Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Carson McCullers and the Female Wunderkind

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Carson McCullers and the Female Wunderkind

Article excerpt

Carson McCullers's first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), symbolizes her own story of growing up in the thirties as a Southern female prodigy. Like her predecessor Frances Newman, who also wrote a novel about a Southern girl who longs to be an artist, The Hardboiled Virgin (1926), McCullers shows how "social forces" damaged ambitious people, particularly when they were female ("Author's Outline" 129). For example, a humiliating sexual initiation is a central experience for each heroine. Recent discussion of McCullers's novel has examined its connection to other novels about aspiring women artists, treating Mick as the major character (Huf 105-123). In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Mick first appears standing confidently on the roof of a house under construction. Yet by the story's end, she no longer challenges the world from its rooftops. She is frustrated in her attempts to study art, disturbed by what she has learned of female sexuality, and haunted by nightmares in which houses collapse upon her. Spivak and Huf argue that the root of Mick's artistic failure in the novel is her decision to take a job at Woolworth's (Spivak 18; Huf 118-19). However, another root cause of her artistic failure is Mick's devastating sexual initiation. The paramount importance of Mick's sexual initiation may also be asserted if one considers the autobiographical basis of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter as well as a short story that provided the genesis of Mick's character and situation, "Wunderkind" (1936). This short story reveals McCullers's first trial of the theme she fully develops in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: adolescence brings a paralyzing knowledge of inadequacy to the exceptional girl and bars her passage into the world of art. After highlighting biographical details of McCullers's girlhood and then turning to an analysis of "Wunderkind," I will explicate the passages in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter which illuminate a view of Mick's sexual initiation as her definitive experience in the world of the novel.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a subtly autobiographical rendition of McCullers's youthful failures in love and art. McCullers's biographers have identified correspondences between the novelist and her character, Mick Kelly, a fictional double of McCullers's willowy adolescent self. The newly-married author's surname, McCullers, echoes Mick Kelly, her heroine. Mick is determined to be a musician, which was McCullers's first consuming goal; she wanted to go to Europe and study piano under Dohnanyi (Carr 27). However, striking differences between McCullers's biography and her characterization of Mick Kelly suggest the importance of a further analysis of the author's early life in search of her view of the predicament of the woman artist.

Why would McCullers, a privileged young artist from Columbus, Georgia, compose a novel that features a heroine deprived of every opportunity to develop her talent? McCullers denies to her heroine much that she herself experienced as a developing artist. For example, she deprives her heroine of a nurturing mother. By contrast, Marguerite Smith, McCullers's mother, predicted that her firstborn would be a genius: "she confided to friends that there had.., been secret prenatal signs that her child would be precocious and eventually achieve greatness as an artist." She planned to name the child "Enrico Caruso" (Carr 3). When a daughter was born, Carson McCullers's mother, apparently far from disappointed, appears to have dedicated herself to the daughter and promoted her talent. In further contrast with Mick Kelly, whose family cannot afford piano lessons for her, Carson McCullers was born into a family of comfortable means. When she first expressed an interest in piano playing at six years, a fine family piano awaited her, her mother applauded her improvisation, and the best local instructors agreed to accept the girl as a pupil. At fifteen when McCullers decided her ambition was to be a writer rather than a concert pianist, her father bought her a typewriter. …

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