This year, 2017, marks the centenary of Carson McCullers’ birth. It seems appropriate then that on International Women’s Day some attention is given to this author who exists, at least on this side of the pond, in underserved obscurity.  McCullers is relatively unknown in the UK – I know of only two people around my age to have read any of her work – but she is regarded in America as a great writer. However, even in a U.S. context, McCullers’ work is often boxed into the category of Southern Gothic, leaving her often to pale into insignificance compared to such heavyweights as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, who are seen as doing the same thing, just better. I disagree with both this classification of her work, and this value judgement about it, and I want to express why I believe McCullers should be more widely read and recommend you a novel with which to start.

McCullers’ work tends to be classified among Southern Gothic literature because of her reputation for writing about unusual, or grotesque, characters; it is also possible that this subject matter did not do much to increase McCullers’ popularity in the mid-twentieth century when she was writing.  It is all too easy to attribute the fascination with misfits and outcasts to McCullers’ own life.  She was bisexual, androgynous, battled numerous mental health issues, and was physically disabled.  However, this limiting biographical approach does not pay due respect to McCullers’ thoughtful, powerful portrayals of social outcasts, which is not limited to minorities with which she herself identified.

My first encounter with Carson McCullers’ writing was with her debut novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, published in 1940 and written when she was just 23 years old.  To me, if someone were to write this book today, they would be commended for the diversity of their characters.  For McCullers, who grew up in the oppressive Deep South, to write this in the 1940s made the book well ahead of its time and as such it did not get the attention it deserved. This is one reason why I’m recommending that you read it this International Women’s Day.

The novel follows five main characters, each with their own reason for feeling like an outcast.  The central character, John Singer, is a deaf mute who has recently rented a room in the house of the Kelly family after his former roommate – for whom it is strongly implied that John has homoerotic feelings – is taken away to an asylum.  Living with the Kelly family, John becomes a confidant to four other characters.  The first is the Kellys’ youngest daughter, Mick, who is on the brink of adolescence and struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, wishing she were a boy.[1] The second, Biff Brannon, is a widower and proprietor of the local café. Biff is an extremely emasculated character, using women’s products and wishing he were “a mother”.[2]  The third of John’s confidantes is Benedict Copeland, a black doctor and Marxist who feels frustrated at the treatment of his community and his community’s failure to force change. And the fourth person into whose life the narrative takes us is Jake Blount, a travelling labourer who shares many of Copeland’s left wing political views, but cannot look past their racial differences to in order to act on their shared idealistic beliefs.

This may seem like a lot of content for just one novel, and it is; but McCullers handles everything with an extraordinary sensitivity and the patchwork of the community that she builds within the pages is impressive to say the least. These four characters all fervently believe that, in Singer, they have found someone with a unique understanding of their inner struggles, and they all remainin blissfully ignorant of Singer’s own feelings.  They also fail to connect with each other whenever they see each other in Singer’s room. Despite this, McCullers does not demonise or create caricatures of any of her characters. This is a truly well written novel, and each of McCullers’ characters feel real: each of them – like all of us – have their flaws, but these flaws are used to emphasise their humanity.

Almost eighty years after its publication, McCullers’ book can still convey a profound message to all of us.  At a time when many groups fighting for the rights of minorities are under immense pressure, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter reminds us that isolation does not bring progress but tragedy.  It is high time that McCullers is brought out of the shadow of the Southern Gothic and appreciated for bringing believable misfits onto the page and into our lives.

[1] Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, (London: Penguin, 2008): 41.

[2] Ibid. 119.