Model White Writer - Carson McCullers

In the past few weeks, there has been an escalating public debate about the social role of the white writer, stimulated by the novelist Lionel Shriver’s speech at a writers’ festival in early September. It is a cultural moment that has made white writers look in the mirror and wonder if we have been confusing it with a window. White writers are not used to being objectified in this way. One of our conceits has been to imagine ourselves as neutral, objective, and value-free. Yet this sense of “objectivity” is itself constructed, organized, and enforced. And, within the context of racist police violence and obstructions to voting, it is particularly striking that the current incarnation of this old question has reëmerged in the language of “rights.” As Shriver told her audience:
Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.
Shriver conveys an image of white writers besieged by fierce and powerful forces that are leveraging punitive controls. Yet, despite her stance, many writers of color have generously responded to Shriver’s talk instead of dismissing it with silence. The African-American novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote in the Times:
It’s the wish not so much to be able to write a character of another race, but to do so without criticism. And at the heart of that rather ludicrous request is a question of power.
The writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, in the Los Angeles Times, contextualized the debate in terms of material realities:
It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.
But what of the white writer who wishes to be artistically engaged but who simultaneously does not want to re-create cultural dominance in her work? Are there complex, nuanced representations by other white people which we might turn toward? I suggest that one answer may lie in the unlikely legacy of a pale, sickly writer from the mid-twentieth century, who smoked and drank herself to death by the age of fifty, and whose own personal turmoil and self-destruction may be at the root of the enormous insights about difference found throughout her work. 

In 1940, a white twenty-three-year-old woman, slight and awkwardly charming, from segregated Georgia, published an extraordinary novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Richard Wright, in his review in The New Republic, wrote:
To me the most impressive aspect of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.
The writer in question was Lula Carson Smith, known to history as Carson McCullers. In her subsequent novels “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” “Member of the Wedding,” and “Clock Without Hand” (typed with one finger when she was paralyzed from multiple strokes), in the novella and story collection “Ballad of the Sad Café,” in the memoir “Illumination and Night Glare” (dictated from her bed), and in two plays, “Member of the Wedding” and “The Square Root of Wonderful,” McCullers inhabits a startlingly broad range of characters: a Jewish, gay deaf man; a dwarf; a black Marxist doctor and his adult children; and a number of role-defying white girls with great dreams. McCullers had an almost singular ability to humanize any kind of person, many of whom had never appeared in American literature before she created them.

For example, Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” defies most black characters created by white authors, in any era. Middle-class and educated, Copeland is a physician, whose family life is emotionally complex; intellectually, he is a Marxist:
All that we own is our bodies. And we sell our bodies every day we live. We sell them when we go out in the morning to our jobs and when we labor all the day. We are forced to sell at any price, at any time, for any purpose. We are forced to sell our bodies so that we can eat and live. And the price which is given us for this is only enough so that we will have the strength to labor longer for the profits of others.
The only contemporary writer who approaches McCullers’s breadth of characterization is Caryl Phillips, the novelist from St. Kitts, who can inhabit a male slave owner so in love with a black slave that he frees him, and then reverses the crossing to chase him to Liberia; or a white woman in the eighteen-twenties, discovering the Caribbean for the first time; or other masterful illuminations of perspectives not his own. But McCullers remains the standard-bearer for white authors, and for almost twenty years now I have been on a journey to try to understand how she did it. Who does a white writer have to be in order to overcome the institutionalized ignorance in which we are shrouded?

I have tried—with varying degrees of success and failure—to capture in my novels, plays, and screenplays the world that I inhabit, one of difference. My first book, “Sophie Horowitz Story,” published in 1984, included what I believe to be the first Asian lesbian character in an American novel, not that the characterization succeeded beyond mere existence. In four novels about the aids crisis, I represented gay men with aids, sometimes in the first person. But black characters remained secondary. It was only in my novel “Shimmer,” from 1998, that I first started working with black co-protagonists. A historical novel set at the dawning of McCarthyism, “Shimmer” re-created the so-called American Dream fiction, with a young gay white woman and a young black straight man as the emblematic Americans striving to “make it”—but, in this case, discovering that the American Dream is simply not available to them.

I was proud of my research, my listening, my delving into plays and novels by black writers to attempt the re-creation that McCullers found with “ease”—the room of black people where no white person is present. This, of course, is the hardest work of a white writer, because that is a room we can never enter. Personally, “Shimmer” is a favorite of my novels, but the illusion of success came crashing down one day, some months after publication, when the novelist Jacqueline Woodson took me aside. She mentioned a section, halfway into the story, set in network-TV conference rooms where scripts for “Amos ‘n’ Andy” are being written. Jackie pointed to a scene where one of the black protagonists, a young woman researching her family’s history, comes to believe that her beloved grandfather, a proponent of “uplift,” was once married to a white woman. Jackie explained that this concern about hidden racial mixing was a white anxiety. She told me that black people know the history of slavery and rape, and don’t carry the same concepts of racial purity as white people. That, in fact, I had committed the error I most feared: putting white consciousness into the mind and mouth of a black character.

It was around this time that I first discovered Carson McCullers. I have since written a play about McCullers; I am currently writing a movie about her, and am about a third of the way through a novel in which her death plays a central role. For almost twenty years, I have tried to understand how McCullers embodied what Richard Wright called “an attitude towards life” that “cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically”—one that enabled her to imagine and create consciousness that was not her own, and also one that was not widely available in other novels or movies.

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