An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
Three years ago the French literary journalist Josyane Savigneau, in her excellent biography of Carson McCullers, wrote that "readers of . . . McCullers around the world, not vast in number, form a club of devotees whose membership is constantly renewed." In the past year or so I have had ample evidence of this, as innumerable readers have written to urge that I include a book by McCullers in this series. Six and a half decades after the publication of her first novel, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," the club of her devotees obviously continues to gain members, and its older ones retain their fierce loyalty.
As it happens this is a propitious moment for having a second look at "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," since it was a recent selection of Oprah Winfrey's book club. In the little world of book publishing, where sales of well under 100,000 copies can put a book on the national bestseller lists, being singled out for discussion on Winfrey's television program is huge. Houghton Mifflin, McCullers's publisher throughout her life, rushed out 700,000 copies of a new paperback edition, and for a brief time in May it was the No. 1 bestseller, an extraordinary accomplishment for any book, much less one that is 64 years old and, into the bargain, a rather doleful religious allegory.
The paperback copy on my shelves is a 46-year-old Bantam Fifty (because it cost 50 cents!) that fell apart about 20 pages into what I reckon as my third reading of it. I bought the book new in 1958 as a college student, read it then, and read it again in the early 1970s when I briefly presided over a church discussion group on religious themes in contemporary fiction. On both of these readings my response was highly favorable, if not outright passionate; my third reading is positive as well, though the novel's limitations -- chiefly its excessively programmatic treatment of religious themes -- come through rather more clearly to me now, perhaps because I have long since lost the adolescent fervor that, as Savigneau correctly points out, draws so many readers to McCullers's work.
"The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" is a very good novel, though, and in one respect it is astonishing: McCullers began work on it when she was 20 years old and published it, in 1940, when she was 23. Born Lula Carson Smith in 1917 in Columbus, a town in southwestern Georgia that inspired much of her fiction, she went to New York as a teenager, stumbled across a teacher at Columbia University who seems to have given her the great gift of literary discipline, met and married Reeves McCullers, an aspiring writer who had large ambition and small talent.
McCullers throughout her brief life -- she died in 1967 after a stroke -- was a troubled and troublesome woman. Savigneau, who is wholly sympathetic to her, calls her "sickly, paralyzed, alcoholic and depressed." She married Reeves McCullers, divorced him, then married him again. They couldn't stand to be together and they couldn't stand to be apart. Both were bisexual. They had no children, which can be taken as proof of heavenly mercy. She drank and smoked to excess, and could be argumentative, even bellicose. Yet in a writing career of barely three decades she produced five novels, all of which have much to recommend them and one of which -- "The Member of the Wedding" (1946) -- became a hugely popular play and film.
Apart from her essentially unimportant personal shortcomings, McCullers was that true rarity, a born writer. She had to write, and it is reasonable to assume that she came up short in other aspects of her life because they simply didn't matter to her the way writing did. It is also reasonable to assume that she was haunted by memory so deep and acute that it pained her, and that she turned to alcohol as a release from it. That would make her scarcely the first writer, or artist, thus cursed, and blessed.
"The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" obviously draws directly from personal experience. The town of about 30,000 "in the middle of the deep South" in which it is set clearly is Columbus: "The town was a fairly large one. On the main street there were several blocks of two- and three-story shops and business offices. But the largest buildings in the town were the factories, which employed a large percentage of the population. These cotton mills were big and flourishing and most of the workers in the town were very poor. Often in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and of loneliness."
Right there, only 10 paragraphs into the book, we have the theme -- "the desperate look of hunger and of loneliness" -- that is central to the book and that preoccupied McCullers throughout her life. Mick Kelly, its principal character, "a gangling, towheaded youngster, a girl of about twelve," is hungry and lonely and yearning for love, and is self-evidently McCullers herself, just as is Frankie Adams, the hungry, lonely 12-year-old in "The Member of the Wedding." McCullers always wrote about herself, yet with a surprising absence of narcissism; her lonely girls and women looked out toward others as well as in toward themselves.
Mick is the novel's protagonist, but its real center is Singer, a deaf-mute who works for a jeweler (McCullers's father ran a thriving jewelry shop) and becomes a Christlike presence in the imaginations of four people: Mick; Biff Brannon, proprietor of the New York Cafe; Jake Blount, a drifter, radical unionist and alcoholic; and Benedict Mady Copeland, a black doctor. Singer is somewhat unconvincingly attached (emotionally, not sexually) to another deaf-mute, Antonapoulos, who "excepting drinking and a certain solitary secret pleasure, . . . loved to eat more than anything else in the world."
Soon Antonapoulos becomes imbalanced and is taken off to a mental institution. Singer is grief-stricken but retains, in the eyes of those drawn to him, a mysterious allure: "His eyes made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human." To Dr. Copeland he is "different from any person of the white race," kind and patient and humane, radiating a sense of peace. Copeland is obsessed with a "strong, true purpose" to advance the Negro cause: "Many times Doctor Copeland talked to Mr. Singer. Truly he was not like other white men. He was a wise man, and he understood the strong, true purpose in a way that other white men could not. He listened, and in his face there was something gentle and Jewish, the knowledge of one who belongs to a race that is oppressed." He metamorphoses into "a sort of home-made God," and the town is fascinated by him:
"During the moonlit January nights Singer continued to walk about the streets of the town each evening when he was not engaged. The rumors about him grew bolder. An old Negro woman told hundreds of people that he knew the ways of spirits come back from the dead. A certain piece-worker claimed that he had worked with the mute at another mill somewhere else in the state -- and the tales he told were unique. The rich thought that he was rich and the poor considered him a poor man like themselves. And as there was no way to disprove these rumors they grew marvelous and very real. Each man described the mute as he wished him to be."
Because he is mute -- a Christ without a voice, ironically named Singer -- he cannot communicate as intimately with others as they wish, but the emotions he arouses are powerful. Mick "loved him better than anyone in the family, better even than George or her Dad. It was a different love. It was not like anything she had ever felt in her life before." It is the love of a human being for God, and in the novel as in the Bible it reaches an unhappy climax. Dr. Copeland's sorrow recalls that of the Apostles: "There was neither beginning nor end to this sorrow. Nor understanding. Always he would return in his thoughts to this white man who was not insolent or scornful but who was just. And how can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?"
In this and other important respects "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" is bleak -- a somewhat surprising choice, in that respect, for Oprah Winfrey -- but in the end McCullers sees, through the eyes of Biff Brannon, "a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who -- one word -- love." Coming as it does at the end of a long succession of disappointments and heartbreaks, this strikes me as a trifle facile -- as being unearned -- but it is true to McCullers's own heart, which always ached to give and receive love even as it so rarely succeeded.
Coming to "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" as an incipient geezer rather than a panting adolescent, I am less struck by the emotions it stirs, though at times they are powerful, than by its depiction of Southern blacks. The novel was written in the 1930s, a time when almost no Southern whites (Faulkner being the notable exception) were writing sympathetically and knowingly about blacks, and into the bargain McCullers was barely out of her teens, yet she invested her black characters with considerable dignity (as well as the occasional, probably inevitable, stereotype) and in Dr. Copeland she created a man equal or superior to any of the whites he so despises. When he speaks to Singer, he is eloquent and passionate:
"My people were brought from the great plains, and the dark, green jungles. On the long chained journeys to the coast they died by the thousands. Only the strong survived. Chained in the foul ships that brought them here they died again. Only the hardy Negroes with will could live. Beaten and chained and sold on the block, the least of these strong ones perished again. And finally through the bitter years the strongest of my people are still here. Their sons and daughters, their grandsons and great grandsons."
Few eyebrows will be raised by those words now, because in the past half-century the story of the passage has become familiar to all of us. In 1940 hardly anybody knew about it, yet in a town in Georgia a strange, sensitive, lonely girl learned about it, understood its meaning, and then wrote about it. In a novel that has many remarkable aspects, this is perhaps most remarkable of all.
"The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" is available in a Houghton Mifflin paperback ($12).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.