COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Amongst 20th century writers, Carson McCullers is widely regarded as one of the most impactful. Evidence of her Columbus, Georgia upbringing colors many of her works, including “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”(1940), which was adapted for film in 1968 and became a #1 New York Times bestseller in 2004, after Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club.
“[She] grew up in Columbus and her novels are mostly set in a fictionalized version of Columbus, Georgia,” said Nick Norwood, director of the Columbus State University (CSU) Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians.
McCullers was born in Columbus in 1917 as Lula Carson Smith. While she spent most of her teenage years as a pianist and took lessons from a teacher at Fort Benning, she also developed an interest in writing. By the time she graduated from Columbus High School, McCullers had decided to go to New York City for her writing career, although she moved under the guise of studying piano.
Starting in 1934, she studied writing at Columbia and New York University, however illnesses took her back to Columbus several times as she recovered. McCullers published her first short story “Wunderkind” in 1936.
While in Columbus, McCullers met a soldier stationed at Fort Benning who was also an aspiring writer named Reeves McCullers. Though the two got married in 1937 and moved to New York, the connection was tumultuous.
“From the beginning the marriage was plagued by alcoholism, sexual ambivalence (both were bisexual), and Reeves’s envy of McCullers’s writing abilities,” states the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
Within the next 15 years, McCullers and her husband would engage in a series of separations and reconciliations. At one point, both were involved in a romantic relationship with composer David Diamond, who lived with McCullers in New York at a house with Harper’s Bazaar publisher George Davis and poet W.H. Auden, amongst other notable creatives of the time.
Elements of love triangles, explorations of sexuality and themes of loneliness reminiscent of McCullers’ experience pervade the author’s work, which includes “The Member of the Wedding” (1946) and “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1941).
While in Paris in 1953, after a failed attempt to convince McCullers to commit suicide with him, Reeves killed himself. McCullers returned to New York and went on to write the play “The Square Root of Wonderful,” her book “Clock Without Hands” and a collection of children’s poems.
According to CSU, McCullers’ body of work is “small but significant.” Over her lifetime, the author published five novels, 20 short stories and more, including an unfinished autobiography which was posthumously published in 1999.
“Carson McCullers’ adult life was a mixture of emotional unhappiness and bad health,” the University of Georgia (UGA) Georgia Writers Hall of Fame states, “but with luminous talent she drew upon her empathy and experience to compose resonant, ballad-like stories about the inner lives of marginal, often physically or psychologically scarred characters who were tormented by loneliness.”
Though McCullers spent most of her adult life in New York and abroad, many of her stories are set in the south and her work is largely considered Southern Gothic literature.
McCullers died in 1967 after a stroke which left her comatose. The author had suffered strokes since she was 24, the result of untreated childhood rheumatic fever, according to the Carson McCullers Center website.
“She’s world-famous, Carson McCullers is,” said Norwood, who is currently collaborating with a filmmaker to create a documentary about the author. “I want people in Columbus to realize that and to realize… this famous writer came from our little town and used this town as the material for her work.”