National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

by Carson McCullers

The dimensions of a work of art are seldom realized by the author until the work is accomplished.


Carson McCullers, 1955 (Bettmann/Corbis)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

The town was in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. The town was a fairly large one. On the main street there were several blocks of two- and three-story shops and business offices. But the largest buildings in the town were the factories, which employed a large percent­age of the population. These cotton mills were big and flourish­ing and most of the workers in the town were poor. Often in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and of loneliness.

Reed: That was Mary-Louise Parker reading from Carson McCullers' novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature.

Here's your host, poet and former chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: Today, we'll discuss Carson McCullers' compassionate and harrowing novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

Alan Arkin: It's about isolation and the desperate need for people to jump out of that situation.

E. Ethelbert Miller: It's a book which is dealing with [a] popular theme, in terms of how do we organize to improve our condition.

Blake Hazard: It takes the perspective of a number of different characters living in the small town in the South who are so isolated, not just from the rest of the world in the sense of being in a rural setting, but really from one another.

Jim White: It is a character-driven novel with beautiful portraits, compassionate portraits of people who don't normally get portrayed.

Edward Albee: The title describes it pretty well. The ultimate impossibility of really making complete contact with anybody; and you have to find it within yourself.

Gioia: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is set in the Southern mill town in the late 1930s. Though the setting of the novel is based on Carson McCullers' hometown of Columbus, Georgia, there's a universal quality to the experiences described, which is why readers all over the world have so deeply responded to the novel. Musician Jim White, who lives in Georgia, describes McCullers' setting.

White: It's a typical American town. It's a mill town and it can be a mill town in Pennsylvania, or Georgia, it could be a mill town in any place where there is one major employer and people are desperate to stay on, and they live kind of hand-to-mouth, and the haves and the have-nots stare each other with a certain anxiety.

Gioia: Poet E. Ethelbert Miller teaches at Howard University in Washington, DC.

Miller: This is definitely a book that you are very much aware of what's going on in Europe, the rise of fascism, the rise of Hitler. You know, here, we have a character in terms of Copeland, his son is named Karl Marx. That tells you what time period it is, so you really have the sense of the Communist Party presence. You can see the political climate of America, 30s, early 40s, shaping this book.

Gioia: Jim White.

White: This is a very American novel. In America, we don't have a culture that is stable and that carries us along. We are sort of driven willy-nilly by market places and economic dreams. So, everyone in America is, to some extent or another, a displaced, misfit outsider.

Gioia: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter tells the story of four principal characters, a Black doctor, an alcoholic labor agitator, a restaurant owner, and a teenage girl, each from their own point of view. These characters share an obsession with the fifth central character, a mysterious deaf-mute named John Singer. Singer is a rare figure in the landscape of American fiction. No major American novel before The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter had featured a deaf protagonist. Though his disability is outwardly clear to the reader, the other characters in the novel suffer from their own less obvious disabilities, often spiritual or psychological ones. McCullers' novels are often considered Southern Gothic: works of fiction in which characters vary from the merely eccentric to the outright grotesque. Writer Gore Vidal knew McCullers in the 1940s.

Gore Vidal: It seems to be about several aspects of Carson McCullers as viewed through a beautiful mirror. She's really looking at herself, and she's peopling it with aspects of herself.

Gioia: Though Singer is enigmatic, he represents a moral center in this dark and troubling book. He is a just and compassionate man barely surviving in a cold and unjust world.

Mary-Louise Parker reads from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter...

One by one they would come to Singer's room to spend the evening with him. The mute was always thoughtful and com­posed. His many-tinted gentle eyes were grave as a sorcerer's. Mick Kelly and Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland would come and talk in the silent room—for they felt that the mute would always understand whatever they wanted to say to him. And maybe even more than that.

Gioia: Musician Blake Hazard makes up half of the duo “The Submarines.”

Hazard: A number of these characters, you just imagine wildly gesturing and have all these things in their mind, they're just dying to get out, these burning things. But, to be understood really is the thing that they want the most. And everyone hopes this guy Singer understands them.

Gioia: Actor Alan Arkin was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of John Singer in the 1968 film version of the novel.

Arkin: I feel like they mostly want a sounding board. I think he loves the companionship, loves the fact that people are comfortable and want to be around him, and think that he is, their sounding board, he's not getting most of what's being told.

White: He is a blank canvas upon which they can paint their dreams. Everyone in the book is trying to find a way to say life has meaning, and they are all thwarted.

Gioia: Jim White.

White: I don't see him as a Christ figure at all. I see him as an absence of a Christ figure. He is a negation. He is a mute.

Gioia: Gore Vidal.

Vidal: Well I remember John Singer as being a mysterious character at least, and a professional ear, and an excuse for the others to start on and on and on and on with their autobiographies.

Gioia: At the start of the novel, Singer's roommate and only friend is Spiros Antonapoulos, another deaf mute. After suffering a nervous breakdown, Antonapoulos is committed to an asylum in another town. The lonely John Singer rents a room in the Kelly house, and there he receives a constant stream of visitors who endlessly confide their hopes and fears to him. In this remarkable passage, McCullers deftly presents the four main characters' distinct voices, one after another, as seen through the eyes of Singer.

Mary-Louise Parker reads from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter...

He watched the words shape on their lips.

We Negroes want a chance to be free at last. And freedom is only the right to contribute. We want to serve and to share, to labor and in turn consume that which is due to us. But you are the only white man I have ever encountered who realizes this terrible need of my people.

You see, Mister Singer? I got this music in me all the time. I got to be a real musician. Maybe I don't know anything now, but I will when I'm twenty. See, Mister Singer? And then I mean to travel in a foreign country where there's snow.

Let's finish up the bottle. I want a small one. For we were thinking of freedom. That's the word like a worm in my brain. The word is a signal for piracy and theft and cunning. We'll be free and the smartest will then be able to enslave the others. But! But there is another meaning to the word. Of all the words this one is the most dangerous. We who know must be wary. The word makes us feel good—in fact the word is a great ideal. But it's with this ideal that the spiders spin their ugliest webs for us.

The last one rubbed his nose. He did not come often and he did not say much. He asked questions.

The four people had been coming to his rooms now for more than seven months. They never came together—always alone. And invariably he met them at the door with a cordial smile. [...] At first he had not understood the four people at all. They talked and they talked—and as the months went on they talked more and more. He became so used to their lips that he understood each word they said. And then after a while he knew what each one of them would say before he began, because the meaning was always the same.

Gioia: Jim White.

White: The Doctor, he's seeking social justice, and Jake Blount, the drunk, he's looking for economic equality, and Mick is looking for a faraway place where she can escape the endemic poverty and not just economic poverty, but the poverty of the mind. All the characters are quite American outcasts. They are people who drift in a huge nation.

Gioia: Virginia Spencer Carr wrote a biography of Carson McCullers.

Spencer Carr: Well, she grew up in Columbus, Georgia. Her father was a jeweler, her mother was the hostess of a literary salon. And Carson McCullers would sit very quietly and just listen.

Gioia: McCullers' early experience at her mother's salon helped direct her toward a literary career, although her most passionate childhood ambition was to become a concert pianist. But as a young teenager, McCullers suffered a series of debilitating illnesses which forced her to abandon a musical career and turn her creative expression to writing.

Spencer Carr:She had what was diagnosed as Rheumatic Fever. She was not a strong, healthy child, and she was not popular.

White: I envision that she spent time wandering through her town like Mick did in the middle of the night looking through people's windows. And, lending her keen ear to every conversation that she heard because what she was doing was frantically collecting the evidence. Stockpiling the thing that would free her from the trap she was in. It feels like a beautiful desperation.

Gioia: Just like her tomboyish protagonist Mick Kelly, McCullers couldn't wait to escape her cramped and lonely childhood. At 17, she left Georgia for New York to begin a literary career. It didn't take her long to find success. Six years later, in 1940, she published The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and it thrust her to the top of the literary scene: this brilliant début of the young author to instant fame. Virginia Spencer Carr.

Spencer Carr:She started writing it, really before she was 20. She was 23 when it was published. Well, people were amazed. So it was that sensitivity— very sensitive to people who had been somehow discriminated against. I mean, she was a lonely child and I think that the loneliness is at the heart of her compassion for those who were not treated well.

Gioia: One of the central characters in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is Dr. Copeland, a Black middle-aged physician who is slowly dying of consumption. Blake Hazard.

Hazard: Taking on the perspective of Dr. Copeland is the most amazing. One could imagine a Mr. Blount, he's this angry guy who you see all the time and his struggle, he really wears on his sleeve, you know, he just is always belting it out, everything that's on his mind. But Dr. Copeland is an extremely complex and fascinating character.

Gioia: Ethelbert Miller.

Miller: We begin to see McCullers' ability to give us a diversity of African-American characters within the community. So here, even within the same family, we can see that Willie's Copeland's son but he's completely different. He seems to be more quote “the folk” or "the people," where Copeland is educated and this is another strength of the novel. It's a book of feelings as well as intellect. She gives Black people the ability to feel, which many other people have done, but she also gives you Black people who you have a sense of how they think.

Gioia: Dr Copeland's family relations are terribly strained by his political obsessions. Though, he dreams of universal justice and love, he ironically lacks the capacity to love his own family. But after his son, Willie is cripplingly tortured in prison, Copeland tries to make amends for his past failures.

Miller: This is a book that really gets at racism. It takes you behind the scene. You get a sense of how a Black family could fall apart. When we talk about literature being timeless, I think, you know, it's sad that these conditions are still here, but this is where this book becomes, I would say, a must read.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read, from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we're discussing The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.

Gioia: Thirteen year-old Mick Kelly is the most overtly autobiographical character in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Not surprisingly, Mick shares McCullers' burning passion for music. Blake Hazard.

Hazard: I love the way that McCullers writes about Mick experiencing music and how physical it is and how unintellectualized and how just down to earth it is and you really feel it.

Gioia: Ethelbert Miller.

Miller: She has the notes in her head. It's coming through in terms of classical music. But she also wants to compose. She's willing to hide outside somebody's house to hear the music.

Mary-Louise Parker reads from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter...

In the quiet, secret night she was by herself again. [...]

There was one special house that got all the good orchestras. And at night she would go to this house and sneak into the dark yard to listen.
There was beautiful shrubbery around this house, and she would sit under a bush near the window. [...] After awhile a new announcer started talking. He mentioned Beethoven. The announcer said they were going to play his third symphony. [...] Then the music started. Mick raised her head and her fist went up to her throat.

How did it come? For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or march. Like God strutting in the night. After a while the music came again, harder and loud.

It didn't have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feel­ings. This music was her—the real plain her. [...] The second part was black-colored—a slow march. Not sad, but like the whole world was dead and black and there was no use thinking back how it was before.

But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best—glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.

Gioia: Blake Hazard.

Hazard: Well Mick's been secretly spending time playing the piano at the school and she pursues her study of music as long as she can. But eventually their families became quite destitute and her sister comes home and tells her about a job at Woolworth's. No one tells that she has to take it but she knows that if she doesn't take it, she's not contributing to the family financially. So, she goes to work at Woolworth's and she just doesn't, when she gets home, have the spirit for writing music and you never know whether she comes back to it later in life but you get the feeling that's it.

White: This novel's like a photograph without anything in the center of it.

Gioia: Jim White.

White: It's got a question mark in the center of it best. The question mark is Singer. All of the detail in the photograph is around the edges. The characters are all circling Singer and Singer is not what they think he is.

Mary-Louise Parker reads from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter...

So the rumors about the mute were rich and varied. The Jews said that he was a Jew. [...] A lone Turk who had roamed into the town years ago and who languished with his family be­hind the little store where they sold linens claimed passionately to his wife that the mute was Turkish. He said that when he spoke his language the mute understood.

And as he claimed this, his voice grew warm and he forgot to squabble with his children and he was full of plans and activity. [...]

The rumors about him grew bolder. An old Negro woman told hundreds of people that he knew the ways of spirits come back from the dead. [...]

The rich thought that he was rich and the poor considered him a poor man like themselves. And as there was no way to disprove these rumors they grew marvelous and very real. Each man described the mute as he wished him to be.

Gioia: Jim White.

White: In most southern novels Jesus and the weather are main characters. And in this, neither one of them is the main character. The weather is mentioned sort of incidentally as a beautiful counterpart to the other descriptions. And, there is no Jesus in this. In fact, she takes great pains to have her characters rule out Jesus as a possibility -- her central characters. And that really interested me because when you're desperate and your life is unraveling and you take no solace in the notion of God, how do you fix things?

Gioia: Writer and political satirist P.J, O'Rourke.

P.J. O'Rourke: It's always been my idea that what fiction does is take the chaos of ordinary life and give a pattern to it. To discern the patterns in the ordinary ripples of existence if you will. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter seems to take the ordinary ripples of existence, its chaos, and turn it more chaotic, make it mean less. I feel at the end of that book that the people in the book, that their life has less meaning than when I was first introduced to them. And, I find that quite disturbing. I find it interesting. It is a very interesting book but disturbing to me in that respect.

Gioia: The most understated of the main characters is the proprietor of the New York Café, Biff Brannon. Biff's kind hearted but oddly ineffective gestures of compassion range from the free drinks he gives to his down and out customers to his obsessive concern for Mick. Jim White.

White: Biff is a compassionate non-spectacular person. He's made his peace with the world around him. He opens his heart to the lost souls. Really, he should have been the hub around who all of these lost souls gathered. I wondered when I was reading the book, “Why are they in Singer's room and not in Biff's café?” Biff's café is always available; it's a place of forgiveness and acceptance, unconditional acceptance. And I think that that describes sort of a quintessential human failing. That quite frequently, the peace that lies right underneath our nose, we reject for something more exotic.

Gioia: McCullers' spectacular début with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter marked the beginning of a short but distinguished career. Playwright Edward Albee befriended McCullers as he adapted her celebrated novella, “The Ballad of the Sad Café” for the stage.

Albee: It's wonderful to read Carson out loud. Some writers should be read out loud. Joyce, for example, Beckett, and Carson is such a wonderful rhythm in her writing. I find her talents so extraordinary and individual and her writing is so pure and clean.

Gioia: McCullers suffered from ill health throughout her life. While still in her 20s, she had the first of the series of strokes. For the final two decades of her life, she was partially paralyzed. Edward Albee.

Albee: She was a very different person before she had her stroke, a very, very different person. She was pretty wild, a heavy drinking girl. She spent her life drinking of course, never stopped that, and smoking. Couldn't get her to stop smoking. I worried about her a lot, because she was constantly failing and getting sicker and sicker. But she lived her life the way she wanted to live it, did what she wanted to do and I think she accomplished some really extraordinary work.

Gioia: In 1967 at the age 50, Carson McCullers died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Though her literary reputation has dimmed silently over the past four decades, her best work remains as powerful and troubling as when it was first published. Blake Hazard.

Hazard: The book is so timeless. It's really just about the human struggle and search for love and understanding and those are things that will never go away. And unfortunately, some of the other struggles that she talks about, the societal ones are ongoing and certainly just as relevant now as they were then.

Gioia: Ethelbert Miller.

Miller: We learned that what happens even in these relationships, with even the people that we love, we have difficulty communicating. We wind up being deaf to each other.

Gioia: Alan Arkin.

Arkin: We live in a very lonely culture in a very lonely time. And I think that this book embodies that idea. There is wisdom about it and a recognition of the toughness of the human experience but there's also a great compassion.

Gioia: Jim White.

White: Within every heart, there is a vacancy somewhere. And, that's why the book speaks to people I think is that she's talking about that vacancy quite eloquently. She's saying, here are sketches of that shadowed area.

Gioia: Though John Singer had been a sounding board for his visitors, his own griefs and struggles went unnoticed by them all. We directly hear the words of Singer only once late in the novel when he writes a letter to his best friend Antonapoulos, who is still far away in an insane asylum.

Mary-Louise Parker reads from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter...

The gift I ordered for you did not come in time for the Christmas box. I expect it shortly. I believe you will like it and be amused. I think of us always and remember everything. I long for the food you used to make. At the New York Café it is much worse than it used to be. I found a cooked fly in my soup not long ago. It was mixed with the vegetables and the noodles like letters. But that is nothing. The way I need you is a lonliness I cannot bear. Soon I will come again. My vacation is not due for six months more but I think I can arrange it before then. I think I will have to. I am not meant to be alone and without you who understand.

Always,
John Singer

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Readings from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter were by Mary-Louise Parker. “Angel-Land” currently playing in the background taken from Jim White's album Wrong-Eyed Jesus! used with permission of Luaka Bop. Beethoven's third symphony, the Eroica, and excerpts from Dvorák's violin and piano music used with permission of Naxos. Excerpts from the Beethoven piano sonatas performed by Seymour Lipkin, used with permission of Newport Classic. “Sundown” by Son House used courtesy of Sony BMG Music Entertainment.

Special thanks to Paul Dylan, Yael Ebelab, Jeff Eisner, Melanie Corinbrock, Erika Koss, Ted Libby, Adam Kampe.

And to our contributors: Edward Albee, Alan Arkin, Virginia Spencer Carr, Blake Hazard, E. Ethelbert Miller, P.J, O'Rourke, Gore Vidal and Jim White.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

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