Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Loneliest Hunter

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Loneliest Hunter

Article excerpt

"I've lost the presence of God!" cried the author of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter late in her career. Remembered afterwards by the group of artists who had been with Carson McCullers at the Yaddo Artists Colony, the statement provides a tragic thesis for both McCullers' life and her work. Haunted by a Christ who remained entombed, a twenty-one-year-old McCullers created an allegory in which numerous characters seek to work out their own salvation by relaying their individual fears to John Singer. Singer, a deaf mute, becomes a paralyzed Christ figure, so restricted by the expectations of others that he is fictionalized by them.

Only the author and the reader know Singer; Mick, Dr. Benedict M. Copeland, and Jake Blount merely fashion him into the savior they crave. For each he takes on a different face, a singular ministry. Copeland, a persecuted black doctor, believes Singer to be a Jew; Blount insists he's Irish. McCullers herself refers to Singer as a "repository," for all his friends "impute to him all the qualities which they would wish for him to have." (1) Furthermore, the all-too-ordinary theme of isolation in an indecipherable world attains heightened significance as each minor character in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter embarks on his or her own spiritual quest. Each, says Margaret McDowell, is in "revolt against enforced isolation and his or her urge to express the self at all costs." (2)

While the perils of interpreting art via authorial experience or attitude must be evident by now, McCullers' own search for God and home can hardly be considered irrelevant to her first novel. In the early 1940s--with Reeves gone, here relationship with David Diamond unresolved, and her professional standing in question--McCullers must have faced many of the same trials as her early characters. Virginia Spencer Carr, McCullers biographer, writes in The Lonely Hunter: "Above all, Carson felt that she needed God, that she must be able to pray again if she were to effect her own redemption." (3) McCullers, Carr says, "recognized God as an omniscient being, a supreme creator who imposed order on the universe, but she sometimes saw Him as a capricious deity whose specialty was freaks." (4)

Not only was McCullers alienated from God, she could not tap into the sense of place which sustained writers such as Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. In an essay in The Mortgaged Heart, McCullers says, "A visit to Columbus in Georgia is a stirring up of love and antagonism." (5) While other Southern writers reconciled themselves to the fundamentalist Protestantism of the South and claimed at least a love-hate relationship with their homeland, McCullers fled Georgia for New York. In a letter from Reeves to a friend, Reeves writes: "I have to keep Carson tied by a leg to the bedpost at times to keep her from going mad as she hates the South so." (6) In "How I Began to Write," McCullers says: "By that winter the family rooms, the whole town, seemed to pinch and cramp my adolescent heart. I longed for wanderings. I longed especially for New York." (7) The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was her only novel written in the South. One critic notes that McCullers "wanted nothing to do with the land of yokels and reactionaries." (8) Yet perhaps this perspective is too pat, for McCullers also said that the South provided a "truer pitch": "When I work from within a different locale from the South, I have to wonder what time the flowers are in bloom--and what flowers? I hardly let characters speak unless they are Southern." (9)

With confusion about God and animosity toward country, it is small wonder that the fictional world of McCullers is peopled with those who long for a home. Hers is a strange rebellion; as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of Herman Melville, she longed to believe and was unsettled in her unbelief. Ultimately, heaven could offer no more solace than Columbus, Georgia, had, and McCullers breathes life into a protagonist named John Singer to play out her own isolation in an allegory of human non-communication. …

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