Cover image for Carson McCullers : a life
Carson McCullers : a life
Savigneau, Josyane.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Carson McCullers. English
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Physical Description:
xii, 370 pages, 12 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm
Format :


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Home Location
Item Holds
PS3525.A1772 Z8513 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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"Writing is my occupation," Carson McCullers often said. "I must do it. I have done it for so long." The beloved author of such classics as THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, and REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, McCullers began writing her first best-selling novel at the age of twenty. It was the start of a lifelong love affair with stories and language -- and of the creation of a body of work that continues to draw new generations of readers.
In CARSON MCCULLERS: A LIFE, Josyane Savigneau gives us at last a truly popular biography of one of America's greatest women novelists. Carson McCullers's life story rivals the plot of any of her novels. A brilliant, sensitive artist who had a painful small-town childhood in the South and early international success, she was crippled by a mysterious disease in early adulthood. A woman who composed the most romantic of letters, she struggled to find lasting happiness with her husband, Reeves, whom she married twice. Carson wrote often of the loneliness of the human condiiton, and yet she surrounded herself with a constellation of witty, always entertaining celebrities: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, Richard Wright, John Huston, and Edward Albee, among others.
The first biographer to have the full cooperation of the McCullers esate, Josyane Savigneau has uncovered the private Carson McCullers, a woman who never really grew up yet was always seductive, a woman whose candor and immense emotional needs sometimes overshadowed her great charm, generosity, loyalty, humor, and deep intelligence. Above all, Carson was a life force, a person who needed to write and who did so despite great physical pain, up until the very end. Published to rave reviews in France, this passionate biography is one that "must [be] read . . . to measure the full extent of McCullers's torment and her determination to overcome her suffering" (L'EXPRESS).

Author Notes

Josyane Savigneau edits "Le Monde's" book review & is the author of "Marquerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life" (translated by Joan E. Howard), which Edmund White called, in a front-page review in the "New York Times Book Review," "surely the best biography to be written in French in several decades." She lives in France.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Despite her death in 1967 at the age of 50, novelist and playwright McCullers continues to inspire new works. Her recently published autobiography, Illuminations and Night Glare, a forthcoming documentary film and play about her, and a song cycle by Suzanne Vega are now joined by this revisionist biography by the author of Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life and editor of the Le Monde book supplement. Offering few new facts or revelations, Savigneau relies heavily on Virginia Spencer Carr's 1975 McCullers bio, The Lonely Hunter, though she criticizes Carr's approach as "cold," and instead employs a more novelistic style, often projecting motives for McCullers's behavior. Savigneau's most significant point of departure from Carr's study is a refutation of the significance of McCullers's sexual feelings for women, of her intimate relationships with gay men and lesbians and the homosexual content of her work. Many critics have been confounded by McCullers's many obsessive attachments to unwilling female objects, though she appears to have never actually had sex with a woman, or wanted to. While Carr treats McCullers's male attire and aggressive fixations on women as an indicator of a conflicted sexual identity, Savigneau prefers to see it simply as style. While devotees will be disappointed that such details as McCullers's father's suicide are not included or explored, Savigneau's passionate identification with her subject will appeal to readers who continue to love McCullers. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Cultural editor of Le Monde and author of Marguerite Yourcenar (1993), Savigneau acknowledges Virginia Spencer Carr's The Lonely Hunter (CH, Nov'75) as a "monumental," "meticulous," and "methodical" biography of McCullers (1917-67). Moreover, she credits Carr's book as the source for most of the data in this new life of the strangely beguiling southern wunderkind. Why, then, the need for this tome? Unlike Carr, Savigneau had the advantages of the cooperation of McCullers's heirs, interviews with McCullers's devoted psychotherapist, and access to unpublished documents preserved at the University of Texas. Savigneau argues that Carr's scholarly "neutrality" (with its resultant lack of "compassion") "creates a rather negative image" that this work corrects. Contending that one cannot ignore overwhelming evidence that McCullers--despite personal charm, remarkable talent, and spirited endurance of lifelong ailments--perennially tested the devotion of friends and family with her alcoholism and self-destructive behavior, Savigneau posits the need for writers to feel, think, and organize existence "according to other criteria." Unfortunately, too many of Savigneau's rehabilitative efforts sound more like thesis-driven assertions than conclusions compelled by clear evidence. Libraries at all levels will find this work useful--but Carr's book and McCullers's unfinished autobiography (Illumination and Night Glare, ed. by Carlos Dews, CH, Apr'00) remain the indispensable resources on McCullers. A. J. Griffith Our Lady of the Lake University

Booklist Review

Originally published in France, where southern American literature traditionally has been well received, this biography of Georgia fiction writer McCullers is the first one for which access to the subject's unpublished manuscripts and letters was permitted. French book-review editor Savigneau views, with careful equanimity, McCullers' difficult personality as well as continuously difficult physical state. McCullers wrote very little during her short life, and she left behind a sour taste in the mind of many people because of her egocentric character and uncomfortable treatment of others. But Savigneau sees a writer truly dedicated to her art, one who greatly suffered from illness and in whom "adolescence seems to have remained intact"; but the latter functioned as the wellspring from which her appealing novels and short stories flowed. Her mother was of utmost consequence in her life, even as an adult; but with her husband, Reeves McCullers, whom she married twice, she had a greatly problematic relationship, "at once destructive and perhaps indispensable." Ironically, McCullers was both self-destructive and a fighter. --Brad Hooper

Library Journal Review

Critical of how Carson McCullers (1917-67) has been presented in previous biographical works, Savigneau (Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life) aimed to find McCullers the private "strange woman-child" not conceal her. Indeed, Savigneau compassionately reveals the woman with a childlike face who continually lived the unsettling, emotional turmoil of an adolescent in an adult world but who also showed the incredible intelligence, talent, determination, and strength to overcome her human frailties. Thanks to access granted by the McCullers estate, Savigneau provides us with information from previously unpublished manuscripts and letters while also drawing heavily upon work done by Carlos L. Dews (ed., Illuminations and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers); critical and biographical writings previously available only in French; an interview with McCullers's psychotherapist and friend, Mary Mercer; and previous American biographical works, mainly Virginia Spencer Carr's major The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers (LJ 6/1/75). Although Carr's life remains the standard, Savigneau's heartfelt, honest portrait of one of the great novelists of the American South attests to McCullers's continuing international popularity. Highly recommended for academic and large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/00.] Jeris Cassel, Rutgers Univ. Libs., New Brunswick, NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction Carson McCullers would have been eighty-four years old on February 19, 2001, an age that would have made her our absolute contemporary. But she died prematurely, in 1967, at age fifty. She published only eight books, plus a posthumous collection of short stories, essays, and poems. That doesn't sound like much to build an international reputation on. She attained one, however, and although she may not be very famous among the public at large, only rarely are serious readers unfamiliar with the work of this novelist from the American South. Could that be what annoys some of the people who knew and outlived her, causing them to minimize or obscure her writing, her status, her very existence? John Brown, one of her first editors in the early 1940s, who became her friend and was a constant source of support during her stays in France (he was working at the time for the cultural service of the American embassy in Paris), seems to wonder what could possibly prompt a full-length biography of Carson McCullers: "Granted, there are some fine texts, but, even so, she was not really much of a writer."1 "Moving, yes, but a minor author. And broken by illness at such a young age," adds the American playwright Arthur Miller.2 André Bay, who was Carson McCullers's French editor at Éditions Stock -- he had read her work in 1945, on John Brown's recommendation -- does not share this skepticism: Obviously, if you use the entire history of American literature as a yardstick, and you line up the major works, you could conclude that Carson McCullers's four novels and her corpus of short stories make her "not really much of a writer." But there are "grand accidents." And they are essential. They are also what gives meaning to literature. Carson McCullers is one of the finest of those "accidents." No one has captured as she did the vast American sense of loneliness, and the suffering it causes, especially in the unreal, dreamlike South of her imaginings, which seems almost "bathed in rum." For me, it is also Carson McCullers, daughter of the South fascinated by snow that she was, who holds the answer to the question "When the snow melts, where does the whiteness go?" It is in her work.3 The view that Carson McCullers was merely a promising talent broken and unfulfilled has been strongly contested by another Southern writer, Tennessee Williams, one of her closest friends from the late 1940s on. In the foreword he wrote in 1974 for the major American biography of Carson McCullers by Virginia Spencer Carr, Tennessee Williams refuses to let commentators shut his friend away in her illness. No one can deny the suffering and infirmities that Carson McCullers had to live with for twenty years, but Tennessee Williams firmly states that the existence of a writer cannot be evaluated in terms of difficulties, any more than by the number of volumes produced. "When physical catastrophes reduce, too early, an artist's power, his/her admirers must not and need not enter a plea nor offer apology," he writes. "It is not quantity, after all, that the artist is to be judged by. It is quality of spirit and those occasions on which he/she was visited by assenting angels, and the number of those occasions is not the scale on which their importance is reckoned."4 Several years after her death, in another testimony to her reputation, Carson McCullers was the object of a monumental biography (during her lifetime, and with her assistance, one brief biographical essay, The Ballad of Carson McCullers, had been written by Oliver Evans). Carson had the most meticulous biographer one can imagine. Virginia Spencer Carr, a professor from the South who published The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers in 1975, carried out an extremely methodical investigation, seeking to leave no moment of Carson McCullers's existence hidden, from her birth to her final day.5 Granted, Carr faced obstacles in documenting the life of her subject. McCullers's heirs refused to assist Carr in any way and barred her from citing the documents -- unpublished texts and letters -- preserved in the archives of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin. At the time, Carson McCullers's sister, Margarita Smith; her lawyer, Floria Lasky (now her literary executor); and her agent, Robert Lantz, were hoping to find a biographer of their own choosing. Mary Mercer, Carson McCullers's doctor and friend during the last ten years of her life -- a key figure for that period -- also refused to speak with the biographer. Virginia Spencer Carr nonetheless seems to have interviewed every other witness to Carson McCullers's existence -- however mminor or ephemeral. When she herself was not free to travel, she sent someone else to question people for her. Recollections were obtained from peopllllle who had met the American novelist only in passing -- such as Simone de Beauvoir, who vaguely remembered an evening spent with her in Paris. By now, most of the women and men who provided information to Carr have died. No work on Carson McCullers could possibly be done without Carr's incomparably precise text, containing scores of comments now impossible to collect. Nothing can be written without referring to those unique testimonials, which is to say that we cannot but pay homage to the research of Virginia Spencer Carr. And yet, despite an appearance of neutrality often found in American biographies -- never a conjecture on points that are obscure or unexplained but a piling up of details, particulars, and testimonials as if all were of equal importance -- Virginia Spencer Carr's work creates a rather negative image of Carson McCullers. The Lonely Hunter aims to be exhaustive, and it certainly comes close, but its portrait is cold, painted by a woman apparently unwilling to consider that a writer lives differently from people who don't write, organizes her existence according to other criteria, feels different feelings, thinks other kinds of thoughts. A writer is not someone who on the one hand loves, hates, rejoices, becomes outraged, or suffers and then writes in her free time. Not only is a writer's life partially refracted in fiction (that is, after all, what keeps the biographical enterprise from being inane), but the need to write fastens itself onto, indeed molds, every living moment. It is if not by that standard at least from that perspective that a writer's life must be judged. Virginia Spencer Carr shows little warmth -- much less tenderness or compassion -- for her subject, who, visibly, shocks her puritanism and moralism. Carson McCullers is too free with her passions and her words, too independent, and too adept at surviving come what may so that she can continue to write. A few years after Carr's American summa, in 1979, Jacques Tournier, a French writer and translator as well as a great admirer of Carson McCullers, published a new biographical essay, Retour r Nayack [sic] (Return to Nyack), at Éditions du Seuil.6 It is an intimate, enthusiastic, and passionate work inspired by a journey Tournier made, following in Carson McCullers's footsteps, from Columbus to Nyack via Paris. A slightly revised version of this book appeared in 1990 at Éditions Complexe. Called R la recherche de Carson McCullers (In search of Carson McCullers), it is an emotion- filled and sentimental quest for Reeves McCullers, Carson's husband, who dreamed of being the writer that his wife alone became. For Jacques Tournier, though he denies it and though his passion for Carson McCullers is undoubtedly sincere, everything must be read in relation to Reeves. The film he made on Carson for French television in 1995, like his book, proves it. According to Tournier, Carson's life after the death of her husband -- that is, for fourteen years -- was nothing more than intense despair over his absence, a long lament, nights spent imagining that Reeves's ghost had returned to roam in the garden of the author's Nyack home. . . . Happily, alongside the skeptics Carson McCullers had some real friends who outlived her: Floria Lasky; Dr. Mary Mercer; Marielle Bancou, her other intimate during the 1950s and 1960s, a young designer at the time; and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, a witness of the 1940s. The photos that Cartier-Bresson took of Carson in 1946 show both the admiration and the real tenderness he had for his subject. When these people speak of Carson McCullers, they evoke a person who is first and foremost a writer, a novelist entirely attached to her work. "Writing is my occupation," Carson often said as she was fighting to continue her work at the height of her physical suffering. "I must do it. I have done it for so long." Her devotion to her work served as proof of the exceptional talent, lucidity, and maturity already in evidence when, at twenty years of age, she started writing her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Much more than a woman destroyed by the death of the man she loved -- and she loved James Reeves McCullers, that much is certain -- Carson McCullers, in her life and in the comments of her friends, resembles the touching adolescents -- irritating, too, at once generous and egotistical, weak and yet uncommonly strong -- who are featured in two of her novels, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Mick) and The Member of the Wedding (Frankie). Adolescence seems to have remained intact in Carson, indestructible despite all the experiences of life -- the loves, the losses, and the afflictions of a body broken by illness -- preserving in her a young girl's heart, with its angry outbursts and its torments. Society does not easily tolerate that kind of person, which may account for the obvious or latent hostility that Carson McCullers can arouse among those who have commented on her life. Further fanning the flames of jealousy and disapproval, she was a remarkable writer: she amassed in a small number of years the experiences of a long life, even marrying the same man twice; she achieved great successes and met with failures no less dizzying, became a triumphant Broadway playwright, and saw one of her novels being made into a film by John Huston, with Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor as its stars. Through it all, with inconceivable determination, she held on against the torments of the body and the heart. It might well irritate these naysayers to find that the adolescent spirit at the heart of Carson's work -- the very mark of Carson McCullers -- is precisely what keeps her writing fresh. From one generation to the next, young readers are moved by Mick and Frankie, those girls who shot up too fast and refused to enter a world that didn't suit them, rejecting the lies and the compromises of adult life. Paul Bowles, an American writer who lived in the same house as Carson did in Brooklyn during the 1940s, very aptly described "the essentially childlike woman she [was] all her life," insisting on the word childlike, which is nothing like infantile, to evoke the "born writer" spoken of by the British writer Edith Sitwell after she had read the novels of Carson McCullers. With "this exaggerated simplicity," said Paul Bowles in 1970 to Virginia Spencer Carr, who had come to visit him in Tangiers, where he was living, "went a total devotion to writing and subjugation to it of all other facets of her existence. This undeviating seriousness did not give her the air of an adult, but rather that of a prodigious and slightly abnormal child who refused to go out and play because she was busy writing in her notebook."7 Within the space of this peculiar paradox we must seek, more than thirty years after her death, the closest possible likeness of this strange woman-child, this writer so accomplished in her youth who never really grew up, who was seductive till the end, even when she was paralyzed and almost incapable of speaking, besieged by illness, and withdrawn into a thick fog of alcohol: Carson McCullers. We will have to find her in her books, in her stubborn will to keep on writing until the final day, which she did -- she was working on her autobiographical papers when she died. We must avoid the trap that others fell into when they set out in search of her and managed to conceal her instead, or almost made her disappear, as if Carson McCullers -- the accomplished writer and the "woman still a child" -- constituted a frightening chimera, foreign to the world as it should be, a ceaselessly improper, permanently unacceptable personality. Originally published as Carson McCullers: Un Coeur de jeune fille, copyright (c) 1995 by Éditions Stock Translation (c) 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company Excerpted from Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Translator's Notep. xi
Introductionp. 1
Maryp. 7
1. Columbus, Georgia, 1917p. 11
2. I Was Eighteen Years Old, and This Was My First Lovep. 26
3. The Birth of Carson McCullersp. 50
4. A War Wifep. 99
5. Frankie "the European"p. 149
6. Five Hundred Days on Broadwayp. 179
7. "Tomorrow I'm Going West"p. 215
8. Something from Tennesseep. 242
9. The Ultimate Rebellionp. 266
10. "The Dour Desire to Endure"p. 300
Epilogue: "She Was Ageless, Carson Was"p. 326
Notesp. 333
Works About Carson McCullersp. 356
Indexp. 359