[September 25th marks William Faulkner’s 125th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Faulkner and other Southern storytellers, leading up to a special weekend tribute to a great new Faulkner website!]
On three compelling works by the precocious, hugely talented Southern writer lost far too soon.
1) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940): McCullers published three phenomenal novels before she turned 30, and her masterpiece might well be the first, published when she was just 23 years old. Heart is one of the more unique American novels, assembling a cast of Sherwood Anderson-inspired “grotesques” and exploring both the universal human themes reflected by the book’s title and many specific social and cultural layers to life in a 1930s Georgia mill town. There are many reasons to read beyond the Southern Renaissance authors on whom I’ve focused earlier in this series, including questions of inclusion and diversity to be sure; but high on the list as well is the very different early 20th century Souths to which an author like McCullers and work like Heart help us connect.
2) The Member of the Wedding (1946): As I mentioned in this post, McCullers’ third novel (although she began it immediately after publishing Heart) offers a coming of age story that complements but also contrasts with the far more well-known To Kill a Mockingbird. Featuring slightly more familiar characters than the true originals in Heart, Member has been frequently adapted, including by McCullers herself for the 1950 Broadway show that ran for 501 performances and spawned an acclaimed 1952 film adaptation featuring many of the same actors as the play. So there are lots of ways to connect with this story, but I still highly recommend the novel, and agree with McCullers when she wrote to her husband Reeves that it is “one of those works that the least slip can ruin. It must be beautifully done,” and it most definitely was.
3) Illumination and Night Glare (1999): Perhaps sensing the end of her far too short life was approaching, McCullers dictated her autobiography over her final months in 1967; but it was left unfinished, and only published (in that unfinished form) 32 years later. As that New York Times review suggests, Illumination is a short and at times frustratingly opaque book, perhaps because of its unfinished state, certainly because of McCullers’ own reticence to write at length about her many struggles and challenges. But what the book does capture is what its title suggests: the moments of epiphany that pierce through the darkness of those struggles and challenges and provide a writer with inspiration to go with the precocious talent. For anyone interested in learning more about the writing process and life, I highly recommend McCullers’ autobiography.
Next storytelling studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Southern storytellers you’d share?