How Columbus, Georgia, became the city its hometown writer Carson McCullers always wanted it to be.
So many writers’ hometowns are stuck back in time, with locations and characters just as they were when the author committed them to the page. That’s not the case for Columbus, Georgia. While the childhood home of Carson McCullers might look and feel much the way it did when she lived there in the 1920s through ’40s, almost everything else about the town has changed.
In her unfinished autobiography Illumination and Night Glare, McCullers wrote, “I yearned for one particular thing; to get away from Columbus and to make my mark in the world.” She certainly made her mark—publishing a bestselling novel at the young age of 23—but she also returned to Columbus frequently. Most of her novels were written in what is now the Smith McCullers Home at 1519 Stark Avenue, where she found solace from the big city and enjoyed spending time with her parents, but what McCullers wanted to get away from was Columbus’s small town ideas, racism and poverty.
The Columbus of today is very different from the town McCullers knew throughout her lifetime. With a thriving arts and cultural scene, bustling university, longest urban whitewater course along the Chattahoochee River, a variety of museums and a progressive mindset, Columbus may have become the city McCullers wanted it to be.
The home where McCullers was born at 423 Thirteenth Street was demolished in 1953 for a parking lot, but at the age of 10, her father, Lamar Smith, bought the Stark Avenue cottage in the historic district. It’s in this house that she conceived of both The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding. She also married her husband, Reeves McCullers, in the parlor (pictured below).
Today, the Smith McCullers Home is owned by Columbus State University and serves as a center for writers and musicians. During McCullers’ 100th birthday celebration last month, actress and director Karen Allen stayed at the house in an apartment that regularly hosts writers and composers in residence.
Center Director Nick Norwood offers tours by appointment and says the Smith family was viewed as outcasts in Columbus, even though they were middle class. McCullers’ mother, Marguerite, hosted a salon and let her daughter stay home from school to practice piano. McCullers herself went around town wearing men’s clothing and ratty tennis shoes.
McCullers attended Wynnton Elementary School just a few blocks from her house and then Columbus High School about the same distance away in the other direction. About high school, she wrote, “Mother dressed me in a pink wool suit and I set out for that scary high school. It was not as bad as I thought. I still wanted to be a concert pianist so my parents did not make me go every day … I’m sure I missed certain social advantages by being such a loner but it never bothered me.”
That theme of loneliness would continue throughout McCullers’s life and work, but it’s what makes her so accessible as a writer and so memorable to fans looking for their own place in the world.
It’s worth a walk through the home to see so many of the author’s personal belongings, many of them brought back from her house in Nyack, New York, where she moved with her mother after the death of her father in 1944. Two original portraits of her hang in the parlor, and her rug, chairs, electric fan, typewriter, walking cane, silver and dining table (used during her famous dinner party with Isak Denisen, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller) all reside in her former bedroom (pictured above).
More personal artifacts, like her record collection, books (pictured below), movie posters, recordings, research materials and much more are housed in the CSU Archives at Simon Schwob Memorial Library. A good way to view just a sample of these items is at The Columbus Museum’s “The We of Me” exhibit on display through May 21. Taking its name from a thought voiced by character Frankie in The Member of the Wedding, the small exhibit displays items like a 1933 edition of McCullers’ high school yearbook, a copy of Eugene O’Neill’s Nine Plays inscribed for Reeves for Christmas in 1950, her 1951 passport, companion Mary Mercer’s detailed notes on the their meals together, her Christian Dior robe and her eyeglasses on loan from the center.
While McCullers’s presence doesn’t really extend beyond these academic spaces, her influence radiates through town. Founded in 1953, The Columbus Museum is one of the largest in the Southeast and is always free. RiverCenter for the Performing Arts is home to the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Youth Orchestra of Greater Columbus and an annual season of shows, from Broadway musicals to ballets.
It was in the RiverCenter’s Bill Heard Theater that “Carson at 100: The McCullers Centennial Celebration” featured a one-woman monologue combined with performances of some of the author’s favorite pieces of music by artists from the CSU Schwob School of Music and a theatrical performance of a scene from The Member of the Wedding.
Springer Opera House on Tenth Street (pictured) is just another example of Columbus’s reverence for the arts. One of the only producing theaters in the Southeast, it was open during McCullers’s day and restored in 1998. She may not be thrilled about Truman Capote’s star on the sidewalk out front but would probably appreciate the venue’s “No Shame Theatre’s” original uncensored performances on Friday nights.
“You have some world class artists living in this city,” she said. “This has been an extraordinary journey for me and it goes back to my teens when I first discovered Carson McCullers.” She explained that “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” literally grabbed ahold of her, and she read the story to anyone who would listen. “It’s haunted me,” she said. “It’s stayed with me all these years. I want to tell the world.”
Shooting on her short film began last June and she calls it serendipitous that it was finished in time for the birthday celebration. A member of the audience asked her why she thinks Hollywood loves McCullers’ stories, and she said, “She wrote the kinds of characters into her novels that we love as actors. They’re complicated in a very human way. She has compassion for all of her characters. There’s nothing divisive about Carson McCullers.”
And there’s nothing divisive about Columbus these days either. It may have taken a while, but the city is honoring its hometown artists and celebrating their legacies.
Another outsider who was as lonely as McCullers was folk artist Eddie Owens Martin. One of seven children of a sharecropping family, Martin ran away to New York City at age 14. He returned to his home in Buena Vista, Georgia, in 1935 after his father passed away and fell ill with a severe fever that would forever change the course of his life.
In a state of delirium, Martin claimed an inner voice named him “St. OEM” and anointed him as a Pasaquoyan. He returned home for good in 1957 and settled in his mother’s former house on seven acres, where he began creating what he called Pasaquan (pictured). Restored from 2014-2016, Pasaquan is now a two-acre art and architectural site featuring St. OEM’s murals, paintings, sculptures and other artifacts. Visitors can step inside the single-story frame house, where Martin was known for telling fortunes, and wander through his mazes of colorful art.
Much like McCullers, Martin was confused about his sexuality and viewed as strange, but his work is getting its due today as people travel from near and far to appreciate the legacy he left in rural Georgia.
One of Columbus’s other famous residents was Ma Rainey, known as the “Mother of the Blues.” She began performing as a teenager and made more than 100 recordings before retiring to her hometown in 1935. Some think her lyrics contain references to bisexuality, such as It’s true I wear a collar and a tie … Talk to the gals just like any old man in “Prove it on Me.”
Rainey’s home is also open to the public at 805 5th Ave., and the first annual Ma Rainey Blues Festival was held on site there last April. In a nod to its artistic roots, Columbus has plans for a Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts, which will be located on Midtown Drive and serve middle and high school students starting in the fall.
“We want to work to try to make one big celebration of all the artists who came from Columbus,” says Norwood at the Smith McCullers Home. He also has plans to open the home for regular tour hours and host an art exhibit in the back yard this September.
Although most of the celebration of McCullers’s centennial was held in February to coincide with her birthday, more events are planned through the spring, culminating with “Carson McCullers in the World: A Centenary Conference” in Rome, Italy, in July.
IF YOU GO
Fairfield Inn & Suites on Armour Road is a central location from which to explore Columbus. Rooms and suites are comfortably appointed with free high-speed Internet and a free daily breakfast buffet.
For a taste of the city’s Victorian architecture, Rothschild-Pound House Inn is a bed and breakfast on Seventh Street, with private bathrooms, complimentary wireless and a chef’s choice breakfast.
Fans of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter will want to dine at Country’s on Broad (pictured), located in the old Greyhound Bus Station. You can almost pretend that Biff is behind the counter serving up barbecue plates, milkshakes and huge slices of pie.
For dinner along the riverfront, 11th and Bay Southern Table specializes in fresh seafood and craft cocktails.
Special thanks to the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau and Fairfield Inn & Suites for hosting us during the McCullers Centennial in February.