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by Brooke Allen
Review of Illumination & Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers
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To call Carson McCullers an eccentric, as some have done, is one of the great understatements of all time. McCullers was deeply, prodigiously weird. Sensitive and vulnerable to an almost pathological degree (the actress Anne Baxter called her skinless), she was also a tough survivor, ruthlessly advancing her own agenda and interests at the expense of those she purported to love; I always felt Carson was a destroyer, her sometime friend Elizabeth Bowen commented, for which reason I chose never to be closely involved with her. McCullers was a monstrous egoist, who put her own talents second to none. (I have more to say than Hemingway, and God knows, I say it better than Faulkner, she once asserted, wrongly.) She was an emotional parasite; even her cousin Jordan Massee, who loved her dearly, admitted that Carson is more demanding than anyone else I have ever known. Lillian Hellman, who did not love her, complained that Carson burdened everyone who got close to her. If you wanted burdens, liked burdens, you accepted Carson and her affection. I dont like such burdens. As for McCullerss sex life, to this day no one seems to be able to figure out just what she did and didnt get up to, although some have suggested that she and her husband, Reeves McCullers, could be aptly described by that well-known limerick,
McCullers died in 1967 at the age of fifty, after many years of invalidism brought on by a series of strokes. Her self-mythologizing and downright lying would make the biographers task a difficult one, as those who knew her were aware: Our girl was given to saying pretty much anything that came into her head, her friend Edward Newhouse said. If I were given the choice of writing her biography or being shipwrecked on a desert island with Spiro Agnew well, I dont know. Virginia Spencer Carr, an intrepid Southerner, took on the unenviable job and in 1975 produced a very thorough biography that for all its many faults and occasional lapses of taste and insight must be acknowledged a definitive work and one that throws fascinating and often lurid light on its odd subject. Other, less exhaustive, studies have followed.
McCullers left behind very little in the way of autobiographical material and what there is of itsome seventy pages of almost egregiously unrevealing reminiscences dictated during the three months before she suffered her fatal strokeshould, mostly because of her congenital dishonesty, have been deemed unpublishable. But in todays commercial climate nothing is too thin, too feeble, too irrelevant to be unpublishable so long as it comes with a famous name attached. And so now, more than thirty years after McCullerss death, the University of Wisconsin Press has decided to dust off the aborted embryo, pad it out with Carsons and Reevess previously unpublished wartime correspondence and the original twenty-page outline for what was to become The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and publish the whole shebang as part of the Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography series, under the title Illumination & Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers.
In an interview with Rex Reed not long before her death, McCullers gave her reasons for attempting an autobiography:
I think it is important for future generations of students to know why I did certain things, but it is also important for myself. I became an established literary figure overnight, and I was much too young to understand what happened to me or the responsibility it entailed. I was a bit of a holy terror. That, combined with all my illnesses, nearly destroyed me. Perhaps if I trace and preserve for other generations the effect this success had on me it will prepare future artists to accept it better.Fat chance! And in any case, though McCullerss early success cannot have improved her character or her always fragile emotional state, it did not make her a holy terror: she was already that, long before her first fiction was published.
Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, where she spent the first seventeen years of her life. Like many another precocious child she was abetted by a doting parent, in this case her mother, Marguerite, who when still pregnant informed her friends that secret prenatal signs indicated that the child was destined to be a great artist. Carsons relationship with her mother was to be intense and avidly needy on both sides throughout the two womens lives; in the early years it was tempered by the presence of Carsons rational, quiet father, a jeweller.
Little Lula showed evidence of musical talent, and her mother decided that she should train as a concert pianist. The child, who longed for fame and notoriety at any cost, went along with the plan happily enough and devoted long hours of every day to her piano studies, while her teacher, Mary Tucker, became the first in a long line of people, both male and female, on whom McCullers was to focus her passionate affection and insatiable craving for love.
At the age of seventeen, Carson (she had dropped the Lula four years earlier, much as her adolescent heroine Frankie would later transform herself into F. Jasmine Addams in The Member of the Wedding) departed for New York, ostensibly to study at Juilliard. But in fact her dreams of a musical career were fading as she discovered a new affinity for writing, and once in the city she attended creative writing classes at Columbia and New York University while supporting herself with a series of unexciting jobs. In 1935 she met Reeves McCullers, an attractive and bright young serviceman from Alabama, as sexually ambiguous as she was herself. They were married in 1937, only a few months after Carsons first published fiction appeared in Story magazine.
The rollercoaster aspect of marriage to Reeves, who was to provide both the most supportive and the most destructive relationship of Carsons life, began almost immediately. The pre-nup was that Reeves should support them for a year while Carson wrote, and then she would do the same for him. Carsons year of writing produced The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), a stunning success that made her a bigtime literary star at the absurd age of twenty-three; after that, of course, it was curtains for any similar ambitions Reeves might have had. Could he have been a good writer? Probably not, but well never know now. Rather than seizing an equal partnership in the marriage, he accepted the supporting role of helping Carson to realize her genius to the fullest. He went to the office, shopped, kept house, and generally ministered to the delicate prodigy, services she grudgingly acknowledged in Illumination & Night Glare: I was completely absorbed in my work, and if the food burned up he never chided me. It would have been rather surprising if he had chided her, for it was he who did the cooking.
Reeves was also expected to turn a blind eye to Carsons never-ending string of amours, the most serious of which was her infatuation with Annemarie Clarac- Schwarzenbach, a glamorous Swiss intellectual Carson met in 1940. Depressed, Reeves developed an extramarital relationship of his own with the composer David Diamond, to whom he confided his many troubles.
We simply are not husband and wife any more, David. It just doesnt make sense our staying together. When I come home, she either is there or is not there, without any explanation. Sometimes she comes home early in the morning, sometimes not. After all, she sleeps with whom she pleases, sees whom she wants. Im not a husband any longer.
A strange three-way relationship between Reeves, Carson, and Diamond was soon to develop and to become one of the central events in Carsons life, setting the pattern for her lifelong propensity for triangular situations and providing material for both The Member of the Wedding (1946) and The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951). It is entirely omitted, however, from this memoir, along with almost all other material of a very personal nature.
A heavy drinker even at the best of times as was Carson herselfReeves now hit the bottle ever harder and began to show signs of the instability that would eventually take over and wreck his life. The couple separated in 1940, after Carson sold Reflections in a Golden Eye to Harpers Bazaar, and she moved into a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights with George Davis, the literary editor of Harpers Bazaar, and W. H. Auden. It was a notorious household that would over the course of a few years come to include Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, Virgil Thompson, Paul and Jane Bowles, Richard Wright, and Oliver Smith, among many others. Carson stayed there less than a year. She and Reeves were divorced in 1941.
She spent the war years working on The Member of the Wedding and, on the death of her father, moved with her mother to Nyack, New York. Marguerite Smith spent the rest of her life there and the house also functioned as home base for the more peripatetic Carson, and for her long-suffering younger sister Rita, who as the only really sane woman in this trio, as well as the least self-indulgent, inevitably had to put in a good deal of time as caregiver in both the physical and emotional senses of the word.
And as the war drew to an end Carson found herself once again in passionate correspondence with Reeves, who participated in the Normandy landings and fought in France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany. Still in lovewhatever that might mean!they decided to remarry.
In Illumination & Night Glare McCullers is characteristically shifty about her reasons for remarrying.
I dont know why I felt I owed such devotion to him. Perhaps it was simply because he was the only man I had ever kissed [a likely story!] and the awful tyranny of pity. I knew he was not faithful to me sexually, but that did not matter to me, nor am I an especially maternal woman . For some reason, certainly against my will, we became deeply involved with each other again and before I really knew what had happened, we were remarried.
Never mind that in 1945 she was writing to Reeves, Our love for each other is like a sort of natural law, independent of our separate wills, inalterable by circumstances. Reevess own later rationalization for the remarriage was simpler and more to the point: I think we are all dronesand Carson is the queen bee.
The second marriage proved even more disastrous than the first. Carsons wave continued to rise, cresting in the Broadway triumph of The Member of the Wedding, which won both the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Donaldson Awards. Reeves, whose only real success in life had been in the Army (he was highly decorated during the Second World War), was unable to find a place for himself. His drinking, accompanied now by bouts of paranoia and despair, escalated. In 1952, while the couple was living for a short time in France, his talk of suicide, and even of the two of them making a suicide pact, began to frighten Carson. One day while they were driving to a forest for a woodland walk she looked into the back seat and spied two coiled ropes. In a panic, she got out of the car and hitchhiked home. She never saw Reeves again; not long afterward he succeeded in killing himself.
Like a phoenix, Carson rose renewed and one might almost say refreshed from Reevess ashes. From this point she spoke of himas she does in Illumination & Night Glareas though he had been, for her, no more than a strange aberration, and many of her friends were distressed by the constant bad-mouthing she dealt him. Tennessee Williams, normally supportive of Carson in nearly every instance, was especially dismayed: She spoke of him in the most unkind terms, and it always upset me. Reeves died for her, yet she refused to admit it. Another friend, Simone Brown, said that
what Reeves did for Carson was beyond human endurance. He loved her too much just as we all did. Carson had a terrible power of destruction. She destroyed everything around hereverything she loved. Yet she also wanted to give. It was a viperish thing all involved in a rather unusual cycle of love. One can see it in her works. Certainly The Ballad of the Sad Café illustrates that power of destruction.
Although Carsons health was increasingly frail she traveled when she could, enjoying her role as an international celebrity and the hospitality of friends all over Europe and America. She also worked on another play, The Square Root of Wonderful (1958). The play turned out to be a flop but it brought her a new lover, the Broadway producer Arnold Saint Subber. When she died in 1967 Carson McCullers was physically wasted and had not written anything of substance for fifteen years, but as a literary personality she was still at the top of her game.
Simone Browns comment on McCullerss character and the way it is reflected in the fiction is very much to the point: McCullers had a devouring wish for love, and her love object, once attained, would in turn be devoured and drained by her voracious needs. More than one of her friends characterized her as an emotional vampire. To know Carson well, as a friend, said Saint Subber, was an occupation that took 100 percent of your time. Even going to the bathroom was something you shared with her, as you did every intimate detail. Those who stayed friends with her over a period of years and continued to love and be loved by her tended to be those diplomatic souls, like Tennessee Williams or Carsons cousin Jordan Massee, who appeared to provide infinite love and support but in reality drew boundaries and maintained a necessary distance.
Illumination & Night Glare is blandly opaque, almost in the manner of the Andy Warhol diaries. For anyone who knows much about McCullerss life, the omissions are so many, and so obvious, as to make the whole enterprise ridiculous. The publication of what the University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to call a memoir serves no purpose: aside from a few charming reminiscences and a couple of interesting thoughts on the creative process, it tells us nothing truthful about this most bizarre of characters. McCullerss friend Robert Walden hoped that she would not be depicted biographically for posterity cloaked in white or wearing a halo. She was a bitch, and I dont want her coming out looking like an angel. Illumination & Night Glare does, unfortunately, make McCullers look more angelic than she was, and it would be a pity if unwary readers took her at her own valuation of herself. The reality is far less palatable, but also far more interesting.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 January 2000, on page 70
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