Reading Matters

Does Charlotte have a right to claim Carson McCullers?

Novelist Carson McCullers was a study in contradition, with a face, according to the writer Truman Capote, simultaneously merry and melancholy. And a personality that caused enormous pain as well as joy, according to biographer Virginia Spencer Carr.

Yet in 1940 at age 23, she published an astonishing novel – “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” – which vaulted her to international fame. And she wrote a sizable chunk of that novel during a period of several months here in Charlotte.

February 19 is the centennial of McCullers’ birth in Columbus, Ga. To celebrate, the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts will host a year-long series of events about McCullers and her work. The kick-off event is at 7 p.m., Jan. 25, with Charlotte Lit co-founder Kathie Collins discussing that first novel.

McCullers’ husband, Reeves McCullers, came to Charlotte in the spring of 1937, hoping to land a reporting job with the Charlotte Observer. Instead, he hired on as an investigator with the Retail Credit Corp. His salary: $22 a month.

That September, Reeves moved his 20-year-old bride into an apartment at 311 East Blvd., above what is now Copper Restaurant. She settled down to write, but the couple soon found more space in an apartment in a house, since demolished, at 806 Central Ave.

Here, at a large kitchen table, Carson plunged ahead with her fictional tale of spiritual isolation, loneliness and love, with the deaf mute John Singer at its heart. When the rooms on Central grew too cold, McCullers packed up her Thermos of sherry and headed for the public library to write.

In the spring of 1938, Reeves was transferred to Fayetteville, and Carson finished the novel there.

McCullers went on to publish four more novels, but her life did not go well. A series of strokes in her 20s slowed her writing. She and Reeves divorced, remarried, and in 1953, he committed suicide. After another stroke, McCullers died at age 50 in 1967 in Nyack, N.Y.

Why, you might ask, has Charlotte has always made such a to-do about McCullers, claiming her as our own, though her stay here was so brief?

I believe we have an enormous right to that claim. After all, it was here that the fragile young woman began to reach deep inside herself and explore her own vulnerability, her own loneliness and isolation, and it was here that she poured those feelings into her unforgettable characters.

You don’t count that kind of labor in terms of time. You count it in terms of cost.

And that, my friends, must have been monumental.