Real Journeys of the Imagination: Carson McCullers and Ireland
University College Dublin
American author Carson McCullers visited Ireland three times. The first two visits were to the ancestral home of Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Bowen in County Cork in May and July of 1950, and the third was to the County Galway home of American film director John Huston in April 1967, just five months before her death. Though these Irish journeys tell us a great deal about the personality and character of Carson McCullers – her sense of wanderlust, her thirst for excitement, her love of celebrity and being associated with celebrity and, especially in relation to the last trip, her determination not to allow her chronic illnesses to define or confine her – they reveal other things as well: McCullers’ lifelong capacity, for instance, to privilege imagination over reality – something that allowed her to turn to fantasy even the most unpleasant events in her personal life – and her ability to isolate and protect the southern world of her fiction from any external influences. Above all else, however, the journeys reveal McCullers’ inability to recognise social class as an integral or stand-alone category of existence or analysis, something that is also evident in much of her writing.
McCullers’ Irish experiences took place within highly privileged and affluent circumstances against a backdrop of poverty in the wider Irish society, a situation to which she seems to have been oblivious. I think there are several components that contribute to an understanding of this: McCullers’ own middle class background whereby she was an acute observer of the poverty and deprivation that existed within the cotton-mill town of Columbus, Georgia where she grew up, but not directly touched by it, and, more significantly, like many other white southerners – albeit in her case one with a genuine concern for the plight of black Americans – she could not easily recognise inequality or injustice in communities where colour was not the principle defining category of difference between people, even though other forms of bigotry and imbalance existed. In other words, when everyone looked the same, McCullers seems not to have been able to identify either the root causes of social injustice or the tiers of class oppression within what must have looked to her like a monolithic society. Even within her writing – which I believe is at its best when the categories of race, gender and class intersect – class within a single ethnic community is her least consistent representation. What I hope to show is that this apparent class myopia or indifference on McCullers’ part is perfectly in sync with the world-view of a writer who engaged critically and creatively, but also exclusively, with injustices and inequities in the world of the American South where race plays a central role in any understanding of both identity and inequality, and, equally, with that of a middle class woman for whom the issue of class did not impinge on her personal consciousness in the way gender or race/ethnicity did.
From McCullers’ point-of-view, Irish author Elizabeth Bowen was a close friend who had enthusiastically issued an invitation to come to Ireland (Dews 60), while Bowen’s account is that McCullers practically forced the invitation and arrived very soon after the two women first met during one of Bowen’s brief visits to New York (Spencer Carr 356). It would be difficult to imagine two women more different: for McCullers, fame was something to be celebrated whilst Bowen, despite being at the time one of Britain’s leading women novelists, was notoriously private, quiet and disciplined. Yet McCullers became infatuated with Bowen who, like many of her class, was extremely reserved and aloof. Bowen’s ancestral home, ‘Bowen’s Court’, built in 1775 by one of her ancestors, was in a remote part of County Cork and was maintained by Bowen primarily as a writing retreat and as a place for friends and other writers to visit and enjoy quiet, intimate soirées. At the time of McCullers’ visits in 1950, however, the estate would have been quite dilapidated, with no bathrooms or hot water, and it was very isolated, something McCullers was neither expecting nor prepared to deal with. From the start, McCullers appears to have had an unrealistic view of what she would be doing in Ireland, evident in an interview she gave to the New York Times just prior to her departure: she would sail to Ireland on May 20th, she said, where she intended to resume work on her latest novel, Clock Without Hands, at Miss Bowen’s “fabulous manor” in County Cork (Spencer Carr 350). In truth, the manor was more of a monument to the declining Anglo-Irish aristocracy and McCullers found the isolation of ‘Bowen’s Court’ and the aloofness of Bowen herself absolutely paralyzing and was unable to write a word. Unable to find sufficient excitement or diversion at ‘Bowen’s Court’, McCullers flew to London after about ten days to meet up with her husband, Reeves.
Curiously, however, McCullers’ recordings of her first Irish experience reveal none of the disappointment she surely must have felt. To her cousin, Jordan Massee, McCullers wrote that she was delighted to have been a hit at formal ‘Bowen’s Court’ events wearing her faded blue jeans and a favourite old jacket. To friends, Colonel and Mary Tucker, she told of her wonderment at living so near the castle in which Edmund Spenser had written many cantos of his Faerie Queene, and how this had inspired her to write poetry of her own (Spencer Carr 354). Clearly, McCullers was unaware that Spenser’s relationship with Ireland was not always positive, nor that his writing had played a central role in the historical oppression of Ireland or that he often represented the Irish themselves as dwarves and thieves, though this is something that might have greatly appealed to her own fascination with the grotesque.
Similarly, in her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, McCullers states that, “Elizabeth Bowen is a dear friend of mine. I have admired her work for many years, and when we met in New York she asked me to visit her in Ireland. Bowen’s Court, her estate there, is not a beautiful house, but it is roomy and charming” (Dews 60). By contrast, Bowen provides quite a different view: “Carson was a welcome visitor, but I must say a terrible handful”:
I always felt [she] was a destroyer; for which reason I chose never to be closely involved with her. Affection for her I did feel, and she also gave off an aura of genius – unmistakable – which one had to respect ….. hers and mine could not be described as a ‘close friendship’ – in the sense that I rejoice in having a close friendship with that other great Deep-Southerner, Eudora Welty … Carson remains in my mind as a child genius, though her art, as we know, was great, somber, and above all, extremely mature. (Spencer Carr 360)
If McCullers was aware of the awkwardness of the relationship between herself and Bowen she never acknowledged it, continuing to view the Irish writer as one of the great loves of her life. And despite the circumstances of the first visit, McCullers returned to ‘Bowen’s Court’ from London within just a few weeks, accompanied by Reeves who she was keen for Bowen to meet. Unfortunately, however, McCullers’ nervous condition had deteriorated and despite earlier talk of her and Reeves settling permanently in France, they stayed less than a week at ‘Bowen’s Court’ before returning to America.
The differences in Bowen’s and McCullers’ recollections of the visits reflect the familiar way that McCullers dealt with reality, even brutal reality. Frail health and a susceptibility to respiratory and other illnesses resulting from a childhood misdiagnosis of rheumatic fever did not stop McCullers moving to New York City at the age of seventeen to study writing after having given up the idea of following a career as a pianist. Following an initially difficult time in New York, when she experienced hardship, homesickness and, at times, danger, McCullers returned home to Columbus, Georgia at the end of the first year, clearly relieved, yet immediately ready to turn her experience into something fascinating and exciting. Virginia Spencer Carr suggests that:
No-one in Columbus, with the possible exception of [her friend] Edwin Peacock – knew precisely what had transpired with Carson while she was in New York city alone for the first time. Probably not even Carson herself could ascertain the truth soon after it happened, for she immediately transposed reality into fantasy … and presented her wildest imaginings as fact. (49)
Spencer Carr also argues that this emphasis on the imaginary was a central part of McCullers’ life from an early age, with those who knew her as a child often becoming exasperated at her capacity to be “one hell of a childish liar” (258) and, later, co-writers at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, becoming aware of her “proclivity for fantasy foisted off as truth” (258).
Whatever explanations can be proffered for McCullers’ misjudgement of Elizabeth Bowen the woman, it remains puzzling that McCullers so utterly misinterpreted the connection she believed she had with Bowen as a writer. McCullers felt strongly that she and Bowen shared an interest in themes such as unrequited love and the problems faced by adolescents as they entered adulthood and, to some extent, she was right. But Bowen’s handling of these themes takes place in the context of her elegiac portrayal of the world of Irish gentry and peasant while McCullers’ portrayals relate, almost exclusively, to the segregated small-town American South, a shift that is difficult to ignore in any comparison of the two women’s work, and one that also suggests a much greater interest in theme than in social or political reality on the part of McCullers. Bowen’s work sits comfortably within the Anglo-Irish literary tradition, which produced the genre known as Big House fiction; firmly rooted in that symbol of power in Ireland, namely the ancestral home, most often the property of absentee English landlords who, by virtue of their class and religious superiority, represented the ruling class in Ireland, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929) is considered to be an early and influential landmark of the tradition. By contrast, McCullers’ stories, and especially The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding, which portray the world of girls and young women with dreams that come to little, are concerned with the failure of collectivity between characters from within the same class structure or between black and white, but exclude entirely any representation of the world of the plantation owners, which was the southern equivalent of the Irish Big House.
McCullers’ third and final visit to Ireland in 1967 took place under very different circumstances from those of 1950. American film director John Huston first met McCullers during the Second World War whilst visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York. In his autobiography, Huston recalls that:
She was then in her early twenties, and had already suffered the first of a series of strokes that made her an invalid before she was thirty. I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine. It wasn’t palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger. (Huston 330)
A fanatical horseman and hunter, Huston later bought a substantial estate known as ‘St Clerans’ just outside Galway in the West of Ireland, which consisted of an old Georgian manor house that took him two years to restore, and approximately 100 acres of land, where he lived for almost twenty years. In the mid-1960s, he and Ray Stark decided to make a film of McCullers’ novel Reflections in a Golden Eye, which Huston considered to be one of his best pictures (Huston 333). Having earlier sent her the script, Huston visited McCullers at her home in Nyack, New York, in early 1966, where he found her confined to bed with only the partial use of her arms, and no movement at all in her legs following a series of debilitating strokes, the first of which had occurred in 1946. It is clear from all reports of the meeting and from succeeding correspondence between the two that they not only shared an artistic vision, but an immediate and close friendship that lasted until she died. Huston reports that, after business talk was concluded, McCullers wanted to hear about Ireland:
I told her about the country and the people and described St Clerans. As I talked, an expression came into her eyes which prompted me to say ‘Carson, you must come and visit me in Ireland.’ This wasn’t something I meant seriously. It was inconceivable to me that she could make such a trip in her condition. But, to my surprise, Carson seized on the suggestion … I saw then that she was completely serious, and it was up to me to match her seriousness. (Huston 331)
Such was the level of McCullers’ determination to make the journey she undertook a form of training: she sat up in a chair more each day and worked hard with a personal physical therapist, and then a trial weekend excursion to the Hotel Plaza in Manhattan was successfully completed in March 1967. This outing was the first time McCullers had been out of bed in almost three years. McCullers picked the date of 1st April for departure, and on 3rd March 1967, Huston booked two first-class tickets for Carson and her African-American friend and carer Ida Reeder, and he and his assistant, Gladys Hill, began finalising the task of getting McCullers safely from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Because McCullers was unable to sit upright, Huston arranged for Aer Lingus to install a special reclining seat for her, though for some unexplained reason this was never carried out properly and the journey to Ireland ended up being more difficult for McCullers than Huston had planned. Initially, Huston investigated the possibility of either the Irish Air Force or a volunteer helicopter service transporting McCullers from Shannon Airport to ‘St Clerans’, which McCullers was delighted about, but the problem of her inability to sit upright meant this wouldn’t work. There was a suggestion that she could be transported by sling attached to the helicopter, something Huston rightly felt was too risky, especially since the same helicopter service was said to have dropped and lost forever into the sea the deceased body of an Aran Islander just days before McCullers’ arrival in Galway. Eventually, Huston opted for an ambulance as the safest mode of transportation. After five months of organisation, and seventeen years after her first visit there, McCullers arrived in Ireland at 8.30am on 2nd April 1967, via Aer Lingus flight IN110. Huston met her and Ida at Shannon airport and travelled with them by ambulance to ‘St Clerans’.
Unlike her earlier experience at ‘Bowen’s Court’, this time McCullers was treated like a celebrity. Her arrival was announced in the national newspapers and the day after her arrival, Terence deVere White, at that time Literary Editor of Ireland’s daily national newspaper, the Irish Times, interviewed McCullers at ‘St Clerans’, accompanied by photographer Jimmy McCormack. By all accounts, McCullers took charge of how many photos were taken and with whom. According to deVere White:
She seemed to like being photographed: feeling, perhaps, like Hunt on the top of Everest, or Chichester having rounded the Horn. For this … was an expedition of almost reckless courage. (deVere White 12)
The front page of the Irish Times, on Monday, 10th April 1967, shows a close-up of McCullers and Huston hugging. The interview, along with two more photos, appears on page 12: one of ‘St Clerans’ and the other of McCullers propped up on pillows, with Huston and deVere White sitting on either side of her bed. The deVere White interview is peppered throughout with references to McCullers’ own writing, as well as to other literary figures, but a central focus of the piece is the fragility of the now famous American writer: “I have never seen anyone so frail and alive. Spirit with the body almost shed, like a chrysalis” (deVere White 12).
McCullers remained at ‘St Clerans’ for eighteen days in total before the decision was made to return her to America, via exactly the same route in reverse, though this time Huston and Hill made certain that the return journey was more comfortable by having a local carpenter make a special hassock filled with foam rubber. McCullers and Ida were safely back in Nyack on 19th April 1967, from where she and Huston continued to correspond. There were plans for Huston to visit her, and much talk of a return trip to Ireland, which never happened since she died just five months later, on 29th September 1967, following a massive stroke which left her comatose for forty-five days. In his autobiography, Huston acknowledges that the journey to Ireland was very hard on McCullers and that if she had not undertaken it she might have lived months or even a year or two longer. But he claimed never to have regretted arranging the visit, believing wholeheartedly that it provided McCullers with a final liberation from her illness (335).
McCullers’ visits to Ireland are interesting in and of themselves, but they also provide a glimpse into the world of one of America’s most enigmatic modern writers. Both ‘Bowen’s Court’ and ‘St Clerans’ have their comparisons in the plantations of McCullers’ southern homeland, but this is something she never acknowledged or appeared to even notice. She seemed to have no problem with the fact that Huston ran ‘St Clerans’ as an old-fashioned ascendancy manor house with himself as lord of the manor. Huston himself records ‘St Clerans’ as:
a wonderful haven…. The style of life was charming. People dressed for dinner – women in long gowns, men in black ties or even formal attire for members of the hunt; scarlet tailcoats with white silk lapels. It was as beautiful and fantastic as a masquerade. We ate dinner by the light of fifty candles and in the winter the hearth was always going. This was a life style that had existed for hundreds of years, but by the time I moved to Ireland, it was already a dying tradition. (241)
The note of regret in that final sentence suggests that Huston too was able to overlook the fact that the price for the kind of life he so loved at ‘St Clerans’ was often paid for by ordinary Irish people whose lifestyles, even after half a century of independence, were a long way from that of the landed gentry, though it is important also to remember that Huston, like McCullers, was a radical political thinker by the standards of his time. Huston permanently left the United States in the early 1950s following the attack on the entertainment industry by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and was one of a number of prominent industry figures who organised the Committee for the First Amendment to protest the government’s investigation into Communist propaganda in American films. Yet, like McCullers, he seems to have had no difficulty with assuming the role of landed gentry in Ireland.
By the mid-1970s, estates such as ‘St Clerans’ became a much more expensive proposition than they had been in the 1950s and, despite down-sizing from 16 to 12 staff, Huston found the lifestyle too expensive to maintain, so he sold the estate in 1975 and moved to a small village in Mexico (Huston 242-43). The Index to his autobiography tellingly names this final period of his time in Ireland as the ‘passing of the manor style of life’ (382). There are several occasions in his autobiography that suggest Huston was more aware than McCullers of the class connections between Ireland and the American South but, again, it is an Ireland and a South of a very particular kind: “Everyone knows everyone else in Ireland, and wherever you go you’re someone’s guest. The Old South in the United States must have been something like that. If you want to bring your horse for the hunt, both you and your horse are put up” (227). Like McCullers, Huston seems to have had something of a blind spot in relation to both ordinary working class Irish and southerners who had barely enough room to house families, never mind an excess of accommodation for guests or stables for their horses.
There is no escaping the fact that McCullers was someone who also loved the finer things in life, especially when it came to houses and material possessions. She adored her cousin, Jordan Massee’s home on Mulberry Street, Macon, Georgia, a Victorian brownstone residence built in the Italian style and with impressive historical credentials. Massee had lovingly restored the house and McCullers told him that no house had ever had such a profound effect on her. She also loved Massee’s apartment on West End Avenue, which, like ‘St Clerans’, was filled with “exquisite art objects, rare paintings and prints, pieces of Italian sculpture, beautiful American and European antiques, an enormous collection of operas and other rare recordings, and a grand piano” (Spencer Carr 488). All of McCullers’ biographers record other occasions when she expressed awe and envy at the homes and belongings of friends and acquaintances and often coveted others’ possessions.
McCullers’ claim to be “almost pure Irish” (Spencer Carr 525) and her interest in Ireland as the country of her maternal ancestors, seems opportunistic in light of the fact that she and Reeves lived in various parts of Europe between 1946 (the year of her first major stroke) and 1952 when she fled home from France after Reeves tried to get her to commit suicide with him, yet she never visited Ireland either before her visit to Elizabeth Bowen in 1950 or between 1950 and her final visit to John Huston in 1967. It seems much more likely that McCullers’ interest in Ireland related to an infatuation with its writers, with Bowen and, later, with Huston, and with her love of celebrity, something that had always fascinated her. The truth is that Ireland and its people played a remarkably small part in the overall experience of McCullers’ Irish journeys, especially during her final visit, which seems to have been more about fulfilling a personal fantasy than it does about any kind of actual engagement with reality.
McCullers’ preference for the imaginary has a long and well-recorded history. The most oft-quoted is her response to Reeves’s suggestion that she attend a ‘deaf-and-dumb’ convention held in Macon, Georgia, during the writing of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, so that she could learn more about the condition of muteness or, even, authenticate the fictional figure of John Singer that she had created. She declined on the basis that she had already written that part of the novel and preferred to stick with what had emerged from her imagination (Spencer Carr 19). Similarly, in 1949, during the writing of Clock Without Hands, journalist Margaret Long suggested taking McCullers to see “some lintheads on strike, some labor leaders, some Negroes reorganizing the NAACP, some restless young people and the Council on Human Relations of black and white do-gooders”, but she again declined, preferring what she thought of as the ‘truer’ vision of her imagination (Spencer Carr 324).
During the final months of her life, McCullers told John Huston that she had returned to reading the work of her favourite Irish author, James Joyce, a writer she had loved from an early age, and one with whom, I believe, she had much in common. Joyce left Ireland in disgust at its provincialism and narrowness and, like McCullers, maintained a lifelong antagonistic relationship with his home until he died. Yet, like her, he wrote about little else. A lifetime spent in Europe counted for little in the creation of his Irish fictional world. Like Joyce, McCullers’ difficult relationship with her home in the South represented:
a very emotional experience …. so that a visit to Columbus [Georgia]… is a stirring up of love and antagonism …. The locale of my books might always be Southern, and the South always my homeland … The voices reheard from childhood have a truer pitch. And the foliage on the trees of childhood are remembered more exactly. I hardly let characters speak unless they are Southern. This is particularly true of Southern writers because it is not only their speech and the foliage, but their entire culture which makes it a homeland within a homeland. (McCullers 1959, 163)
In one of the last letters she ever wrote, McCullers told John Huston that “Joyce’s theme of sterility and moral blindness in Dublin over fifty years ago seemed so like the condition in the United States today” (Spencer Carr 534), and in ‘A Love Letter from Ireland’ she expressed a desire to explore Dublin, though only if she could return to ‘St Clerans’ to rest. Certainly by 1967 McCullers would have been in no fit state physically to explore the capital, but even when the opportunity had presented itself, McCullers’ time in Ireland did not include Dublin, beyond its role as a port of arrival in 1950. The truth is that McCullers chose to know Joyce’s world only through his (and her) imagination. Nor did she engage with Joyce’s world creatively. As far as I am aware, ‘A Love Letter from Ireland’, is the only thing she ever wrote about the country, but it is filled with stereotypical descriptions and pastoral images of the countryside. Nor is it possible to claim illness or infirmity as a reason for McCullers’s lack of engagement with Irish politics since, once back in America after the final Irish journey, she wrote concerned and articulate letters to Huston about the race riots that were taking place throughout her homeland, and which she suggests reveal an anger that has been justifiably bottled up since the Civil War.
It might just be easier to dismiss McCullers as a limited writer who was herself either parochial or provincial, or perhaps both. Yet we know this isn’t the case. Many critical interrogations into various aspects of McCullers’ fiction reveal her to be a writer ahead of or, at the very least, out-of-step with the dominant sentiments of her time. Her representation of European and American Jews, for instance, as symbols of spiritual wisdom during a time of growing fascism and Nazism in Europe, expose her as a writer who invokes “for all humanity the Jew as a symbol of survival and eternal continuity” just as she uses black consciousness in so much of her writing “to symbolize a transcending optimism for all humanity” (Hershon 68), a connection best exemplified by Dr Copeland in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when he states that, “the history of my people will be commensurate with the interminable history of the Jew” (McCullers, 1961, 300). Similarly, Cynthia Wu argues that:
Southern writers, both Anglo- and African American, have long fore-grounded the ‘race question’ in representing and imagining the New South following the Civil War, and McCullers is no exception. Her characters grapple with what it means to be white in the South, what it means not to be white, and what it means to challenge or comply with the standards of whiteness. (44)
Wu goes on to show the way in which McCullers interrogates white southern identity through means other than comparisons to black southern identity by replacing the African American with the European immigrant in her examination of racial and ethnic differences, especially in the stories collected in The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Works (45).
Despite such radical representations, however, class issues within a singular ethnic community – whether white or black – are fairly rare in McCullers’ work, a reflection, perhaps, that they were either of less importance or less visible to her. Of the main categories of analysis mentioned – race, class, gender – gender and race/ethnicity are always central to McCullers’ work, whereas class is much less rarely represented outside of its relative relationship to these other two categories. The most extended class analysis in her fiction, for instance, exists within a context of race, between the characters of Dr Copeland and Jake Blount in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Both of these characters, black and white, respectively, are evangelical Marxists who have become angry and disillusioned after many years of trying to change things – Copeland for his race, and Blount for his co-workers – and both have trouble in communicating their versions of Marxism in any practical way. The discussion between the two men at the end of the novel exposes McCullers’s own disillusionment with the gap between theory and practice: both men are unable to articulate a sensible argument any longer, Copeland because of serious illness and Blount because of alcohol.
However, McCullers’ portrayal of class within a white community only occurs in her novella ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’, the title story of which contains her principal grotesque vision of the South, an understanding of which links McCullers to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque as both a peculiarity of embodiment and as a site of resistance. The story is a strange mixture of, on the one hand, a scathing representation of the cheapness of human life in the South – one of McCullers’ most consistent themes – and, on the other hand, McCullers’ most explicit attack on ‘red-neck’ culture. In this, the main story in her oeuvre to focus on the life of small-town mill workers without either race or ethnicity playing a central part, there is a barrier between Miss Amelia and the rest of the community because of her outsider status: her lone, Amazonian behaviour, and her ownership of the local store and still, from which she produces the best moonshine available, mark her as someone not of the community of mill workers, yet not of the mill owners. The breakdown in the barrier between Miss Amelia and her community occurs, not through her love and compassion for them as down-trodden, exploited workers, but because her ‘beloved’, Cousin Lymon, a misshapen dwarf who steals her heart, thinks it would be a good idea to offer food and drink to the locals inside the shop premises rather than on the veranda, and Miss Amelia knows that if she is to keep him in her life, then she must accept the workers as part of the deal. McCullers makes it clear that Cousin Lymon, unlike Miss Amelia, is at one with those in the wider community: “He had only been in the store half an hour before an immediate contact had been established between him and each individual” (McCullers, 1951, 20). Cousin Lymon’s arrival, in fact, sets off a chain of reactions that involves the whole town and in which the newly-formed café creates a whole new sense of belonging and self-worth: “There, for a few hours at least, the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in the world could be laid low” (55). It is, of course, a wholeness that is short-lived, but in shaping this as further evidence of the impossibility of human beings forming a collective understanding of each other, or deserving love, McCullers reveals that her grotesque vision of the South also extends to the representation of class, albeit in a much more limited way than that of race or gender. Though well aware that individuals faced different challenges – articulated best by Berenice in The Member of the Wedding who says that she is “caught worst” because she is “black…. Everybody is caught one way or another. But they done drawn completely extra bounds around all colored people…. Sometimes it just about more than we can stand” (McCullers, 1946, 141) – McCullers prioritized race and gender over class.
Even in her longer narratives, such as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which can easily be positioned within a class analysis, there are restrictions or conditions to the representations that reveal McCullers’ limited understanding of class. So, for example, in that novel, John Singer, the deaf-mute moves into a local boarding house, run by the Kelly family whose daughter, Mick, becomes the main figure of gender and class representation in the novel. The father of the Kelly household cannot work and the family is forced to take in lodgers to earn money. Ultimately, Mick takes a job with Woolworth’s to help support her family, which means that she will be forced to leave school as a result. The narrative makes it clear that Mick does this voluntarily, but under a great deal of pressure brought about by her family’s circumstances. The emphasis, then, seems to be on the Kelly family’s down-turn in fortunes, which leads to Mick’s loss of opportunities in life. But this story line is set against that of the African American Dr Copeland, whose daughter, Portia, works in the Kelly household as domestic help, something that her father dislikes since it has been his ambition to raise children who are well-educated and who might become leaders of their race rather than accepting the status quo and undertaking the demeaning jobs traditionally available to blacks in the South. In the context of southern racism, then, Mick Kelly has choices that Portia does not: to work in Woolworths rather than in domestic servitude, but in the bigger picture of class analysis, the very fact that the Kelly household – down on their luck as they are – can still have domestic help provides the reader with layers of complexity that are difficult to disentangle in any reading of the relationship between race and class. There is perhaps no better example than The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as to why McCullers’ work must be read within the complex intersections of race, class and gender.
Perhaps, as mentioned, McCullers’ inability to see the class connections between Ireland and the South, at a time when Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe, is nothing more than an example of the way in which class is so often subsumed by race in the United States, especially in the South, whereas in Ireland, a country where sectarianism has dominated between and within an ostensibly non-differentiated white population, McCullers was simply unable to see class as a separate or isolated category. Omi and Winant refer to the dominance of race in America as a kind of “racial etiquette”, which operates in the interactions of daily life as a set of interpretative codes and racial meanings (16), whilst Mantsios suggests that “people in the United States don’t like to talk about class…. Unlike people in most other parts of the world, we shrink from using words that classify along economic lines or that point to class distinctions: phrases like ‘working class’, ‘upper class’, and ‘ruling class’ are rarely uttered by Americans” (182). This is not, he suggests, because “Americans, rich or poor, aren’t keenly aware of class differences … it is that class is not in the domain of public discourse. Class is not discussed or debated in public because class identity has been stripped from popular culture” (183).
What Carson McCullers knew about Russia she knew through reading the works of the Russian realists and her interest in that country and its writers was, primarily, in how they could be related to southern literature. Equally, what she knew about Ireland she knew through reading her favourite Irish authors, and for the same reason: the world of southern fiction was the centre of her universe, despite her antagonist relationship with the politics of where she came from. Three actual journeys to Ireland never changed this situation. Visiting two of Ireland’s stately homes appears to have been bonuses in McCullers’ life’s journey, but ones that never really impinged on either her political or creative consciousness. Perhaps it was the case that McCullers just had so much hard reality to deal with, in the form of her illnesses, that she created a whole new reality for herself through the world of the imagination, including fiction, as yet another means of escape: not, this time, from the South, but from the self. McCullers’ major works – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943) and The Member of the Wedding (1946) – were all written before she suffered the first of several debilitating strokes in 1946. This means that by the time of her first Irish visit in 1950, at the age of 33, McCullers had already experienced the event that would change her life forever and, by 1967 at the age of 50, she was entirely trapped within a body that no longer worked. In a sense, then, and tragically, even at the time of her earliest Irish visit, McCullers’ best years – intellectually, creatively and physically – were already behind her. In this context it seems clear that the world of fiction was, in fact, McCullers’ true reality – an example of her preference for the imaginary over the actual – while those life journeys, including to Ireland, were the stuff of fantasy or imagination that sustained her during the times in-between.
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