The Mortgaged Heart of Carson McCullers
It seems only fitting to drink half a bottle of French wine while reading Carson McCullers, and so I do. Reactions and speculations to her life, her writing, and her sexuality vary considerably, but one thing is absolutely certain: Carson could drink anyone under the table.
The author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter also smoked three packs of cigarettes a day to go with her penchant for whiskey. Both habits were shared by her lifelong love and twice-husband, Reeves.
Carson didn’t look like an alcoholic, and nor did she look like a genius, though she was irrefutably both. Carson was so delicate and dainty that she looked like a young child for the five decades she lived. This perpetual fragility and youth contrasted starkly with the oversized, mannish clothing she wore. To look at her, you wouldn’t know she drank gin straight out of juice tumblers, morning, noon and night, or that she had done so since she was a child.
Of course, Carson wasn’t the first writer alcoholic and wouldn’t be the last. Hemingway, Crane, Melville, Truman Capote, Fitzgerald, Faulkner… but a young woman writing in the 1940s and ‘50s, who dressed like a man and did as she wished, is something else altogether. And so the writer endured the gamut of speculation and accusation and gossip, during her life, and forever after.
Her works were acclaimed, but many suggested her husband had written them. And though he was also an alcoholic from youth on, tongues wagged that Carson drove him to it. Their volatile relationship was blamed on Carson’s destructive persona -- or on “the fact” that she was a lesbian, that she didn’t sleep with Reeves, that she was “really a man” or that both husband and wife were gay and shared lovers. After Reeves’s tragic suicide, Carson was blamed for wearing the pants in the family. Even friends said that Reeves had died for her, or at least because of her. “Friend” and fellow lush, Truman Capote said, “There was nothing wrong with Reeves except her. He should have been running a gasoline station in Georgia, and he would have been perfectly happy.”
She was born Lula Carson in Columbus, Georgia in 1917. Carson’s mom was a drinker and smoker too. Dad was a watchmaker. They were spirited and kind people. Despite the Deep South’s racial tensions at that time, the kids were instructed to treat people equally.
Carson was to become a concert pianist. Many aren’t aware that she was a musical prodigy. The day a piano arrived she sat down and began playing. Her family was shocked. Soon it was clear that Carson could play tunes after hearing them once or twice, and so she was given lessons but quickly surpassed her teachers.
Carson had devotion on top of talent, practicing for hours every day though she was ten years old. She had another devotion: reading. “My cousin once remarked that I didn’t only read books, but libraries,” Carson wrote. Her favourite authors as a pre-teen? Katherine Mansfield, Dostoevsky, “Tolstoy, of course.”
Columbus, Georgia, was blazing hot and totally boring, and reading helped her survive it. Later she described the town in The Ballad of the Sad Café: “The town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world… the soul rots with boredom.”
Carson’s peculiarities contributed to her sense of isolation. For an adolescent girl reading Russian literature, a piano prodigy devoted to her work, tall and gangly, and already dressing in shapeless boy’s clothing, she didn’t fit in with the other kids. Later, we saw the theme of misfits, of isolation and strangeness, prominent in all of her work.
Also, Carson’s health was frail, even as a child. She was diagnosed once with pneumonia, but later doctors were sure she’d had rheumatic fever that damaged her internally. Illness made her feel even more estranged from others.
At seventeen, she left the south for New York, to study at the famous Julliard. Though she was an oddity in the sticks, she was a bit hick for the big city, and painfully naïve. She never did study at Julliard -- the money she had been sent with to pay tuition was lost on the subway, the story goes. More likely, she was taken advantage of by a young woman who befriended her, a “roommate.” Carson herself tells a few different versions of this story.
Her friend Tennessee Williams wrote that Carson could only afford a boarding house, and she had no idea she was staying in a whorehouse. She finally moved and took odd jobs, spending her spare time writing stories. It was around this time that Carson ceased to dream about the piano and started referring to herself as a writer.
Back home for the summer of 1935, she met a handsome soldier and aspiring writer named Reeves McCullers. There was no question for either of them that they were meant to be together, and a tumultuous love affair began. Reeves really knew how to win a girl’s heart -- he brought Carson beer and cigarettes instead of flowers.
They married in 1937. Carson endured several illnesses again, but when she was well, the pair spent every moment together drinking heavily -- they could each go through a big bottle of cognac to themselves. Reeves had army duties, but was home much of the time, yet wrote nothing. Carson, sick or not, wrote all the time.
Reeves’s family was shocked that he "allowed" her to wear men’s slacks, loose fitting shirts, blazers and loafers. But Reeves didn’t mind.
By 23, her first book was published to great acclaim, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. She was propelled instantly to celebrity status and notoriety for the story that decried racism in the South and praised oddballs and misfits everywhere. A year later, her next novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye was published. But trouble abounded. The pair was drinking and arguing so much that Carson began proceedings for divorce. She also took ill, this time losing some of her vision to stabbing head pains. She was partially paralyzed. She had pneumonia, pleurisy, and strep throat. At times she could barely type, but kept writing anyways.
She landed a major fellowship grant and began work on what was to become The Member of the Wedding, but in 1944 Carson had a nervous breakdown, lung problems, and a major case of the flu. Though she had divorced Reeves, they were never really apart. They married again in 1945. He wanted to take care of her.
The rest of the story is repetitive -- Carson suffers illness and strokes that leave her crippled and paralyzed. She writes, sometimes through dictation. Reeves never starts writing. They entertain in their home. They drink. Reeves quits drinking, then starts again. Both are thought to have had homosexual liaisons, and Carson’s detractors lament that her being an invalid lesbian robbed Reeves of his zest for life. Carson loved women, and she dressed like a man, and sometimes used lesbian themes in her books, so she must have been gay.
But more than a few scholars or friends disagree, and say her “love affairs” with women were platonic. She did love Reeves, though she possibly withheld sex from him -- perhaps because she was sick and paralyzed! She got pregnant at one point, however, so they did have intimate relations. Carson was disabled at the time of her pregnancy and miscarried. Her brother goes so far as to say that Carson was not gay, she was asexual. She often alluded to sex ruining friendship and love, a passion she did not experience or understand.
Whatever the reasons for their strange bond and messy marriage, both drank day and night, and argued, and sometimes Reeves was violent. It would have been hard for him to care for her, yes, but Carson was the breadwinner for the most part. Reeves was often depressed or enraged, and it may well be that he was jealous of the fact that she did what he always wanted to do: write. He never wrote. The more he faced the blank pages, the more depressed he got.
Then Reeves began talking about suicide, and in 1953, he begged Carson to enter into that most binding of passionate contracts -- a double suicide. Their friend Tennessee Williams says Reeves was set on a nice cherry tree and had twin ropes for them. Carson fled this time, terrified. Shortly after she left, Reeves killed himself with huge doses of alcohol and barbiturates.
Carson seldom spoke of him after, and many say she was emotionless to his tragedy. Perhaps the difficult years with the love of her life sentenced her at last to silence. In any event, whatever she was feeling, she kept writing. She suffered stroke after stroke, endured surgeries, and lost a breast to cancer. And wrote. In addition to novels and short stories about alcoholism, racism, and other "isms," she frequently spoke against segregation. In 1948, for example, she wrote a letter to her hometown library, where black people were not allowed entrance, and complained as an author represented there against injustice.
Finally, in 1967, she had a stroke that left her in a coma. Carson lay there unconscious for 47 days and then she died.
A posthumous collection of essays, poems and stories was released, appropriately titled, The Mortgaged Heart.
The story of Carson cannot be separated from the story of her life with Reeves. There is no doubt at all that the intensity veered from euphoric devotion into hell, with both waging psychological warfare at each other. He nursed her, and supported her work from the beginning, loving her despite or perhaps because of her differences. They tried to divorce, and had to remarry. Neither wanted anyone else, though they may have had special “arrangements.” It doesn’t seem important however -- Carson’s work was what was important, and their time together.
And it is upon this love/hate story that Carson’s reputation as a faker, robber, destroyer, oppressor and emasculator were born. Biographer Josyane Savigneau laments that though scholars have laid to rest any forgery rumours, they still abound. A woman dedicated to her work is a ball breaker, even though it is likely that Reeves was not a writer because he had no talent. He was a soldier and an accountant. His failure as a writer was his own sorrow, not something that Carson did to him. If Reeves had anything to say, to write, then he should have done so. But he did nothing, even when Carson supported him financially to stay home and write.
“If indeed a writer is someone who writes no matter what,” Josyane states, “Then Carson McCullers, the sickly, paralyzed, alcoholic, and depressed Carson McCullers, was a writer, and Reeves was not.”