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'The Sad Happy Life' of Carson McCullers: Q&A with New York Times Bestselling Biographer Mary Dearborn

Written by Blake Blackmon

Images via the author

Headshot photo © Ed Keating via the author.

Carson McCullers' literary stature continues to endure, and now with the new biography “Carson McCullers: a Life” by author Mary V. Dearborn we are offered a fuller perspective of the acclaimed author whose journey was cut short. 

The public is cordially invited to join the Georgia Center for the Book, in partnership with the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University and the Chattahoochee Valley Libraries, for a very special evening with biographer Mary V. Dearborn as she discusses her latest triumph Carson McCullers – A Life.

The event will be held in the Auditorium of the Columbus Public Library, 3000 Macon Road, on Tuesday April 23 at 6:30pm. Admission is free. Reservations are recommended but not required and can be secured at this link.

Below, a conversation with Dearborn.

Your journey with this biography began when you discovered there was this new cache of materials on McCullers that had surfaced. As someone who had read but never really studied McCullers before, what was it like to begin this journey?

The previous biography was written in 1975 by Virginia Spencer Carr, and it's a wonderful book, but it's based on journalism. She didn't have access to either of the two main holders of McCullers' paper archives at Columbus State or the University of Texas. They didn't exist yet. So there's not only that, but there was this new amount of papers left to Columbus State by Mary Mercer, McCullers' therapist and later romantic friend. These were truly remarkable documents including transcripts of their therapy sessions which McCullers requested be transcribed. 

I had been a McCullers reader since I was 15 when I read “The Member of the Wedding,” and  I always enjoyed her work. There are also descriptions of her and one of her childhood friends that I love. They would picture what their futures were going to be and Carson was going to play a concert in Carnegie Hall and sometimes she would describe herself as wearing an evening gown and other times she'd be wearing a tuxedo. She just had this rich imagination of a future for her life outside of Columbus. It was always a larger picture.

Looking at the transcripts of anyone’s therapy sessions is interesting, but looking through Carson McCullers’ who’s a genius and is a complicated, great artist is a privilege. It was a great time for a biographer to come along with the accumulation of all these new documents including letters, manuscripts, all kinds of good things and of course those therapy transcripts. These were all very new, I’m not even sure they were cataloged yet, so the timing was wonderful for me. 

Do you think the therapy transcripts changed the direction of the biography at all?

Yes, they contributed a fresh perspective of her later life, mainly. I had insight into what her daily life was like. By then, she was nearly an invalid, and she wasn't well. It contributed a great window into her relationships like with Mary Mercer as it grew, but also a woman who she called the love of her life, Annemarie Schwarzenbach. She met her when she was just 23 and fell deeply in love. She said Ann Marie's face would haunt her for the rest of her life. Anne Marie died not too long after in a bike accident and the transcripts made it clear that it was a central love experience in Carson's life. She talks a lot about it in those therapy sessions and it's very moving. I didn't know how to interpret that relationship until I saw the transcripts. Obviously you get to know somebody really well. You see their thought processes and what associations they make.

There were also many cool stories about her early life and her husband Reeves. It's all very revealing, amusing and important.

Let’s talk a little bit about Reeves. 

I got so fascinated by Reeves and I think he's a really interesting person. I think he's right up there with the spouses of great writers like Zelda Fitzgerald or Henry Miller’s June. He was a muse and took care of her, but he was also a big part of the problem with her alcoholism. 

But what I was so struck by, first of all, was that he wrote the most incredible love letters. They’re collected in an incomplete autobiography Carson wrote at the end of her life. He wrote these letters to her during World War II when he was in Europe, and he simply wrote the best letters. He knew she was a lesbian but he was so in love with her. There’s this really poignant detail that he called her lesbian friends “imaginary friends.” But they both knew, and yet, they got divorced and she still married him a second time. That’s really intentional. 

I think that she knew this person loved her more than anyone else in her life, except her mother and she had to stay with him. They were kindred souls but it was a destructive pairing. He did take care of her and look out for her best interest but he just got swallowed up. He also had his own troubles. He was bisexual and not happy about it. He also had this weird habit of kiting checks which is why Carson divorced him in the first place.

At the time she married him most people would have been closeted. She was probably bisexual then and Reeves was great. Reeves was exciting and handsome and he wanted big things too.They had this grand plan where one of them was going to write for one year while the other one worked to support them, and then they’d switch off. That never happened but they both visualized themselves as this writing duo that was going to take on the world.

McCullers’ writing has often been described as emotionally mature, and yet in life she’s often portrayed as this woman with childlike tendencies. What do you make of this juxtaposition?

It is strange, isn't it? I'm not sure. It is a central question. She was complicated, and I came to be so fascinated by her. As somebody who was so insistent on her independence, leading life her way with this marriage where she could do whatever she wanted, she, on the other hand, loved being dependent. 

Her mother was in her living situation for most of her life. Then when she became ill, she was really dependent on other people physically, but also kind of took to that. It's a weird tension and it couldn't have made her happy. 

I like the phrase of the “sad happy life” of Carson McCullers because it really was both. 

You were surprised to find out about McCullers’ alcoholism, as was I. Why do you think it gets left out of the conversation when it is so synonymous with other male author’s stories such as Hemingway? 

Yeah, that’s a really important point. Sadly I think that's one thing my book achieves, which is, to show she's right up there with the best of them with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and all the infamous alcoholic American male writers. 

It’s not that I’m happy about it but it has to be part of the conversation. You wouldn't talk about Fitzgerald without talking about his drinking unless you're just confining yourself to discussing the work. Both Fitzgerald and Carson managed to turn out incredible writing in the midst of their alcoholism. I don't think her last book was as strong but there were so many reasons for that alcohol aside. She’d had multiple strokes and was partly paralyzed and then it all snowballed. 

You once said “The issue of queerness is fundamental to how she lived her life and to how she worked out her novels” can you expand upon that.

It really was. It’s the whole outsider thing. People on the edges of culture can tell us more about what's at the center of culture. You have all these people who are outside of the norm of, say, a place like Columbus. 

She wrote “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” at only 23 and to have her hero be a deaf-mute who's also  male and  homosexual? I mean, extraordinary. Where did she get that? I don't think she saw it in Columbus. She seemed to tap into a unique emotional vein and she never lost it. 

She often named female characters with androgynous names. Do you think this is one of the subtle ways she’s expressing her identity in her work? 

That's very interesting to me and I never made that association. Of course McCullers’ first name was Lula but she chose to go by Carson. She was drawn to those names because it promised freedom beyond gender. I don't know what she would have made of our more gender fluid society but I certainly think she would be intrigued. 

Can you talk about your time at the McCullers’ house and in Columbus in general?

I love Columbus; I think it’s such a wonderful town. It was also great to be able to see the progression of where Carson’s family lived. The family was steadily moving up and you can see where her father’s jewelry store was downtown. It just comes alive for you. 

And I love historic housing, I love writer’s houses. I actually was able to stay there twice in the attached apartment which was such a privilege. I was staying in the apartment but then I would go into the original house to make my breakfast and things. They’ve kept it pretty original with her belongings and so it really does give you a feel for the way it was. There's a front room that has a lot of her things like suitcases and wallets, and I love looking at that stuff. It's not like it translates directly into what I write but it does in that it gives me a whole feel for the person. So that was just so special.

What do you think is the biggest revelation in this biography?

You get a better sense of her relationships, her queerness and the importance of her orientation. Then there’s the complexity of her still being in a hetero marriage at the same time. I don't think that we had access to the details of that  information before. 

I'm afraid that one of the things that becomes clear is that she was an alcoholic and self destructive, while at the same time being this great creative soul. I don't think the full dimensions of that tragedy were revealed before, but if you look closely, it becomes really apparent. I think that it was important to me to paint that full picture, but there was never a moment when I didn't have compassion for her. 

I think most great artists and writers are that complex and both the genius and destructivism can coexist. She turned out an incredible body of work, and certainly lived life to the fullest but she also sowed the seeds of self destruction. 


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