It is hard to believe that The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was the first book of a 23-year-old author (who had started the novel at nineteen). This tragic, small-town drama is so ambitious in its scope — presenting five radically different characters whose troubled lives intersect in the Depression-era South — it always seems like the work of a master storyteller.
At its center is the deaf-mute John Singer, who becomes the confidant for various types of misfits in a Georgia mill town during the 1930s. Each one yearns for escape from small town life. When Singer's mute companion goes insane, Singer moves into the Kelly house, where Mick Kelly, the book's heroine (and loosely based on McCullers), finds solace in her music. Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition, and with a deft sense for racial tensions in the South, McCullers spins a haunting, unforgettable story that gives voice to the rejected, the forgotten, and the mistreated — and, through Mick Kelly, gives voice to the quiet, intensely personal search for beauty.
"The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter has remarkable power, sweep and certainty ... Her art suggests a Van Gogh painting peopled with Faulkner figures." -The New York Times Book Review
"There is not only the delicately sensed need that one might expect youth to know but an even more delicately sensed ironic knowledge." -The Chicago Tribune
To know Mick Kelly — the precocious, dreamy heroine of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter — is to know a young Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia. A gangly, sensitive child, McCullers was painfully aware of her unpopularity among her peers. Her father, Lamar Smith, was a watch repairman who raised his family on modest means. Parties were agonizing ordeals for her. She wore dirty sneakers while other girls wore dainty heels. She escaped into music, sometimes playing her piano four or five hours a day. She dreamt of becoming a concert pianist until she endured her first bout of rheumatic fever at fifteen, and her ambition turned to the more sedate art of writing.
At seventeen McCullers left Georgia for New York City, where she worked odd jobs and enrolled in writing classes. She was a restless, chronically ill young woman. During the Great Depression, her sympathies ran deep for the poor, the alienated, and the oppressed. More politically aware than politically active, McCullers expressed her views through her fiction.
She married James Reeves McCullers, a young, frustrated Marxist, at the age of 20, and by 23, she had completed her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Shortly after it was published to wide critical acclaim in 1940, she became New York's new literary star. That she could write a bestseller so young was feat enough, but to have such depth and insight at her age was extraordinary.
McCullers moved around for much of her life, living at various times in Georgia, North Carolina, New York, Paris, and at Yaddo, an artists' retreat in upstate New York. She won international fame and nurtured intimate friendships with such luminaries as the American playwright Tennessee Williams. But to most, she remained an outsider. She wore men's pants and white dress shirts. She smoked incessantly, drank sherry or bourbon day and night, loved passionately, and lived with disarming honesty.
Despite her literary fame, she endured many personal troubles. Though she adored Reeves and remarried him after their divorce, theirs was a tumultuous relationship that ended in his suicide in 1953. By that time, years of pleurisy, pneumonia, rheumatic fever, and strokes had caught up to her.
For the last 20 years of her life, she was paralyzed on her left side. She died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage on August 15, 1967.
The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with Arts Midwest, designed to revitalize the role of literature in American culture. The Big Read brings together partners across the country to encourage citizens to read for pleasure and enlightenment. JMRL has received a grant from the NEA to provide a Big Read throughout central Virginia during March 2016, for the tenth consecutive year. The Big Read is also supported by the Art and Jane Hess Fund of the Library Endowment.
The Big Read provides citizens with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their community. The library's goal is to encourage all residents of Central Virginia to read and discuss The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers throughout the month of March. There will be many programs and events discussing the book along with its themes of isolation and deaf culture.
For questions, or if you would like to participate in some way, please email the Big Read.