her ideas in terms of stories. (In this she might be said to be Southern.) But in her first extended story she examined her existential (or absurdist, for she is more like Camus than either the atheist Sartre or the deist Kierkegaard) thesis from several different angles, not just one  (exceedingly abnormal) point of view as in The Stranger.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is also the only work that puts her existential thesis in the context of common religious beliefs (for the South in the late 1930s). There are only two characters (and they are secondary) who subscribe to any form of systematic religious belief. The first is Antonapoulos, whose religious rituals, as far as we can tell, are extremely childlike and rote, almost superstitious. Singer’s dream acknowledges his friend’s superiority ot him in matters spiritual (and in the same sense his superiority to his own “disciples”), but in the end the edifice collapses. Portia is the other believer (or at least practitioner) in the work. She believes that membership in her denomination and moderate practice of ritual (not too “sanctified” she insists) results in peace and the ability to love.  It is true that she is the only character who demonstrates something close to selfless concern for others, even those outside her own insular race (for she expresses concern for the Kelly children). Her behavior, however, seems more in keeping with the cult of meekness (as Dr. Copeland calls it), the kind which reinforces conventional social and ethical rules without any appeal to heightened consciousness (the kind, in short, that William James seems to prefer in The Variety of Religious Experiences), and nothing she says shows it gives any meaning to her life. It certainly is not a motivation to seek social justice. The other characters dismiss religion outright. Mick believes no more in God than in Santa Claus, she says, but her early indoctrination bubbles up in snatches of scripture at an oddly inappropriate moment. Blount is plagued by a street preacher out to convert him, but Blount’s response is mere mockery. He regards it all as a lie, unlike the gospel of worker liberation which he preaches and for which he himself is mocked. Biff is also reminded of religion. His wife teaches Sunday School and at the beginning of the novel, he hears her preparing a lesson involving the verse from Mark, to the effect that all men seek for Him. The talk only effects nostalgia in Biff, who remembers the days before he gave it all up. When each reach their own crisis, none considers religion as a sensible recourse.

Even the one central teaching of conventional Christianity, altruistic love (Christ-like in its self-abnegation) does not give us permanent relief from the isolation the characters experience, because it depends on the existence of the object of our devotion. When Singer loses Antanapoulos, his reason for living disappears, and with that, he takes away the affirmation he was supplying to the others. The short denouement part of the novel concludes their stories in reverse order of the characters’ introductions. Copeland, having met his wall, the realization that his life work of self-actualizing into a respectable, dignified man was no match for the entrenched institutionalized forces of racism, gives up. He is carted off (literally) to the farm of his father-in-law, whose meekness and religiosity Copeland spent his lifetime opposing. It is perhaps the fact that the farm is away from the town, itself isolated from the arena that Copeland had tried to contend in, that makes it any refuge at all. Blount, having not convinced any person of the idea he found so simple, and indeed becomes the reason that the oppressed end up attacking each other, has to leave town, to escape questions and possibly to find converts elsewhere. Biff gives him a little help, but without Singer, Blount has not reason to stay. Mick made a decision, forced by circumstances that effectually compelled it, which for all practical purposes will end her dream of pursuing music. Barely on the edge of adulthood she can expect a future as dreary of her father’s, but evidently because we cannot live without meaning, however illusory, she thinks she can save $2 out of $10 weekly salary to some day buy a piano. These thoughts console her while she drinks a beer and has a chocolate sundae at the café at the same time realizing that she is angry all the time. Only there is no on to be angry at. Biff suffers no great trouble, because he had no meaning he would commit to. He realized he would no longer love again, and he never understood the mystery of Singer. But suddenly in the middle of the night, as he tends the customer-free café, he comes to a transcendent realization. “For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded.” But the exhilaration of the vision soon turns to terror. What he was looking at was the past; the future, however, holds “blackness, error, and ruin.” It was necessary to wash his face with a wet handkerchief and to actively impose self discipline to dispel the terror. He was, after all, a “sensible man.” And so he composed himself “soberly to await the morning sun.”

There are two influences that I think profoundly influence the organization and approach of this novel, and both are Russian.3 The first is the mature work of Dostoevsky. In the first place, the techniques of Dostoevsky’s first effort to mesh more than one story into a single work, Crime and Punishment, are evident. Long stretches of independent stories, occasionally crossing with the other story, are allowed to develop under their own logic, almost independent of the design of the others. What gives The Heart is a Lonely Hunter such expansiveness is the careful construction of the separate stories, not as accessories to each other, but almost in their own right. The parallels are not overstated, and the details allow us to consider the psychological makeup of each character. A particular point of comparison is the introduction of Blount in McCullers’s book and the introduction of Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment (in both cases in the second chapters of the respective novels). Like Blount, Marmeladov is quite drunk and attempts to tell his story. Like the customers in the New York Café, those in Dostoevsky’s bar treat the drunk with ridicule. But out of the encounter a relationship is formed between the two drunks and the two central characters in the novels. A second characteristic of Dostoevsky that McCullers also uses is the sudden shocking moment that drastically changes the relationships of the characters and their possible future courses of action. This is probably best seen in Demons (The Possessed) and The Idiot. Finally, Dostoevsky also dwell on the human need to express out inner thoughts to others. This is what in Crime and Punishment undoes Raskolnikov legally (although we are led to believe at the end, it formed the basis for his spiritual renewal). It is also evident, more perversely, in the character of Stavrogin in Demons. What McCullers does not take from Dostoevsky, however, is his tendency to descend into the maudlin. For her restrained tone and objective recounting of narrative, she more closely resembles Chekhov.  Both of these two Russian influences also  can be seen in the next two novels.

With her first novel McCullers staked out a territory that became her own over the next two decades—the mystery of human isolation and its consequence. Dostoevsky likewise spent his career exploring the spiritual dimensions of human suffering. Although neither fully answered the questions they posed, they both came near an answer by the final novel. In the next post I’ll discuss how McCullers came to almost know that “one big thing.”

Notes

1“The Hedgehog and the Fox” in Russian Thinkers (London: Hogarth Press, 1978), reprinted in Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays ed. by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [Return to text.]

2Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” Carson McCullers (Modern Critical Views) ed. by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), pp. 1–2. [Return to text.]

3McCullers wrote an essay in 1941 entitled “Russian Realists and Southern Writers” in which she compared the Russian aristocracy to the Southern social order: “The Southerner and the Russian are both ’types,’ in that they have certain recognizable and national psychological traits. Hedonistic, imaginative, lazy, and emotional—there is surely a cousinly resemblance.” It is not for this reason, however, or at least not for this reason alone, that I think she owes a debt to the Russians. [Return to text.]