Carson McCullers burst onto the literary scene at the age of twenty-three with the publication of her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a tale of the lonely inhabitants of a small southern town. The novel was an immediate success, and McCullers was hailed as one of the most promising young writers in America. In her review, Rose Feld wrote, “Carson McCullers is a full-fledged novelist whatever her age. She writes with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a first novel. One anticipates the second with something like fear. So high is the standard she has set. It doesn’t seem possible that she can reach it again.”1
McCullers did reach that standard at least two more times, with The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943) and The Member of the Wedding (1946). Langston Hughes expressed his admiration for The Ballad of the Sad Café in a letter on August 31, 1943, to Carl Van Vechten: “Miss Carson McCullers has a wonderful story in the August HARPER’S BAZAAR. (Or did I mention it to you?) About a hunchback, a criminal, and a woman.”2 At the urging of Tennessee Williams, McCullers later adapted The Member of the Wedding for the stage, and in 1950 it appeared on Broadway to widespread acclaim. New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson said of it, “It is a vivid fragment of the living truth.”3 Starring Julie Harris, Brandon De Wilde, and Ethel Waters, the play won several New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Donaldson Awards.
McCullers spent the summer of 1942 at the Yaddo writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she met Langston Hughes. Van Vechten, always eager to find new subjects for his portraits, wrote to Hughes, “If you get on with Miss McCullers, tell her I’d like to photograph her some time. I dote on her books.”4 Hughes responded, “I have breakfast every morning with Mrs. McCullers, at which time we unite in damning Georgia. I shall ask her if she would like to have her picture taken.”5
Although several years passed before Van Vechten photographed McCullers, they became good friends in the meantime. When McCullers was finishing her last novel, Clock Without Hands (1961), she asked Van Vechten to read several chapters and give her his comments. Throughout her life, McCullers suffered from ill health, including three serious strokes, the last of which permanently paralyzed the left side of her body. She spent most of 1959 writing Clock Without Hands, typing just one page a day using only her right hand.
McCullers has been praised for her sensitive use of language and her compassion for the disaffiliated. Irving Howe, for example, called The Ballad of the Sad Café, “one of the finest novels ever written by an American.”6 Some have labeled her a “writer’s writer,” while Gore Vidal reportedly stated that McCullers’s “genius for prose remains one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.”