Her mother was the granddaughter of a plantation owner and Confederate war hero. Her father, similar to Wilbur Kelly in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was a watchmaker and jeweler of French Huguenot descent. From the age of ten, Lula took piano lessons. When she was 15, her father gave her a typewriter for her writing. Smith graduated from Columbus High School.
In September 1934 at age 17, she left home on a steamship from Savannah, Georgia, planning to study piano at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. After losing the money set aside for her tuition, she never attended the school. McCullers worked in menial jobs and studied creative writing under the Texas writer Dorothy Scarborough at night classes at Columbia University, and with Sylvia Chatfield Bates at Washington Square College of New York University. In 1936 she published her first work.
"Wunderkind", an autobiographical piece which Bates had much admired, appeared in Story magazine. It depicted a musical prodigy's failure and adolescent insecurity. It is also collected in the The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. From 1935 to 1937 she divided her time, as her studies and health dictated, between Columbus and New York. In September 1937 she married an ex-soldier and aspiring writer, Reeves McCullers.
They began their married life in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Reeves had found some work. Maxim Lieber served as her literary agent in 1938, 1941, and 1948-1949. In Charlotte and Fayetteville, North Carolina, McCullers wrote her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in the Southern Gothic tradition. Suggested by McCullers's editor, the title was taken from Fiona MacLeod's poem "The Lonely Hunter." Carson McCullers and some commentators say that she wrote in the style of Southern realism, a genre inspired by Russian realism. At the time, the novel was interpreted as an anti-fascist book. McCullers published eight books.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), written at the age of twenty-three, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Member of the Wedding (1946), are the best known. The novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1951) depicts loneliness and pain of unrequited love. She was an alumna of Yaddo in Saratoga, New York. Some people know her work by film adaptations. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was adapted as a film by the same title in 1968, with Alan Arkin starring in the lead role. Reflections in a Golden Eye was directed by John Huston (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor.
"I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York," said Huston in An Open Book (1980). "Carson lived nearby, and one day when Buzz and I were out for a walk she hailed us from her doorway. She was then in her early twenties, and had already suffered the first of a series of strokes. I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine.
It wasn't palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger." McCullers and Reeves separated in 1940 and divorced in 1941. After she separated from Reeves, she moved to New York to live with George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar.
In Brooklyn, she became a member of the art commune February House. Among their friends were W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Paul and Jane Bowles.
After World War II, Carson lived mostly in Paris. Her close friends during these years included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. In 1945, Carson and Reeves McCullers remarried. Three years later, she attempted suicide while depressed. In 1953, Reeves tried to convince her to commit suicide with him, but she fled.
After Carson left, Reeves killed himself in their Paris hotel with an overdose of sleeping pills. Her bittersweet play, The Square Root of Wonderful (1957), was an attempt to examine these traumatic experiences. The Member of the Wedding (1946) describes the feelings of a young girl at her brother's wedding. The Broadway production of the novel had a successful run in 1950–51 and was produced by the Young Vic in London in September 2007. McCullers suffered throughout her life from several illnesses and from alcoholism—she had contracted rheumatic fever at the age of fifteen and suffered from strokes since her youth.
By the age of 31, her left side was entirely paralyzed. She died in Nyack, New York, on September 29, 1967, after a brain hemorrhage, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. McCullers dictated her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare (1999), during her final months. Her home from 1945 to 1967 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
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