I recently read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter written by Carson McCullers, published in 1940 when she was 23. I’d seen her name occasionally over the years but knew nothing about her at all until I read this article in the LRB by Patricia Lockwood last year, and McCullers’ work sounded interesting:
My study of Carson McCullers began when I was a teenager, as any study of her should. On one of our family outings to the bookstore, I picked up a mass-market paperback of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, with all the characters swept together on the front in a sort of soap opera hurricane. In sharp contrast to the cover, the people inside were real: Mick Kelly, who heard music in the inner room; Dr Benedict Mady Copeland, a black Marxist dying of tuberculosis who thought continually of the advancement of his people; Biff Brannon, the brusque owner of the New York Café, who sometimes wished he were a mother; the deaf-mute Singer with his flying hands. How were they real? The back cover spoke of McCullers as a prodigy, which was a word that always sounded to me as if it had something to prove. If you managed to produce an epic at 22, the world would have to acknowledge that the life you were living was a real one; if you mastered all the voices within it, your readers would have to admit you understood something about them
While I like filling in gaps in my knowledge of older fiction, I’m always a bit wary; I sometimes find “classics” dull and hard going. Thankfully, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was really good. It’s interesting and not difficult to read. It jumps from character to character, in a town in the state of Georgia, as their stories intertwine. All their tales were worth reading — often with that kind of structure I’m wanting to get back to the one character that’s most interesting. I didn’t want it to end, and wanted to keep reading about their lives.
From the 21st century it’s slightly odd reading a book that was written at that time, in which events in Europe are distant background noise. Characters often mention Nazis and Hitler and specific events in a way which, if this was a modern novel set in the 1940s, would seem like clunky scene-setting. Like a TV show set in early 1970s America, whose characters appear to watch nothing on their own televisions except footage of Nixon and the Vietnam War. That’s trying too hard! I kept having to remind myself that this book’s events were contemporary, mentioned without any knowledge of what would happen next.
Anyway, a good read. Patricia Lockwood again:
To read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is simply not to understand how she did it – and all when she was so young that she didn’t have the sense to take the guts out of a chicken before she cooked it.