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A True Southern Writer: Carson McCullers

by Bryan Conger, Triad Stage Artistic Associate & Dramaturg for The Member of the Wedding

Home is where the heart is. It’s a phrase that — though heard often — rings particularly true for Southern writers. Home is the place they return to time and time again in their stories to illuminate truths of the lonely outcast and exorcise demons of the past. A classic Southern writer, Carson McCullers both loved her homeland and battled with it throughout her body of work.

Born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917, she showed signs of being a storyteller from an early age. Though a sickly child, she had a healthy imagination and strong artistic and musical talents. The Smith household was one filled with stories, and Carson — like young Frankie in The Member of the Wedding — would produce plays for her family. She transformed the archway between two sitting rooms into her stage and made sliding pocket doors her curtain. Her adoring mother pushed her to be a concert pianist, but Carson ultimately left music behind to pursue her storytelling instincts as a writer.

In 1934, she left home for New York and studied writing at Columbia and Washington State University — but persistent illness continued to bring her back home. During that time, she met the man with whom she would begin a tumultuous 16-year relationship: a soldier stationed at nearby Fort Benning, Reeves McCullers. Their marriage was a cycle of disastrous fights and passionate reconciliations — finally culminating in Reeves begging Carson to make a suicide pact with him. She fled, refusing to join him and leaving him to die alone from an overdose of sleeping pills.

During an early separation from Reeves in 1936, Carson settled into a Brooklyn brownstone that became a community for intellectuals and artists. It was here among the likes of George Davis, W.H. Auden, and Gypsy Rose Lee that McCullers got the inspiration for The Member of the Wedding — a story she had been trying to write for years. One afternoon she and Lee ran outside together upon hearing sirens blaring in the streets; while sprinting down the sidewalk, McCullers stopped and said, “Frankie is in love with her brother and the bride, and wants to become a member of the wedding!” The story was published in 1946, and her good friend Tennessee Williams encouraged her to adapt it into a play in 1951.

Some scholars call it her most autobiographical work. Its themes of isolation, loneliness, and searching for a place to belong reflect struggles she dealt with throughout her short life (she died of a stroke in 1967 at age 50). Some of her other most famous works include The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of a Sad Café, and Reflections in a Golden Eye. Despite traveling the world and gaining critical acceptance as a writer, McCullers never truly escaped her small town Southern roots or her personal insecurities. In her heart, mind, and work, she always returned to stories of the South and longing.

Pictured: Carson McCullers’ childhood home and parlor in Columbus, Georgia; Photos by Triad Stage Artistic Director Preston Lane in 2014

 

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