Southern Gothic

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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