Her Writing
An Essay on Carson McCullers
Her Work
An explorer of the lonely heart, Carson McCullers always seems regional. Her characters are the solitary, the lonely and she has displayed a compassion for the disaffiliated which makes her a spokesman for that genre in modern fiction.

She describes the bleak recesses of the isolated mind; the dark corners of the world of the odd, the eccentrics.


Like That was written in 1940 and published as a collection of short stories under the title "The Mortaged Heart" in 1971. The stories were written early in McCullers' career.

"Like That" describes "the utter alienation of individual natures and the absence of mutual reciprocity in human relationships."

Illustration by Charles F. Winans
"I don't want to grow old, if it's like that!"
Adolescents torn in time.
Here, the fragility-of-childhood is prominent and the disappointments which come from growing up are central. Keirnan writes: "The final sentence points out the...uncertainty...so essential to McCullers' characters: 'I don't want to grow up--if it's like that." Adolescents who are torn in time, dislodged from the safety of childhood, yet not ready, either, for the world of adults." (342).

David Madden, in a comprehensive review, writes "the main justification for the collection is that it enables us to see the writer's virtues effectively employed in her early work and her early strengths put to good use in her later work." (137-162) The stories were mostly written during the time she attended Columbia and New York University. There is a confessional aspect to these early writings.

In her essay "The Mute," McCullers writes: "I become the characters I write about; I am so immersed in them that their motives are my own." (185). By becoming her characters, she evokes sympathy with them and transforms them into the normal and the familiar: "the grotesque ...[becomes]... human nature." (Cook 18). However, her talent is rooted in an empathy that avoids sentimentality.

A vision of man alone.
Behind her vision is man alone, shut off in his eccentricity. Alfred Kazin has remarked on the consistency of this vision that "the bareness, vacancy, [and] inertia seem to come out of the weather; the emotions of solitude flourish crazily in the parched streets...her theme...absorbed the town into itself [and] made the immediate landscape hot with silent emotion." (52-53). In "Like That" McCullers writes: "It was hotter than ever. The lawn was beginning to grow dark and the locusts were droning out so shrill and steady that you wouldn’t notice them unless you thought to." and "It was roasting hot that morning. The sun made everything blazing outside so that it hurt your eyes to look." (McCullers 247).

Cook states: "One reads through her short stories with a sense of the almost eccentric nature of her success, but also with a sense of the restricted range of her interests and abilities."She wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, what many consider to be her masterpiece, when she was just twenty-three. "By the time she was thirty she had written all her most memorable works of fiction and though she continued to write for twenty years until her death in 1968, she produced nothing to rank with these early works" (Cook 18).

In her later works there are inherent restrictions in her theme, time and place. The scenes of her earlier works was rejected; she turned from the land of her childhood and in so doing lost her capacity to recreate believable characters. When she attempted to write about the suburban North, she could command only the most superficial understanding of it's culture. She became removed from the wealth of odd and homely details that filled her best work.

Ihab Hassan applauds her "...skill with the novella [and notes] her limitations with any other form." (227). Maden compares her "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" with timeless [ness] and her short fiction with triviality (142). Cook concludes his introduction with: "She was at home in the South of her childhood memories and it inspired her best writing. She displayed a rare sympathy into hidden suffering; she spoke for people trapped in isolation, who could not speak for themselves."

Works Cited
Cook, Richard M. Carson McCullers. New York: Frederick Unger, 1975.

Hassan, Isan, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel. Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1961.

Kazin, Alfred, Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer. Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 1973.

Keating, Helane Levine, ed. "Like That" Lives Through Literature: A Thematic Anthology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1995, 244-56.

Kiernon, Robert F. "Carson McCullers" American Novelists Since World War II. Ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography 2. Ed. Jeffrey Helterman and Richard Layman, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1978.

"Carson McCullers" Short Story Criticism: Excerpts From Criticism of the Works of Short Fiction Writers. Vol 9. ed. Thomas Votteler. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 342-355.

Madden, David. "Transfixed Among the Self-Inflicted Ruins: Carson McCullers' The Mortaged Heart" Southern Literary Review 5 (1972): 137-162.