LISTEN: A new biography of renowned writer and Georgia native Carson McCullers takes a deep dive into the author's troubled life and brilliant mind. GPB's Peter Biello speaks with the biographer, Mary Dearborn.

Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1917..

Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1917..

Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

With her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Columbus-Georgia native Carson McCullers became a literary superstar in 1940. And her stardom has not faded. As recently as a decade ago, that novel was a selection in Oprah’s book club, sending her work once more to the best-seller lists.

Over the course of her life, she wrote novels, short stories, and plays — but she was to some extent held back by illness, alcohol, and a troubled marriage. Biographer Mary V. Dearborn’s recent book, Carson McCullers: A Life, explores her life and legacy. She spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.


Peter Biello: So what made you want to turn your attention to Carson McCullers? You'd previously written biographies of Ernest Hemingway, Louise Bryant, Peggy Guggenheim, Henry Miller. Why Carson McCullers?

Mary Dearborn: I tend to do these male heavy-hitter novelists like Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Ernest Hemingway. But in between, I like to do women writers to get away from the testosterone. And so Carson — I was looking for a female subject, but I've always loved her work. But more immediately, an archive opened up in Columbus, Ga., which is her hometown, that was really extraordinary. And biographers are always on the alert for things like that.

Peter Biello: So what were you hoping to learn that previous biographers may not have been able to, because this wasn't open yet?

Mary Dearborn: Late in life, she began therapy with a woman called Mary Mercer, and — because she had writer's block, she was trying to write her what would be her last novel, Clock Without Hands and was stuck. And she went to Mary Mercer for a brief course of psychotherapy. And one of the extraordinary things that I found at Columbus State: she had nine sessions with Mary Mercer, and for complicated reasons, Carson wanted transcripts made of those sessions. It was something to do with giving up her information.

Peter Biello: They were recorded. They were recorded sessions.

Mary Dearborn: Yes, they were recorded and transcripts were made. And Mary Mercer, after Carson died — They became very close. It was a romantic relationship and they had stopped therapy, needless to say. But, Carson died in 1967, and Mary Mercer lived to be 101 and died in 2013. And when she died, she left all the papers of Carson's that she had, which was roughly half of the total papers. Among those were transcripts of these psychiatric sessions. So Columbus State posted one and it was absolutely extraordinary. And I had already decided that I wanted to work on Carson, but that really sealed the deal.

Peter Biello: Mm.

Mary Dearborn: They're amazing. ... She went over a lot of her past and a lot of what worried her and her present and about her writing, but it was really just the opportunity to look in the head of this incredible, imaginative writer.

Peter Biello: When she was first starting out as a writer and throughout her career, really, she was known as a writer who was interested in misfits and outsiders. And I'm wondering what you could tell us about that. Why do you think she was drawn to that as a subject?

Mary Dearborn: ... Because she was one herself. That's what drew me to her, too. I read The Member of the Wedding first, which is about a 13-year-old tomboy, and that kind of fit the bill for me. And I think we all feel like misfits at some point, if not all the time. But Carson herself, she knew from an early age — she liked a dress as a boy. She eventually took the name Carson. Her real name was Lula Carson Smith. And took the name Carson, which is androgynous, and she knew that she had to get out of Columbus, Ga., and she wanted to go to New York. She wanted to want to go where she could be a writer, or, more accurately, where she could be among other misfits, which I think is how she saw it, kind of rightly.

Peter Biello: Her last novel, Clock Without Hands, it seemed like she worked on that for quite a long time, through the tumult of the 1950s and early 1960s. And it took, an anti-racist — you wouldn't call it that at the time, but it took kind of an anti-racist point of view. What do you make of the significance of a white Southern woman of her stature at the time — because her name was in demand still at that time in her career — a white woman from the South writing about race?

Mary Dearborn: That's a good question, because it's not the best of her novels. It's quite good, but it's — For various reasons, mostly her health, her writing was falling off a little. Not everyone agrees with that, I should say. But it's a very curious approach to race. There's a character in there I just like this who's Black and has blue eyes, and the antihero who she clearly loved creating is a judge who had been a member of Congress and wants to roll back time to the days of slavery. And his specific plan is to reintroduce Confederate currency. And he's an awful person, and the blue-eyed Black guy is related to him. And it's about the old South meeting new realities. And it was, in a way, a brave thing for her to take on.

Peter Biello: I wanted to ask you a little bit about her personal life, and how it impacted her writing life. Early in her life, she married Reeve McCullers, who was a troubled character to say the least.

Mary Dearborn: Yes.

Peter Biello: He had problems with alcohol.

Mary Dearborn: Yes.

Peter Biello: He struggled with his sexuality. He was bisexual. Definitely pursued relationships with men, but also had a — no small amount of self-hatred because of that. In a way, it seemed.

Mary Dearborn: He did. 

Peter Biello: Carson also drank quite a bit. And together they could go into these spirals of drinking and drama.

Mary Dearborn: Yes

Peter Biello: And their marriage lasted for a dozen years, with an interval in between where they'd been divorced. What do you think his impact on her writing was? Because he was at least outwardly supportive, but quite a distraction otherwise.

Mary Dearborn: I think he was absolutely central. I think, you know, for all Reeve's problems, and I came to really like him a lot. And there's — I wish that we knew more about him, and I wish that he had left more writing because he didn't. He left just— all that we have are his letters to Carson during World War II, when he was in Europe. And they are amazing. He, he was an excellent writer, and he found all kinds of different ways to tell her that he loved her. They're very moving, and I don't mean just finding synonyms for [it]. But he loved the way her mind worked, and he would describe it for her. But he just loved her totally. And Carson responded to that, which is a lucky thing. But she was mostly oriented toward women. One thing that [was] disturbing, but a little funny about them is he called her women that she was interested in "imaginary friends." But Reeves was indeed troubled and the marriage was rocky, and they divorced, and then they remarried, which I think shows an intentionality about being married that she was looking for even though she was a lesbian. You don't give up on somebody who loves you more than anyone else in the world. But he was so troubled and things really went downhill. And he eventually killed himself.

Peter Biello: Yeah. It was a sad story within of the larger story of — of her life. And one of the things about Carson that — that Reeves sort of satisfied in her was that this need to be loved and the need to be the center of attention, the need to be cared for, and even the propensity that she had to fall in love with the doctors that she had simply because she needed to be touched. I mean, that seemed like a need that would be somewhat distracting for her because it was so intense.

Mary Dearborn: She was extremely needy. Okay? And she's this, as you can imagine, your first impression — which would be correct — was of this independent, brilliant woman who's made her own way somehow. And you know, that would be right. But because of her illness and also, I think because of the way she was raised by this extraordinary but somewhat smothering mother, she saw herself as somebody who could do anything and yet was tremendously dependent. And came to be — She had two major strokes by the time she was 30, and they really affected her really badly, and she became even physically dependent on other people. But she did have a thing. She loved touching, and she loved to use the word "love." And it's true. I love the fact that she liked going to doctors because they touched her. I mean it — she was a very needy, loving — I guess I prefer the word loving — but needy, dependent person. Kind of like a eternal child.

Peter Biello: One of her best friends was the playwright Tennessee Williams, and she cared a great deal about what he thought about her. And they talked quite a bit. And he said something about her in a letter that I wanted to, to bring up to you. And you quote him, in saying, "When you remember the poetry of her work, you feel differently about her, appreciate her isolation and her longings, and you forgive her selfishness." And that was something of an experience that I had while reading this book, like, "wow, Carson McCullers seems like what you'd call today 'high maintenance.'" Right? Like, she's a lot to handle. She has a lot of demands. She's a house guest that kind of doesn't know when it's time to leave. But if you know how beautiful her work is, you kind of forgive her for all that.

Mary Dearborn: Oh, definitely. For sure. And Tennessee, you know, they talk about as people we're close to," We should live together. You know, we should get a place together in Rome." And Tennessee would write to his friends saying, "I really hope she doesn't take me up on that." But he also had that sister who was—

Peter Biello: Rose.

Mary Dearborn: Yes, I guess was schizophrenic and was — had a lobotomy, and he was very close to her, and he remained close to her and he took care of her. And Carson kind of filled that same role. And Carson would say, you know, "I can't wait to meet Rose. I'm just like Rose." And then in very different ways, she was. There's a story that I love about Tennessee Williams, and I can't do a Southern accent, so you have to just hear it in your head. He brought her for a birthday or something a couple of lovebirds in a cage, and she enthused over them and whatever. And they had their visit and he was leaving and she said, "Tenn, would you just take those birds, please?" And Tennessee did. And he understood. And he liked the story because it's very Carson.

Peter Biello: Yeah. Was the quote in the book — I might be misremembering it too — but she said something like, "Can you please take those silly birds out of here?" Or something like that? The "silly" birds. And I'm thinking Tennessee Williams just brought her a gift!

Mary Dearborn: Yeah, I know.

Peter Biello: And she's saying, "Let it go."

Mary Dearborn: You have to — and you have to hear that in a Southern accent. But yeah, it was a complicated relationship. Also, you know, Tennessee had his own immense problems. And yet, or because of that, they really bonded. He was probably closer to her than anyone but the people she was in love with. So.

Peter Biello: Yeah. And she, he was a big presence in the last 15 years or so of her life—

Mary Dearborn: Yeah.

Peter Biello: — after her husband died by suicide. You mentioned her illnesses, which started with strep throat very early in life and wasn't treated the way it would be treated now. So it led to rheumatic fever, which led to strokes which by the end of her life progressed so that the left side of her body was not really working and she was possibly going to have to have a leg amputated.

Mary Dearborn: Yes.

Peter Biello: So her physical abilities were really, really limited towards the end of her life and she did not look good.

Mary Dearborn: No.

Her friends remarked on how bad she looked. And I was thinking about all this, and then also how much she drank and how doctors would say don't drink and she would completely ignore that advice. And I just kept thinking, you know, she's only 50 when she dies. And a lot of her life was consumed by bad health. Do you think about that? Like what her productivity would have been like or what more she could have written if she had just been able to kick the alcohol habit?

Mary Dearborn: What's lost is just incredible. And really her writing starts falling off around age 35.

Peter Biello: So young.

Mary Dearborn: It really is young. So we think of what might have been. But yeah, she compounded the problems she had from her stroke with alcohol. I mean, it becomes a vicious circle, of course, because she's in pain. She drinks. It helps somewhat and then that just snowballs. Unfortunately, the people around her didn't say, "Carson, you're drinking too much. You have to stop." Starting with her family, who were all heavy drinkers, except maybe her brother. But her sister, who she was very close to, was in AA. Reeves was intermittently in AA, but ... I don't think anyone said, "Carson, come to a meeting with me." She was a genius and you didn't want to mess with that.

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