American Literature Carson McCullers
by
Carlos Dews
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0238

Introduction

Lula Carson Smith McCullers (b. 1917–d. 1967), known most commonly as Carson McCullers, was an American novelist, writer of short stories, essayist, playwright, poet, and children’s author, born and raised in Columbus, Georgia, who spent most of her adult life outside the South, primarily in New York City. McCullers left her native region permanently with the publication of her first novel in 1940, when she was only twenty-three years old. Heralded as a wunderkind following the success of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, she went on to write four more novels, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), The Member of the Wedding (1946), The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951), and Clock Without Hands (1961). McCullers also found success on the stage with the award-winning production of her first play, The Member of the Wedding (1950), a stage adaptation of her novel, that ran for 501 performances on Broadway. A second play, The Square Root of Wonderful (1958), was not well received by critics and closed after only forty-five performances. McCullers’s work has proven popular for adaptation. With the exception of Clock Without Hands, all her novels have been adapted for the screen and some of her short stories, including “A Domestic Dilemma,” “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud,” and “The Sojourner,” have been adapted as short films or for television. Due to a misdiagnosed and improperly treated case of childhood rheumatic disease, McCullers was plagued with ill health for most of her life. She had a series of increasingly debilitating strokes beginning in her early twenties that continued and ultimately led to her death on 29 September 1967 at age fifty. McCullers’s legacy seems secure, due in large part to the continued critical and popular interest in her work, especially The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, selected in a 1998 list by the Modern Library as the seventeenth of the one hundred most important 20th-century novels, and by Time magazine as one of the top one hundred novels published between 1923 and 2005. McCullers, elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1952, was a part of a group of writers from the American South seen as the literary representatives of the region in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Critical response to McCullers’s work is characterized by attention to her consideration of adolescence; disability; loneliness and the search for belonging, love, and understanding; gender and sexual identity; racial discrimination and racism; empathy; the outsider; freaks and freakishness; and what many mislabel as the Southern gothic or grotesque aspects of her work.

Primary Texts

With the publication of the Library of America’s edition, McCullers 2001, and the publication of McCullers 2017, also by the Library of America, of her stories, plays, and other writings, almost all of McCullers’s works are available in these two volumes, now published together as The Collected Works of Carson McCullers. The only work not included in the Library of America’s collection is her sole children’s book, McCullers 1964, originally published by Houghton Mifflin, and now her only work out of print. Although included in the second volume of the Library of America’s collected works, Carson McCullers’s unfinished autobiography, McCullers 1999, first appeared in an annotated scholarly edition from the University of Wisconsin Press, as part of their Studies in Autobiography series. A volume of McCullers’s letters is currently in preparation and will be published sometime after 2022 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  • McCullers, Carson. Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964.

    Twenty-two poems for children, with illustrations by Rolf Gérard: “Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig,” “How High Is the Sky?,” “I Sometimes Wonder,” “Wednesday,” “Song for a Sailor,” “October Fair,” “Trick or Treat,” “Giraffe,” “The Golden Egg Gobbler,” “Olden Times,” “Sport Williams,” “Christmas Eve Rhyme,” “Pandora’s Box,” “Slumber Party,” “Favorite Eats,” “The Unseen,” “One World,” “Astronaut,” “Lands Afar,” “A Rat and a Rainbow,” “I Am Old and Can Remember,” and “Kroochey, Kazoochey, Kaloochie, Kazeen.”

  • McCullers, Carson. Illumination and Night Glare. Edited by Carlos Dews. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.

    Scholarly edition of the manuscript of McCullers’s unfinished autobiography which includes a detailed introduction by the editor, significant explanatory notes, and a chronology of the author’s life. While the text of the autobiography is included in the Library of America’s Collected Works of Carson McCullers, this edition provides significant supplemental matter and a detailed presentation of the problematic unfinished manuscript.

  • McCullers, Carson. Carson McCullers: Complete Novels. Edited by Carlos L. Dews. New York: Library of America, 2001.

    Includes all of McCullers’s novels as well as notes on the texts, explanatory footnotes, and a detailed chronology of McCullers’s life.

  • McCullers, Carson. Stories, Plays & Other Writings. Edited by Carlos L. Dews. New York: Library of America, 2017.

    Includes twenty short stories, two plays (The Member of the Wedding and The Square Root of Wonderful), two versions of a teleplay based on her short story “The Sojourner,” twenty-one essays divided by topic (“Christmas”; “The War Years”; “American Places, American Identity”; “Books and Authors”; “The Writer’s Work”; and “The Theater”), five poems (“The Mortgaged Heart,” “When We Are Lost,” “The Dual Angel,” “Stone Is Not Stone,” and “Saraband”), and her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare.

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