Carson McCullers (1917-1967) was the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Member of the Wedding, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Clock without Hands. Born in Columbus, Georgia, on February 19, 1917, she became a promising pianist and enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York when she was seventeen, but lacking money for tuition, she never attended classes. Instead she studied writing at Columbia University, which ultimately led to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the novel that made her an overnight literary sensation. On September 29, 1967, at age fifty, she died in Nyack, New York, where she is buried.
In 1938 Carson McCullers, a twenty-one-year-old writing student living in New York, submitted an outline and six chapters of a novel, "The Mute," to Houghton Mifflin. It was read by several editors there, all of whom agreed that she was a writer of exceptional promise. "I think the author . . . will produce a book of literary distinction. It will be a spellbinder . . . No doubt here is genuine young talent, modern talent." Houghton Mifflin's editor in chief, Paul Brooks, and the trade director, Ferris Greenslet, offered her a book contract with an advance of five hundred dollars. McCullers completed the novel the following year and, at the welcome suggestion of Houghton Mifflin, retitled it The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a phrase taken from the poem "The Lonely Hunter" by Fiona Macleod, the pseudonym of William Sharp. In a letter to McCullers's agent, Maxim Lieber, dated November 16, 1939, Brooks accepted the final draft of the novel for publication and said, "It is a book which we should be proud to have on our list. We feel that the final revisions have been very successful, and we should expect to get good reviews from the more discerning critics." The novel was published on June 4, 1940, to extraordinary acclaim, and McCullers, hailed as a child prodigy, became a literary phenomenon.
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940
Octavo, modern full burgundy morocco gilt
raised bands, black morocco spine label
marbled boards, top edge gilt
From Bauman Rare Books
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940
Octavo, original tan cloth, original dust jacket
Housed in a custom clamshell box
Four lonely individuals, marginalized misfits in their families/communities, each obsessed with a vision of his or her place in the world, collect about a single deaf-mute with whom they share their deepest secrets. An adolescent who desires to write symphonies, an itinerant drunk who believes he must organize poor laborers, a black physician whose desire is to motivate his people to demand their rightful place in American society, and a cafe owner whose secret wish is sexually ambiguous, believes that the deaf Mr. Singer understands and validates his or her obsession. Singer, ironically obsessed with a friendship of questionable reciprocity, commits suicide when the friend dies.
This richly detailed work, set in the pre-World War II era in a small southern U.S. city, explores a wide range of contemporaneous issues: the status of the black in the south; the loss of purpose among young people; the continued exploitation of labor.
It also deals with disenfranchisement of the physically and/or emotionally disabled and those racial "others." The social and economic position of the black physician reminds the reader how recently non-caucasian, non-male doctors entered the profession in any numbers, and how far the "others" must go to gain equal status. And, finally, the novel raises questions about suicide and about the parameters of madness.
(McCullers, Carson, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, New York University)
Carson McCullers plots The Heart is a Lonely Hunter around characters. it is a very tightly structured plot on that basis. She deals with each character in turn in each of the three sections of the novel. The novel covers the span of a little over one year. In that year, Singer loses his great love to an insane asylum and gains four more people in his life. The three sections of the novel cover different parts of the year, but do little more than divide the rising, climax, and falling action of the plot. Yet, this is not a novel of that traditional variety. Since the action of the novel is more interior than exterior, it plots the events in the emotional lives of its characters rather than the events in the fictional world at large.
LIST OF CHARACTERS:
John Singer - mute man who becomes a repository of the desire of several characters. He loves Spiros Antonapoulos more than anyone else, but is separated from him because of Spiros’ mental illness. When Spiros dies, John Singer kills himself.
Mick Kelly - a girl in her teens who wants to become a musician but who has no resources for that pursuit. She spends her time trying to compose music without knowing how to write it and to play music without any instruments. She finds in John Singer the all-knowing listener she longs for.
Bartholomew "Biff" Brannon - owner of the New York Cafe in the small Southern town of the novel’s setting. He is the spectator of the novel, watching as other characters develop a strong attachment to John Singer. He develops a crush on the young girl, but never acts on it.
Jake Blount - Biff Brannon thinks of him as "the sort of fellow that kids laughed at and dogs wanted to bite." He is a self-taught Marxist who uses the methods of revival tent meetings to sell the word of Marx. He is only calm when he is with Singer.
Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland - an African-American doctor who is educated in the philosophy of social sciences. He combines a knowledge of Marxism with a knowledge of the history of the oppression of African Americans. He wants to find fellow African Americans who will help him organize his people to fight oppression, but never finds anyone. He also finds John Singer to be the all-knowing and all-understanding listener he has always longed for.
“Miss McCullers' picture of loneliness, death, accident, insanity, fear, mob violence and terror is perhaps the most desolate that has so far come from the South. Her quality of despair is unique and individual; and it seems to me more natural and authentic than that of Faulkner. Her groping characters live in a world more completely lost than any Sherwood Anderson ever dreamed of. And she recounts incidents of death and attitudes of stoicism in sentences whose neutrality makes Hemingway's terse prose seem warm and partisan by comparison. Hovering mockingly over her story of loneliness in a small town are primitive religion, adolescent hope, the silence of deaf mutes - and all of these give the violent colors of the life she depicts sheen of weird tenderness.
It is impossible to read the book and not wonder about the person who wrote it, the literary antecedents of her style and the origins of such a confounding vision of life. The jacket of the book tells us with great reserve that she is twenty-two years old. Because the novel treats of life in the South, we assume that she is Southern born and reared.”
(Richard Wright, "Inner Landscape" New Republic, 103 (Aug, 1940) at carson-mccullers.com)
From Bauman Rare Books
With the publication of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers, all of twenty-three, became a literary sensation. With its profound sense of moral isolation and its compassionate glimpses into its characters' inner lives, the novel is considered McCullers' finest work, an enduring masterpiece first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1940. At its center is the deaf-mute John Singer, who becomes the confidant for various types of misfits in a Georgia mill town during the 1930s. Each one yearns for escape from small town life. When Singer's mute companion goes insane, Singer moves into the Kelly house, where Mick Kelly, the book's heroine (and loosely based on McCullers), finds solace in her music. Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition, and with a deft sense for racial tensions in the South, McCullers spins a haunting, unforgettable story that gives voice to the rejected, the forgotten, and the mistreated -- and, through Mick Kelly, gives voice to the quiet, intensely personal search for beauty. Richard Wright praised Carson McCullers for her ability "to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness." She writes "with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming," said the The New York Times. McCullers became an overnight literary sensation, but her novel has endured, just as timely and powerful today as when it was first published. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is Carson McCullers at her most compassionate, endearing best.
(Reading Group Guiders)
Critics called the young writer a real find whose novel revealed a new tone, a true writer's sensibility. The New York Times called it, "a remarkable book . . . (McCullers) writes with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming." Richard Wright, in the New Republic, said, "To me the most impressive aspect of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race." And the Saturday Review of Literature commented, "This is an extraordinary novel to have been written by a young woman; but the more important fact is that it is an extraordinary novel in its own right, considerations of authorship apart." In the Boston Evening Transcript, May Sarton observed, "We have waited a long time for a new writer, and now one has appeared it is an occasion for hosannahs . . . It is hard to think that we shall have to wait a year or two before we can expect another book from this extraordinary young woman."
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was translated into some fifteen languages, and in 1968 was made into a major motion picture starring Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke, both of whom were nominated for Oscars. The Modern Library named the book one of the top one hundred works of fiction of the twentieth century. Houghton Mifflin remained Carson McCullers's publisher throughout her career, during which she produced five novels, two plays, twenty short stories, two dozen nonfiction pieces, a book of children's verse, and a handful of distinguished poems. She worked with a select few editors over the years, but she enjoyed a unique kinship with Robert Linscott, who had been one of the first fans of her work. She met him in New York in the summer of 1941, and later she would visit him and his family in Boston. There is a long history of mutual admiration between Houghton and McCullers. In a letter to Ferris Greenslet, dated November 14, 1941, McCullers wrote, "Houghton Mifflin has treated me so handsomely, and believe me, I appreciate it . . . Later on, I wish H.M. would let or make Bob (Linscott) come down for a visit here. We have such good music." In 1941 Greenslet sponsored McCullers for a Guggenheim fellowship, which enabled her to travel to Europe in 1942. In a December 23, 1941, letter to McCullers, Linscott wrote, "All your friends in New York are so concerned for you. Really, Carson, you do float in a sea of love. I've never seen such devotion."
After her death in 1967, Houghton Mifflin published one last volume of previously uncollected writings, The Mortgaged Heart, edited by Carson's sister Rita. Today, as always, Carson McCullers remains an integral part of Houghton's longstanding commitment to — and legacy of — discovering new writers and supporting and nurturing them throughout their careers.
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
“It is like a flowering dream. Ideas grow, budding silently, and there are a thousand illuminations coming day by day as the work progresses. … I understand only particles. I understand the characters, but the novel itself is not in focus. The focus comes at random moments which no one can understand, least of all the author. For me, they usually follow great effort. To me, these illuminations are the grace of labor. All of my work has happened this way. It is at once the hazard and the beauty that a writer has to depend on these illuminations. After months of confusion and labor, when the idea has flowered, the collusion is Divine.”
– Carson McCullers