Unhappy Endings - Carson McCullers

We’re in the closing moments of Carson McCullers’s 1946 novel “The Member of the Wedding.” The setting: a well-worn kitchen in a small Southern town during the Second World War. There’s little in the room: a chair, a stove. Everything else has been packed up—everything, that is, except the memories of the two women in the room, as they supervise the noisy comings and goings of movers. They are Berenice Sadie Brown, a middle-aged colored housekeeper, and Frankie Addams, a thirteen-year-old motherless white girl who has grown up in the house under Berenice’s charge. A year ago, McCullers writes, Frankie felt like “an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.” Her fears—which were largely existential; no mere adolescent quirks, these, since Frankie serves as McCullers’s stand-in—dominated her home. Then she fell in love with the romance—or her idea of the romance—between her brother and his fiancée, her “we of me,” as she called them. Berenice tried to warn Frankie against the sad allure of a love that remains forever beyond one’s grasp. To illustrate her point, she talked about her late husband, Ludie, and the men she’d been drawn to since his death:
“I loved Ludie and he was the first man I loved. Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward. What I did was to marry off little pieces of Ludie whenever I come across them. It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces. My intention was to repeat me and Ludie. Now don’t you see?” 
“I see what you’re driving at,” [Frankie] said. “But I don’t see how it is a warning applied to me.”. . . “You and that wedding. . . . That is what I am warning about. . . . 
You think you going to march down the center of the aisle right between your brother and the bride. You think you going to break into that wedding, and then Jesus knows what else.”
Now Frankie is moving on, away from Berenice’s “preaching.” In the 1952 film adaptation of “The Member of the Wedding,” the director, Fred Zinnemann, draws a telling visual comparison between Berenice’s heavy black body draped in black—a Masha of the Mason-Dixon Line—and Frankie’s lithe white figure darting here and there, her speech glowing with a nearly unbearable romanticism, like a Nina, unmindful of her imminent fall. James Baldwin once said that whites cleaved to the very thing that he, as a black person, could not afford: the romance of innocence. As Ethel Waters plays Berenice, we see in her face Baldwin’s sad realization: Frankie may choose to be an outcast, but Berenice has no choice. Frankie claims to dream of belonging, but, as Berenice knows, she has little interest in fulfilling that dream. She has invested too much in her own sharply defended and defensive outsiderness. Her emotional satisfaction will come from blaming “freaks” like Berenice (her closest point of identification and thus resistance) for keeping her from weddings that she doesn’t really want to go to, anyway—since being included would interfere with the comfort she takes in being “unjoined.”

Today, Berenice could be read as what Toni Morrison calls the “Africanist presence”—the black female figure whose marginal status defines the privilege of others. “Africanism has become . . . both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability,” Morrison writes in her illuminating study “Playing in the Dark.” But McCullers, rather than using Africanism to offset whiteness—as Melville, Twain, and others have—seems to use it as a way of identifying her own unjoined self. Can a white writer, a woman, who came to maturity in relatively secure circumstances during the Depression and the Second World War, be described as Africanist in spirit? (In some circles, this would be called having soul.) In a review of McCullers’s first novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (1940), Richard Wright remarked:
To me, the most impressive aspect of [this book] 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 pressure of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.
In fact, as far as the description of black characters goes, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is McCullers’s most imperfect work. One black male has woolly hair and lips that seem “purple against his black skin.” There is the taint of a “Negro smell” in a cabin. Strange dialect and syntax separate “educated” blacks from laborers. Ultimately, these tics seem best passed over—they are the sloppy reflex of the liberal testing her boundaries, excited to be in the presence of the “exotic” but having no new language with which to describe it; she falls back on the vocabulary of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Mitchell. What Wright sensed was actually McCullers’s lack of Southernness. Unlike so many other writers from the region, she didn’t luxuriate in rhetoric or try to break down the blood knot of race and class that kept Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha County. Nor did she share Katherine Anne Porter’s skill for writing intellectual political parables. In her essay “The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing,” McCullers admitted to having little interest in history—the Southern writer’s most consistent trope. Such shortsightedness accounts for some of the very real limitations of her work. But it also accounts for her ability to understand and identify with those unmoored from their surroundings or searching for a self in the modern world. It’s impossible not to notice, while reading through the Library of America’s newly published edition of McCullers’s five novels, that almost all of her characters—from the wayward children to the deaf-mute, the alcoholic Communist, the hunchback dwarf, the pederast, and the closeted homosexual Army captain—are Africanist, in that each defines the status quo by existing outside it.

She was born Lula Carson Smith, on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia, a town where dogwood and wisteria bloomed along the avenues in early spring. Nearby were Fort Benning and the brown waters of the Chattahoochee River, which, since the early nineteenth century, had been used to power the local cotton mills and factories. McCullers’s father, Lamar Smith, was a mild-mannered watch repairman from Tuskegee, Alabama, who in 1910 had moved to Columbus in pursuit of work. There he met and married Vera Marguerite (Bebe) Waters, a small woman of Irish extraction and great ambition. Unlike their neighbors, the Smiths weren’t very interested in religion, and promoted social awareness instead—a Yankee sensibility that was at odds with the town’s conservatism. Marguerite enjoyed tweaking the townspeople with such remarks as the now famous “Oh, yes, my daughter Lula Carson”—then a teen-ager— “and I have such a good time smoking together. We do almost everything together, you know.”

Neither of the couple’s two younger children—Lamar, Jr., born in 1919, and Margarita Gachet, born in 1922—was doted on in the way Lula Carson was. According to Lamar, Jr., quoted in Virginia Spencer Carr’s tenderhearted and thorough 1975 biography, “The Lonely Hunter,” Lula Carson was spoon-fed a sense of her own exalted status long before she had actually achieved anything. (“I’m going to be both rich and famous,” she told a young playmate.) Nevertheless, writing was not McCullers’s first love. She wrote plays and skits to amuse her parents, but her real passion was music. Between the ages of ten and seventeen, she trained to become a concert pianist, and in 1930 she began studying with Mary Tucker, a former soloist and the wife of a career officer stationed at Fort Benning. Tucker’s commitment instilled in her young protégée the discipline she would eventually put to use as a writer. In return, she grew to love Tucker and her family—McCullers’s first “we of me,” which she favored over her own family simply because it was not her own. McCullers’s relationship with her mother was intense, and she feared that she would never be free as an artist until she was away from Marguerite’s prying eyes. (McCullers’s adolescent characters rarely have mothers.)

In 1932, Lula Carson took to her bed with rheumatic fever, which was misdiagnosed as pneumonia. After a few weeks of recovery, she decided that she lacked the genius and the physical stamina to undertake a concert career. Moreover, she would not be content, she concluded, to be the interpreter of someone else’s aesthetic architecture. In her 1948 essay “How I Began to Write,” McCullers recalled that her first novel, “A Reed of Pan,” which she wrote when she was fifteen (the manuscript has been lost), embodied her longing to get out of Columbus, to see New York, and to familiarize herself with the unfamiliar. “The details of the book were queer,” she wrote. “Ticket collectors on the subway, New York front yards—but by that time it did not matter, for already I had begun another journey. That was the year of Dostoevski, Chekhov, and Tolstoy—and there were the intimations of an unsuspected region equidistant from New York. Old Russia and our Georgia rooms, the marvelous solitary region of simple stories and the inward mind.” In Decision, in 1941, McCullers explained that the rigid social order portrayed by the “Russian realists” mirrored what she had observed in her own part of the world: “The Southerner and the Russian are both ’types,’ in that they have certain recognizable and national psychological traits. Hedonistic, imaginative, lazy, and emotional—there is surely a cousinly resemblance.”

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