Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

It is STILL raining here so the rainy day reads have continued in full swing. I finished Joanna Scott’s Tourmaline last night and will be gathering my thoughts for a post tomorrow or Wednesday. This was a lovely, ambitious book that gave me something to think about as well as an unfamiliar countryside to get lost in. 

But I wanted to write today about one of the books I finished last week – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. What a delight to discover this classic American writer! Before one of my book groups picked the book for our July read I’d never heard of McCullers, a fact I’m happy to remedy now that I see what an incredible writer she was.  

McCullers was born in 1917 and wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at the age of 22. She continued writing, despite several bouts of serious illness and depression, until her death of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 50. Her life story doesn’t read happily – young marriage and subsequent divorce, attempted suicide, a stroke at the age of 30, remarriage to her first husband who eventually kills himself, breast cancer, and continued poor health. Yet through all this she managed to write more than twenty short stories, six novels and a fair amount of poetry, most of which was published to critical acclaim during her lifetime.  

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter unravels somewhat like a walk through a gallery – the chapters read like somber portraits as the characters live their lonely lives beside one another but without the consolation of true interaction. The novel is set in a small southern town in Depression-era America, and follows five individuals as they search for something to take them above the daily bleakness of their lonesome existence. These five characters share only one thing – a painful appreciation of their own isolation.  

Biff Brannon – a man perplexed by what he sees occur around him: his wife’s death, the emotional excesses of his customers and acquaintances, the gentle love he begins to feel for the young girl Mick Kelly. Brannon moves through the novel like a man underwater but he is one of its more reflective elements coming up with thoughts such as: in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons – throw it to some human being or some human idea. 

Jake Blount – an intelligent but emotionally unstable man, broken by his understanding of society’s ills. He spends the entire novel fueling his alcoholic rage and ranting to anyone who will listen about the TRUTH he has discovered. 

Mick Kelly – ruling her neighborhood kingdom and her younger siblings with a ferocious tenderness. She wants nothing more than to spend her hours understanding the great wave of music that has risen up inside of her. She wants to take music lessons but her family is too poor. Instead she listens to the radio, absorbing the notes, unraveling the puzzle of it. The music was her – the real plain her…Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony and there was not enough of her to listen.  

Dr. Copeland – a black doctor and embittered man whose strictly envisioned hopes for his four children have turned up empty. He is proud and tireless, working long nights despite his advancing tuberculosis to heal and educate his community. To help them rise above their imposed poverty and moral decay. 

And finally, John Singer – a deaf-mute whose friend, another deaf-mute and the only person Singer can fully communicate with, gets sent to an asylum by a relative who no longer wishes to care for the increasingly difficult young man. Singer, alone and needing company, accepts the frequent intrusions of the community around him. He functions as the eye of the novel’s hurricane. The other characters rage and storm against their maddening life perceptions, finding comfort in Singer’s one-sided conversations. He listens to them. He offers them refreshment. He looks them in the eye. And slowly, Dr. Copeland, Jake, Mick and Biff, along with many others in the small town, begin to create a mythical being. A man with endless intelligence, infinite understanding, and vast compassion.  

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is about love. About need. About perception. It is also a faithful and painstakingly drawn portrait of America at its loneliest. McCullers’ exquisite prose is the perfect accompaniment to this often overcast landscape, fashioning a certain beauty into the anger and heartbreak of her characters. 

9 Responses to “Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”

  1. LK

    She’s wonderful. Do check out Ballad of the Sad Cafe and her short stories.

  2. verbivore

    Dewey – Neither did I until my book group started discussing. Fascinating isn’t it? I think it is a tragedy that she died so young, think of how much more we could have!

    Kelly – I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about it as well. This was really a lovely book.

    LK – I have Ballad of the Sad Cafe on my shelf and I’m excited to read it as well. Did you know she wrote poetry? Many of her poems can be found online – I looked at a few of them already and was not at all disappointed.

  3. Stefanie

    So McCullers makes good rainy day reading? I have a few of her books but haven’t read them yet. Perhaps if I could have some rainy days…we are having a bit of a drought here in Minnesota.

  4. Sharon M.

    I remember reading this book in my first year of high school – loving it, but feeling incredibly melancholy after reading it. It was a pleasure reading your review…

  5. verbivore

    Stefanie – she most certainly does, there is just a wonderful mood to her writing. I’m not jealous of your drought but I’d love for the rain to stop. We’ve had to keep the heat on here because the temperature has been in the 40s and 50’s…very strange for Switzerland in July.

    Sharon – I think melancholy is the best word for it. That’s how I felt as well. I thought about the book for days after finishing and I love it when a book has that effect on me.

  6. Sherry

    Switzerland! You’re in Switzerland! Wow!
    As for McCullers, I’m not in the mood for melancholy right now; my hormones are creating enough of that in me without any help from books. Maybe later.

  7. verbivore

    Sherry – McCullers did have a healthy dose of melancholy! I’d be interested to see what you think of her if you do decide to pick the book up someday 🙂

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