Literary Sisters

Carson McCullers 1917-1967

Biography and background

Precocious and gifted, Carson McCullers started her writing career at fifteen, in the same year she fell ill with rheumatic fever.  Illness was to be a constant feature of her life; she began having strokes and by the age of 31 was entirely paralysed on her left side.  Despite this, and the alcoholism that plagued her, she wrote tirelessly.  ‘Writing is my occupation,’ she said, ‘I must do it.’

She surrounded herself with some of the brightest celebrities of the time, including Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando.  Before her death at the age of 50, she published only eight books and a posthumous collection of short stories, essays and poems.  Yet she is one of the most highly regarded American writers.

McCullers’ unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare (1999) was dictated during the final months of her life.

 Why is she important?

McCullers is known as a proponent of Southern Gothic.  A fresh voice and, like that of fellow southerner Flannery O’Connor, she was not afraid to challenge the image of ‘magnolia blossom romance’ associated with the American south.  She once said: ‘I have my own reality, made out of language and voices and foliage.’  It was this reality, her ghostly, private world, that she tried to reproduce in most of her fiction.  Her settings were taken from all that she found haunting in her adolescence, and it is adolescents to whom she is most drawn in her fiction.   Her work examines the spiritual isolation of the human condition; how, as humans, we are trapped and flawed.  Above all, her work is testament to her drive to create despite that isolation and the pain she suffered through her recurrent illnesses.

You might want to read…

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.  McCullers’ first novel, set in a small southern town with characters whose voices are alive and vibrant amidst a world of loneliness, violence and depravity.  This novel led to her acclaim as ‘the voice of the decade.’

The Ballad of the Sad Café.  Described as the exploration of ‘a grotesque human triangle in a primitive Southern town.’   A young boy learns the difficult lessons of manhood and experiences a fateful encounter with his native land and former love…

The Member of the Wedding.  A claustrophobic and intense tale of 13 year old Frankie, bored and listless, who is set on going on honeymoon with her newly-married brother and his bride.  Often discussed as a ‘coming of age’ story, this is so much more – it’s about identity and loss, desire and jealousy: ‘They are the we of me,’ Frankie says.

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This is the first post in the Literary Sisters series.  I had to start with a writer who is close to my heart – the subject of my PhD thesis and of my book H.D. and the image.   But the list is growing longer as people email and tweet me with suggestions for women writers to add to the list.  Do get in touch if there are any you’d like to see here!


H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) 1886-1961 

Photograph of H.D., c. 1921. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University


Biography and background

‘I am swing-swing between worlds’ H.D. wrote in her little-known novel Her (written in 1927, first published in 1981).  This phrase sums up much about the life of H.D., who was born Hilda Doolittle in Pennsylvania in 1886 into a Moravian community.  She felt herself to be not quite American but not European either.  She had passionate relationships with men and with women. In her writing career, she moved elegantly between genres – melding poetry, prose, essay and memoir – so that her work is sometimes interesting (and difficult) combinations of these things.

Initially known for her early imagist lyrics (first published in 1912), H.D. has historically been overshadowed by her relationship with the American modernist poet Ezra Pound (she was briefly engaged to him).  The story goes that in the café of the British Museum, Pound ‘discovered’ Hilda as a poet, scribbling with a flourish ‘H.D., Imagiste’ at the bottom of one of her first poems.  But in the course of her lifetime she explored different fields, and different media, which makes her writing a challenging yet rich mix of cross disciplinary influences.

In the 1920s she was immersed in avant garde film, appearing in them as well as editing them.  In the 1930s she developed an interest in psychoanalysis, briefly attending sessions with Sigmund Freud (paid for by her wealthy partner Bryher – Winifred Ellerman). During the Second World War she became fascinated by spiritualism, frequenting séances and becoming a member of the Society for Psychic Research.

Why is she important?

H.D. was open and unapologetic about her bisexuality.  She became an icon for both the gay rights and feminist movements, when her poems, plays, letters and essays were rediscovered by feminist critics during the 1970s and 1980s. This period saw a wave of feminist literature on the gendering of Modernism,by a generation of writers who saw her as an early icon of the feminist movement.

She has been hugely influential on women poets who came after her, including Denise Levertov and Susan Howe, the Language poet.  Male poets Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley also acknowledge her influence on their work.

You might want to read…

Her .  The story of awkward and insular, Hermione Gart, who is desperate to escape the confines of her narrow New England upbringing.  This is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel, which has a lot to say about identity and desire.

Helen in Egypt.  Written towards the end of her life, this is a prose poem steeped in mythology, a retelling of the Helen of Troy myth.  Challenging but worth it.

Bid Me To Live.  A fictionalised account of H.D.’s intense friendship with D. H. Lawrence, published just the year before her death.

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Literary Sisters (and wives)

August 15, 2012

At sixteen I fell in love with Virginia Woolf. I can’t say it was love at first sight. It took me a while to work her out – I found her difficult, obtuse and complicated. But once I understood where she was coming from, I was infatuated.  Mrs Dalloway is still pretty much my ‘desert […]

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