COLLECTED STORIES By Carson McCullers Introduction by Virginia Spencer Carr Houghton Mifflin. 392 pp. $18.95 cloth, $10.95 paper
To call this volume "Collected Stories of Carson McCullers" is technically accurate, but stretching a point. The book contains 19 short stories, one novella ("The Ballad of the Sad Cafe'") and one novel ("The Member of the Wedding"). Were the last two not included the collection would run fewer than 200 pages and be of only marginal interest, for most of McCullers' short stories were apprentice work; such real meat as these "Collected Stories" offer is therefore in the two pieces that are not, in fact, short stories at all.
McCullers was an immensely popular writer in her day. Her genuinely prodigious first novel, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," was published in 1940 to great applause, as was "The Member of the Wedding," which appeared as a novel in 1946 and subsequently as a hugely successful play and movie. She was a strange, difficult woman who never really grew up and died in 1967 at the age of 50 after a self-abusive and unhappy life; much of her private despair is reflected in her fiction, which tends to be bleak even as it optimistically chronicles "the immense complexity of love."
That phrase concludes a story called "A Domestic Dilemma," one of the more successful of her short stories; it is about a marriage that is imperiled by the alcoholism that the wife will not admit, but is held together by the deeper ties of loyalty and love that brought husband and wife together in the first place. McCullers was herself an alcoholic, and twice was married to one; the damage that alcoholism does to individuals and families is a recurrent theme in "Collected Stories."
But the theme that arises over and again, the insistent theme of McCullers' work, is childhood. She believed, as she wrote in a story called "The Orphanage," that "the child knows two layers of reality -- that of the world, which is accepted like an immense collusion of all adults -- and the unacknowledged, hidden secret, the profound," and she devoted much of her fiction to exploring those worlds.
Her empathy for children was vast, no doubt because at heart she knew herself to be one of them. Thus, in a story called "Sucker," which she wrote soon after finishing high school, she described with exceptional feeling and sympathy the psychological tension between two boys, one several years older, who have been cast together by fate; the loss of innocence suffered by the younger boy is quite shattering, and the youthful McCullers depicted it in an artless yet powerful manner.
The best-known of McCullers' children is, of course, Frankie Addams in "The Member of the Wedding"; as played by Julie Harris on Broadway and in the movie, Frankie is something of an American classic -- the tough-yet-tender 12-year-old whose mean streak cannot disguise her yearning for love and acceptance, as well as her fascination with and fear of her incipient womanhood. Her longing to run away with her brother and his bride-to-be, her innocent response to a soldier's advances, her affection for her young cousin John Henry West, her daughter-mother relationship with the servant Berenice -- everything about this girl touches the heart.
Yet her story, as told in the novel rather than the dramatization, has lost some of its immediacy and force over the years. No doubt that is in significant measure because the story has become so familiar, but it is also because it is not as deep as at first we believed. Like "To Kill a Mockingbird," it is a lovely story about a girl beginning to come of age in a small southern town, but beyond characterization and plot there is not really a great deal there; the novel is touching and pleasant, but that's about it.
The same, unfortunately, can be said of much of McCullers' work. As happens from time to time to an artist, she did her best work first, and spent the rest of her life trying to match it. The unhappy truth is that she never really came close, except in the characters of Frankie, Berenice and John Henry. "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe'" has a certain eerie fascination, but McCullers never quite managed to humanize its grotesques; reading it now, one can't help comparing it to the work of Flannery O'Connor, who handled similar material with far more skill and depth.
McCullers wrote well and felt passionately, but did not have much to say. She said it all in "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," which remains in every respect a wonderful book but which leaves the rest of her work in its tracks.