Carson McCullers, Lillian Smith, and
the Politics of Broadway
Judith Giblin James
On the evening of November 19, 1953, Carson McCullers and Lillian Smith talked together at Smith's mountain home in Clayton, Georgia. McCullers had come to Old Screamer Mountain, the site of Smith's famous Laurel Falls Camp, to gather material for a Holiday magazine article on their home state. McCullers was born and reared in Columbus, Georgia, on the state's western border, and Smith, a native of Jasper, Florida, had made the northeastern Georgia camp her principal residence since 1928.1 It was fitting that one acclaimed novelist of the region should seek out her sister novelist and critic of Southern mores as the focus for the article on contemporary Georgia.2 But neither was fully fit for the interview. Smith was mentally drained from finishing her final draft of The Journey and still recovering from breast cancer surgery. McCullers, crippled by strokes suffered in 1947, still reeled mentally and physically from the alcoholic mania into which her marriage had dissolved. Only months before, this distress had caused her to flee her home in France, fearing her husband was trying to kill her. That night in Clayton, Georgia, a phone call announced the suicide of Reeves McCullers in Paris.
Two days later McCullers left the mountain. Never united in such intimate circumstances again, both women pursued their careers in the next decade with diminished strength. Smith revised her memoir of the Southern mind, Killers of the Dream, and published two other important works, the anti-segregationist tract Now Is the Time and the novel One Hour, before her death from cancer on September 28, 1966. McCullers, increasingly debilitated physically and psychologically, produced The Square Root of Wonderful, a play, and the novel Clock without Hands—both critical failures—before she died on September 29, 1967, one year and one day after Smith.
The parallel stories of their final years are less instructive than a more vital connection that may have instinctively brought them together that night on Old Screamer. Both women adapted best-selling novels for the Broadway stage