facebook twitter

Posts by Sarah Schulman

Grappling With Carson McCullers: 100 Years

BY ON July 20, 2017

This essay, and the short fiction with which it ends, was presented at the Carson McCullers Centenary in Rome on July 16, 2017. 

It was a green and crazy summer.

Carson McCullers is one of those singular artists who inspires us over time, and yet is impossible to imitate. Much of the worst of American literature has been created by multi-generations of inadequate Hemingway impersonators. But no one tries to imitate McCullers. One of the many things about her that I try to understand is why, unlike Elvis, she is impossible to imitate and how at the same time she is able to influence us.

“Carson had a male identity, and if she lived today I believe she would be on the continuum of what we call `trans.’”

Lets start with the opening words of Member of The Wedding: It was a green and crazy summer… On a superficial reading it might remind us of “It was a dark and stormy night” but actually the phrase works in very unusual ways. Dark and Stormy are both on the same plain. We are separate from the night: looking out at it from inside a shelter, or we are surrounded on the deck of a ship, but dark and stormy are evoking the same state of experience. On the other hand green and crazy are two entirely different spheres of perception, because green is a visual and crazy is interior: a state of mind, an evaluation as well as a feeling. So, Carson manages, within the frame of seven simple, almost minimalist, words, to evoke multi-dimensions of interiority and exteriority: emotion and perception. In this way, she is a master of the American thought sentence. And that is why we cannot imitate her.

So, how is it that she influences us?

I was re-reading the beautiful anthology that Carlos Dews edited for the Library of America, and went back to her short story “Court In The West Eighties” – written in 1935 at the age of 18, when she left her Columbus, Georgia home to study writing at Columbia University. This was her second pilgrimage to New York Earlier she had come to Julliard to study classical piano, but something happened and she ended up giving all her money to a prostitute and had to return. This time, more familiar with the ways of the City, she looks out her apartment window at the neighbors on the other side of the courtyard, who she will never meet or know. Particularly, interesting is one man, with red hair, who has a drink at the window after work. She, the narrator, is reading Karl Marx, and that enhances her understanding of the people with whom she shares this quiet knowledge.

“I felt that this man across from me understood the cellist and everyone else in the court as well. I had a feeling that nothing would surprise him and that he understood more than most people.”

I had a feeling says this young woman for whom thoughts, ideas, and insights would always be feelings.

Most of the story involves descriptions of her feelings about her neighbors until suddenly, a very surprising thing occurs. The narrator tells us, her readers, that she thought about sharing this information by letter with a friend back home but that the description would be “too hard” to write. Wait a minute! Didn’t she already write it to us? Isn’t that what we have been reading, her description? And then it sinks in. She does not consider us to be readers, she does not consider us to be separate human beings, suddenly it becomes clear that the reader is in fact part of her, and is living inside her mind. That the page is actually her feeling, and we are in her consciousness, and the story becomes more intimate than even a whisper on a pillow.

This is what influences us: McCullers’ vulnerability, the total openness, the invitation to know all that she has to know. This is what makes us inspired.

It certainly worked for me.

In 1999 I had a workshop of a new play called “The Child” (that later became a novel) and I mentioned to the young lead actress, Angelina Phillips,

“You know, you look like Carson McCullers.”

And she said: “Who’s that?”