I decided I had to read this book which is considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century. It is written by Carson McCullers, who was born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, the oldest of three children of Lamar Smith, a jeweller of French Huguenot descent, and Marguerite Waters. As a child, she was encouraged both to play the piano and to write stories. At the age of seventeen she went to New York City to study music at Julliard School of Music, but she lost her enrolment money on the subway. She returned to Columbus temporarily to recover from rheumatic fever. Back in New York, she studied writing and produced her first piece of writing. She married Reeves McCullers, and ex-soldier and aspiring writer in 1937. In 1940, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published to considerable critical acclaim. She went on to write three more novels, several plays and short stories. She divorced Reeves in 1941 and remarried him in 1945. In the interim, she fell in love with several women, including Gypsy Rose Lee, but, reportedly, her attempts to have sex with any of them came to naught. Reeves committed suicide in 1953, having failed in his aim to persuade his wife to commit suicide with him. Carson McCullers was an alcoholic who suffered from strokes; she was paralysed on her left side from the age of 31 and died at the age of 50 in Nyack, NY. Her writing style is described as Southern Gothic.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, originally titled The Mute, takes its name from the poem The Lonely Heart by William Sharp: “Deep Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still, But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.”
The novel has six main characters: John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos who are both deaf mutes and close friends. Spiros is hospitalised when his mental health deteriorates. Singer stays in the small mill town in Georgia, where he works as a silver engraver in the 1930’s, There are also Mick Kelly, a tomboyish girl who loves music and dreams of owning a piano, but, out of necessity, has to work at Woolworths; Dr Benedict Copeland, an old black doctor who is filled with anger at the plight of blacks in the South; Biff Brannon, the observant owner of a twenty-four hour diner; and Jake Blount, an alcoholic, violent labour organiser. Each of these latter four is attracted to John Singer by his placid demeanour and his apparent sympathy with their individual angst. The well-drawn characters suffer from loneliness which McCullers interprets with deep empathy.
When the book was first published, it was unusual for a young author to write with such effective sympathy about those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated or oppressed. She also highlights the oppressive race relations in the South in the 1930’s.
For me, however, the book moves at too slow a pace, and while this largely matches the pace of the setting, I found myself losing interest now and then. The characters, the setting and the emotions are very real; the writing is excellent, if only it moved a little faster.