On the Heart Is a Lonely Hunter


In which The Gay Recluse loves Carson McCullers.

Not long ago we finished reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers.

Published in 1940, the book — as the jacket tells us — made McCullers (only 23 at the time!) a literary star.

In the book, which is set in a small town in the south, she describes a moral isolation that — again, as the promotional language on the book makes clear — transcends stereotypical ideas of class and race.

Admirable (and true!) as that is, what impressed us even more was McCullers’ ability to the same with regard to love and sex, including the gay version of both.

At the heart of the book is a deaf and gay and mute man who is in love with another deaf and mute man who is sent away to an institution by his family. It’s heartbreaking.

Another man is in a sexless marriage that we are led to suppose was made out of convenience, given what we learn about her preference for sleeping with women.

Of course none of this is explicitly mentioned on the promotional copy on the back cover, even though it’s a relatively new printing.

While the publishers are more than happy to refer to Richard Wright, who explicitly lauded McCullers’ ability to “embrace black and white humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness,” we have to read in code to understand that she does the same in terms of sexual orientation: thus we have Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and May Sarton discussing her beautiful prose and refined sense of truth.

Oh well. It’s still a fucking incredible book that should always be considered one of the few bright spots in the Dark Ages of American fiction.

Oh and McCullers also wrote Reflections in a Golden Eye, which was turned into a seriously underrated but seriously ass-kicking movie (directed by John Huston) in which Marlon Brando plays a homosexually repressed army officer married to an out-of-control Elizabeth Taylor. It’s even better than it sounds.

We often think of ourselves as making so much progress.

But reading Carson McCullers, we are left with the sense — both wistful and disturbing — that against all odds, things have somehow gotten worse.

2 Responses to “On the Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”

  1. 1 Atherton Bartelby

    I first discovered McCullers (and this particular novel) during one summer break in high school, when I first discovered Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and began reading everything the more famous of its alums had written. To this day, reading this book touches chords very deep within me, both happy and sad, since I rather have the same feeling upon finishing it each time as that with which you conclude this piece.

  2. Very cool, AB — it’s definitely one of the more amazing books I’ve ever read. I can’t believe it took so long for me to discover it.

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