National Endowment for 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.

The Life and Times of Carson McCullers

The 1920s
Lula Carson Smith begins piano lessons at age ten.
The stock market crash of 1929 marks the start of the Great Depression.

The 1930s
Racial tension rises in the South when nine black teenagers (the "Scottsboro Boys") are charged with raping a white woman, 1931-37.
The textile workers strike sweeps through southern cotton mills in 1934 but fails to improve conditions for overworked, underpaid employees.
Lula Carson Smith marries Reeves McCullers, 1937.
Germany invades Poland beginning World War II, 1939.

The 1940s
Richard Wright's Native Son is published, March 1940.
McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is published, June 1940.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, America enters World War II, 1941.
McCullers divorces Reeves, 1941; remarries him in 1945.
An FBI report names numerous artists as Communist Party members, posing a threat to their employment, 1949.

The 1950s
The Cold War intensifies; artists are accused of communist ties.
The Ballad of the Sad Café, the first anthology of McCullers's stories, is published, 1951.
McCullers and Reeves buy a house in Paris, 1951; Reeves commits suicide, 1953.

The 1960s
President John F. Kennedy assassinated, 1963.
McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café, adapted by Edward Albee, opens on Broadway, 1963.

The Depression-Era South

The 1930s were a turbulent time for the South. A decade earlier, the boll weevil wrecked the cotton crops—a major part of the South's fragile economy. As prices for cotton and other agricultural goods fell, so did the farm workers' ability to earn a living wage. Tenant farming and sharecropping were common. The collapse of the stock market in 1929 and falling prices of farm products signaled a death knell for the "Old South."

People flocked to cities, hoping for steady wages as laborers in the textile mills. Though the industry had once been located mostly in northern states, by the mid 1930s southern mills produced more than 70 percent of cotton and woolen textiles. Dispossessed Southern farmers earned roughly 40 percent less than workers in the North. Many mills in the South were owned by northern corporations. As the economy slowed, mill owners cut employees' hours and decreased production, angering workers who were already living near the poverty line.

Some workers, enraged by reductions in wages, turned to a form of Marxism that embraced working-class emancipation. In the opening of The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx writes, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Marxist theory addressed a wide range of social issues, including the alienation and exploitation of the workforce, capitalism, and materialism.

While the South wrestled with its economic challenges, it was also battling the devastating effects of racism. Racial segregation and discrimination were prevalent throughout the South. For example, blacks were not allowed to eat in the same restaurants, drink from the same water fountains, or attend the same schools with whites.

By the late 1930s, blacks began to protest against discrimination. President Roosevelt shepherded in a new era when he appointed Hugo Black—a U.S. Senator from Alabama and eventual proponent of racial equality—to the Supreme Court in 1937. As early as 1938, courts began to display a new attitude toward minority rights, and the seeds of the Civil Rights Movement were sown.

"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."
-from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Music in the Novel

Carson McCullers once compared The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to a three-part fugue—a technique in musical composition that evolved during the seventeenth century. A fugue begins with a single voice expressing a theme, which other distinct voices restate as they enter one at a time. Like a skilled conductor, McCullers understood that each voice must define itself while simultaneously enhancing those around it.

In the novel, Mick Kelly's voice most skillfully reflects McCullers's own passion for music. Mick's tenacious, yet failed attempt to construct a violin, and her determination to play piano despite "any amount of knocks and trouble" are apt symbols of McCullers's early, frustrated dreams of becoming a composer.

Mick's secret summertime pleasure is to find a house with a radio, tuned in to classical music, so she may sit below its open window and listen. On the evening of her ruined party, the program begins with Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). Mick is spellbound: "She could not listen good enough to hear it all. The music boiled inside her." When the symphony finishes, Mick is left with only a throbbing heart and "terrible hurt."

The novel's rhythmic language is sometimes harmonious—as in the sweet, sad duets between Mick and Singer—and at other times cacophonous, as in Jake and Dr. Copeland's final argument. But McCullers's prose also gives us silence—in Singer, and in what she leaves to our imagination.

In addition to most pieces composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert, McCullers also loved:
Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
Frédéric Chopin 's 12 Études, Op. 25; particularly No. 11, The Winter Wind
Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125
Gustav Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer and Symphony No. 2

"But all the time—no matter what she was doing—there was music. Sometimes she hummed to herself as she walked, and other times she listened quietly to the songs inside her. There were all kinds of music in her thoughts."
-from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

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