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Carson McCullers in Short Form

Prepare for the Carson McCullers Centennial with a new volume of her short stories, plays and more from Library of America. 

Earlier this week, Library of America published—for the first time—Georgia writer Carson McCullers’s 20 short stories, along with her plays, essays, memoirs and poems. Fans who know McCullers for her novels like A Member of the Wedding and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter might be surprised to find out how equally accomplished she was at writing in shorter forms.

The new volume, Carson McCullers: Stories, Plays, & Other Writings, includes such indelible tales as “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland” and “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” as well as McCullers’s previously uncollected story about the civil rights movement, “The March,” her award-winning dramatization of her novel The Member of the Wedding and the long-out-of-print Broadway comedy “The Square Root of Wonderful.” Twenty-two essays also make up the volume, along with her revealing unfinished memoir Illumination and Night Glare and “The Sojourners,” her previously unpublished teleplay for the television series Omnibus.

Timed with a celebration of McCullers’s 100th birthday in February, the new volume was edited by Carlos Dews, who serves as chair of the Department of English Language and Literature at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. He is also the director of JCU’s Institute for Creative Writing and Literary Translation and edited the companion Library of America volume, Carson McCullers: Complete Novels, as well as Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers.

Fans who want to see her writing come to life can plan to make a pilgrimage to McCullers’s hometown of Columbus, Georgia, about an hour and a half outside of Atlanta. Her childhood home is a museum operated by The Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. Centennial events actually began in January but will culminate February 19-20 with actress and director Karen Allen unveiling her short film “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” the Schwob School of Music performing “Carson’s Favorite Music” and a keynote address at Columbus State University. Exhibits on McCullers are also on display in Columbus through March.

We interviewed Carlos Dews by email to find out more about the new volume, McCullers’s international appeal and what we can learn about tolerance from her to apply to today’s political climate.

 

EZB: How did this collection come about and how difficult was it to get access to out-of-print or previously unpublished material?

CD: The Library of America published the first volume of McCullers’s collected works, her complete novels, back in 2001. As 2017 is McCullers’s centenary, it only made sense that they would publish the second and final volume of her collected works this year. Although it did involve scouring archives and, in one case, one of the editors at the Library of America transcribing a recording of a performance, we were able to amass all of McCullers’s work into this volume. Given the significance for an author being included in the Library of America series, I think it is not difficult to convince publishers and literary estates to allow an author’s work to be included in a Library of America volume. I am most proud of the fact that we were able to include “The March,” McCullers’s 1966 short story about the Civil Rights Movement that has never been anthologized before, and the two versions of the teleplay of the “The Invisible Wall,” based on her short story “The Sojourner.”

EZB: What does this collection reveal about McCullers as we approach her centennial?

CD: Perhaps the most important thing that this new volume reveals about McCullers is that she was not simply a novelist. The new volume of her collected works will allow readers who know McCullers primarily as a novelist to see the range of her creative output. The new volume includes all of her short stories; her two Broadway plays (“The Member of the Wedding” and “The Square Root of Wonderful”); her only teleplay, “The Sojourner”; her essays on topics ranging from the relationship between the Russian realists writers and Southern literature to her recounting of how she began to write; all her poems; and her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare. The collected works of McCullers, at her centenary, confirms her place in the front rank of American writers of the twentieth century.

EZB: Since you work in Rome, can you comment on the international appeal of McCullers and how fans view her there? I’m assuming the “Carson McCullers in the World” conference in July will shed more light on this topic.

CD: I am very happy to be one of the hosts of “Carson McCullers in the World: A Centenary Conference,” to be held at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy, from 14-16 July 2017. One of the reasons we wanted to have the conference this summer was to explore McCullers’s place in the world. She has always been highly respected by European audiences, especially in France, where she lived briefly after World War II. She also has deep connections with the post-World War II literary community in Italy; she published some of her first poems in the literary journal Bottehge Oscure, edited by Giorgio Bassani, here in Rome. Participants at our conference this summer will be coming from all over the world, including China and Japan, where McCullers has also always had a following. The conference will provide us with a unique opportunity to consider McCullers’ place, not only in the America canon, but among her international peers as well.

EZB: Suzanne Vega has recently put McCullers in the limelight with her album “Lover, Beloved.” She fell in love with McCullers after reading “Sucker,” her short story that opens the Library of America volume. When was this story written and why was it chosen to go first?

CD: McCullers wrote “Sucker” in 1934-1935, when she was 17 years old. To provide some context for the story, I’ll quote the note on the story that appears in the new volume: “When ‘Sucker’ was first published in The Saturday Evening Post, September 28, 1963, it was accompanied by the following note from the author: ‘When Maj. Simeon Smith of West Point wrote me that he was going to make my work the subject of his doctoral thesis, I naturally gave him permission to go through my files—or trunks to be exact. I did not remember any particular manuscripts in the trunks. The major found ‘Sucker.’ I think it was my first short story; at least it was the first story I was proud to read to my family. (It never occurred to me then that anybody would actually ever print anything I wrote.) I wrote it when I was seventeen, and my daddy had just given me my first typewriter. I remember writing the story in longhand, and then painfully typing it out. I liked it then, and like it now, and I hope the readers of The Post will like it too.—Carson McCullers.’”

“Sucker” appears first in the volume because we decided to put the stories in the volume in chronological order, and it is the oldest of McCullers’s stories for which the manuscript still exists.

EZB: The volume also includes the previously uncollected civil rights story “The March.” In our current political climate, what can we learn from McCullers about tolerance and acceptance of people who are different from us?

CD: I am very happy that we were able to include “The March” in the new volume, as it is the last story that Carson published during her lifetime and it remains relevant to this day. It was written in Nyack, New York, in 1966 and appeared in Redbook in March of 1967, only six months before McCullers’s death. It, like many of her works, shows McCullers’s deep affinity with the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for equality by African Americans. Richard Wright, in an early review of McCullers’s first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, recognized McCullers’s unique place as a white writer in dealing with race and racism in the American South. He wrote: “The most impressive aspect of [her work] is the astonishing compassion 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 Mrs. McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”

Finally, McCullers’s relationship to the Civil Rights Movement and its current relevance was addressed brilliantly by Sarah Schulman in an essay she wrote for The New Yorker (October 21, 2016) entitled “White Writer,” in which she says of McCullers: “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.” McCullers’s “The March” demonstrates beautifully McCullers’ great gift of compassion, and I am happy that the new volume of her collected works allows readers to see it.”

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