Author: Carson McCullers
Publisher: Mariner Books
Publishing Date: 2000
Number of Pages: 359 pages
Genre: Bildungsroman, Psychological Fiction, Southern Gothic
Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine.
When I was 23-years old, I was just a fledgling accountant, lost in translation of how my new environment operates. I was steering a shaky boat across a stormy ocean, trying to find the perfect equilibrium to be able to sail across safely. I was unsure of many things, including where I am and what I am doing as of that moment. There were just too many questions.
Then there is Carson McCullers, so sure of herself and so confident of her abilities. At the tender age 23, she successfully published her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. After its publication in 1940, it became a literary sensation. Almost 80 years after its first publication, it remains one of the most notable works of American fiction.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a depiction of American life in a small Georgian mill town during the 1930s. At the center of the story is deaf-mute John Singer, whose closest friend Spiros Antonapoulous., also deaf-mute, was put away in an asylum. While reeling from this departure, he became the confidante for misfits, who without design, became drawn to him. The rest of the novel related the struggles of these misfits – tomboyish Mick Kelly, alcoholic Jake Blount, observant Biff Brannon and idealistic Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland.
It is a spellbinding story of dreams and hopes of five individuals of varying backgrounds and with their own set of stories to tell. Ultimately, it related their heart’s greatest desires and longings. Individually, their stories are interesting and overwhelming familiar because of their profoundness. Their stories, their desires, and their longings are ubiquitous. In the depths of our hearts, we dream of changes, we want the best for everyone, and we all want to be loved. By going back to the basics of human nature, the story shone through.
Their stories aside, the book is doused with the signature southern literary flavor. Racism and violence were extensively dealt with in the book. However, these subjects were more subtly dealt as McCullers made it a point to highlight the other aspects of the story, avoiding that trap in which novels set in the Deep South often fall into – making race the centripetal force of the story. But by going back into the basics, she is reminding her readers of her origins.
Some political and religious aspects relevant during the period were also depicted in the book. The book also showed the jarring aspect of human nature and our undeniable submission to what is the widely considered as the norm. People in general are too afraid to step out of the comfort zones and disrupt the flow. In the face of radical changes, we fold and hold on tight on the reins of normality we are used to.
McCullers’ writing shone through from start to finish. The book was so well-written that even though it dealt with a bevy of heavy subjects, it wasn’t an overbearing read. However, there was bleakness that inevitably hovered the book. This emotional bleakness made the book burdensome at some points. Moreover, as relatable as the characters were, relation amongst them was virtually nil. How I wish there was some more of connection between them other than Singer and their individual flaws. Their individual stories were so distinct they could have been published separately.
To a certain extent, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a series of musings on small town living. But in the simplicity of its musings, this classic work shone through because of McCullers’ astute observations and portrayal of life in a small town. In a couple of a hundred pages, she was able to capture the minds of her readers with her overflowing sentimentality. For a 23-year old writer, this is quite a feat. It is something that is truly astounding as she was able to capture the essence and the very spirit of small town life. It was very rich and heartbreaking. Truly, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a perfectly written narrative. Everything about it is good, or great. The dialogues were free-flowing and the characters were well-developed. I have no qualms on these aspects. All over its pages, it evokes nostalgia, a wonderful feeling of presentiment. Reading about the different characters, particularly Mick’s, is a wonderful journey. But just as I was getting to understand them, the book is abruptly cut-off by an underwhelming ending. However, in spite of its numerous positive facets, the book didn’t blow me away the way I wanted to. At times, it was an underwhelming experience especially that it was a challenge establishing a reading rhythm.
Nevertheless, is an astonishing and astounding literary piece. Think about it. Who, at the tender age of 23, could even come up with a sensational sentiment-laden modern classic?
Recommended for those who love books oozing with sentimentality and nostalgia, those who love books about people, those who are looking for a well-written prose, those who like reading books about astute observations on human nature and behavior, those who like books set in the Deep South, those who wants to be inspired to write at a young age, and those who want to publish their first work before the age of 23.
Not recommended for those who like to dwell more on events (although there are plenty in the book as well), those who dislike nostalgic pieces, and those who want to devote their time reading more contemporary works.
About the Author
(Photo by The New Yorker) Born on February 19, 1917, Lula Carson Smith, more famously known as Carson McCullers, is a notable American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and poet.
At the age of 17, she left for New York City to study piano at the Julliard School of Music. However, due to illness, she returned to Columbus, Georgia to recuperate. She then abandoned her dreams about music and instead pursued a career in writing. She studied creative writing at Columbia University, publishing her first work, Wunderkind, in 1936.
At the age of 23, she completed her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940). This was shortly followed by Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), The Member of the Wedding (1946), and Clock Without Hands (1961). Her other notable works include The Ballads of the Sad Cafe: The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers (1951) and Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig (1964).
Carson married Reeves McCullers in 1937 but got divorced in 1941. They remarried in 1945. She was widowed in 1953 when Reeves committed suicide. Carson passed away in September 29, 1967 after a brain hemorrhage.