With the publication of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers, all of twenty-three, became a literary sensation. With its profound sense of moral isolation and its compassionate glimpses into its characters' inner lives, the novel is considered McCullers' finest work, an enduring masterpiece first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1940. At its center is the deaf-mute John Singer, who becomes the confidant for various types of misfits in a Georgia mill town during the 1930s. Each one yearns for escape from small town life. When Singer's mute companion goes insane, Singer moves into the Kelly house, where Mick Kelly, the book's heroine (and loosely based on McCullers), finds solace in her music. Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition, and with a deft sense for racial tensions in the South, McCullers spins a haunting, unforgettable story that gives voice to the rejected, the forgotten, and the mistreated -- and, through Mick Kelly, gives voice to the quiet, intensely personal search for beauty. Richard Wright praised Carson McCullers for her ability "to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness." She writes "with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming," said the New York Times. McCullers became an overnight literary sensation, but her novel has endured, just as timely and powerful today as when it was first published. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is Carson McCullers at her most compassionate, endearing best.
Carson McCullers is a full-fledged novelist whatever her age. She writes with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming. "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" is a first novel. One anticipates the second with something like fear. So high is the standard she has set. It doesn't seem possible that she can reach it again.
McCullers contracted rheumatic fever at the age of 15, which was misdiagnosed and untreated by doctors in Columbus. As a result, she suffered a series of strokes that began in her mid 20s, which led to paralysis of the left side of her body at the age of 31, and her ultimate death in 1967, due to a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Her adult life was characterized by chronic pain, alcoholism, and depression; however, she persevered through it all, as she wrote five novels and maintained an active social life despite her disability.
"The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter", McCullers's debut novel, was completed in 1939 and published in 1940. The setting is a small Southern mill town in the late 1930s that is beset by poverty and extreme socioeconomic differences, with poor whites working and living nearby poorer black residents, as wealthy whites lived far above both groups.
The central character, John Singer, is a deaf mute that works in a watch factory and lives in a rooming house in town. His roommate is another deaf mute, a portly Greek who Singer adores as a dear friend despite their obvious differences. The Greek leaves town, and Singer begins to frequent a local 24 hour restaurant, where he meets the owner (Biff Brannon), an introspective man who observes the characters that frequent the absurdly named New York Café; a traveling itinerant worker (Jake Blount), who seeks to unite poor working men against wealthy capitalists; and a spirited teenage girl, Mick Kelly, a tomboy who fervently desires to becomes a successful concert pianist. He also meets and befriends Dr. Benedict Copeland, a black doctor who ministers to the poor black residents of the city while suffering from the torments of racism and the failure of his children to reach the lofty goals he has set for them.
Despite his limited ability to communicate, Singer is loved and deeply respected by these characters and others that he meets in town, due to his sensitivity and impartiality. However, he is a deeply lonely man who longs for the company and understanding of his troubled friend. The other characters are also lonely and misunderstood, as they can communicate with and make their feelings and desires known through “conversations” with Singer, yet they are unable to relate to anyone else around them.
“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is an astonishing achievement for any writer, but McCullers’s tender age makes this novel that much more remarkable. The characters are amongst the most memorable and affecting of any book that I’ve ever read, and McCullers covers a variety of topics with deep insight and sensitivity, including racism, poverty, capitalism, socialism, loneliness, and the misfit in society. I cannot praise or recommend this book highly enough, and I look forward to reading it again in the near future.
It is this sense of truth that makes this novel so compelling. McCullers takes human emotions to another dimension, slowly chipping away at the facades of her characters until finally the ice breaks and we're staring into the dark depths of their very souls.
The novel is written around five key characters, each fighting their own personal and social battles but bound by the common cords of loneliness, a search for truth, and ultimately shattered dreams.
There is Blount, the drunk stranger in town who's consistently angry and frustrated that he cannot get the truth of the evils of capitalism understood by enough people to make a difference. Dr. Copeland, the black doctor, is driven so fervently by his perpetual anger at the injustice of the treatment of coloured people by whites that he cannot get past his own children's passive acceptance of their degraded position in society. Mick, a young teenage girl from an impoverished family has an energised hunger for a life on a higher plain dominated by music, but cannot escape the realities of being cornered by the reality of her family's economic position. Biff, the enigmatic restaurant owner, quietly observes and tries to unravel the puzzle of the others, whilst his own personal life is complicated, unsatiated and compartmentalised. Finally, there is Mr. Singer, the deaf mute who underpins the other four. Patient and non-judgemental, the other characters and town at large are drawn to his quiet understanding and thoughtfulness, concluding that because he cannot answer them he must be of one mind with them. It is sadly ironic that despite becoming the most loved and trusted of all the characters, he is the most profoundly lonely, with others seeking continually self-solace from him without ever once considering if they bring anything to him.
It is impossible not to be touched by this book. Despite being a little slow in places, it silently creeps over you, and by the end you feel as if someone has removed the blinkers and you're squinting at the world in a whole new light.
Having said that, it's not necessarily going to be a personal favourite, but it's sheer literary brilliance is of much more importance than my personal preferences.
4.5 stars for an unrivalled truthful examination of human nature.
Set against a small southern town in the United States during 1930s is the story of several people whose lives are commonly linked by their intrinsic need to be heard. Their lives are a melodic dance that criss cross back and forth, their stories mashed and meshed together, bonded by a life long yearning to hear, to be recognized, to be understood, and ultimately to belong to something greater than themselves.
Excuse me for a second while I close my wide and gaping mouth. I am still in awe and shock that McCullers is firstly a female, and secondly only twenty three years old when she wrote this masterpiece of a debut. At twenty three, my thoughts, my head space was rather self centric, entirely confined to the provinciality of trying to graduate university with my insanity intact, while she was penning a book that dealt with the universality of a basic human need to find acceptance. She was struggling to understand racial relationships in a setting that was deeply segregated and fighting to find it's own path of identity. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter may have been focused on a few people in a small town, but the scope and depth of the themes McCuller dares to tackle is anything but small. The language of loneliness permeates the entire story, it seeps and oozes from every one of the characters and brilliantly demonstrates McCuller's ability to capture the spirit of humanity in a simple but unassuming manner. Highly recommended.
I find there is quite a bit of commentary about the novel being about loneliness, and it’s true. Singer longs to be with his friend and fellow deaf-mute again. Doctor Copeland longs to lead his fellow African-Americans out of the darkness, and while having their best intentions always in mind, is stiff and cannot connect personally to them. Jake Blount feels oneness with all races and longs to tell others the truth about capitalism and affect change, but cannot control his alcoholism. Biff impassively looks on at the customers in his café and begins to feel attraction for Mick, someone he can never have legally or morally, and in addition to that, because she dislikes him. Mick and the others are all drawn to Singer, imagining him to have qualities he doesn’t, simply because he listens and is good-natured. There is indeed real loneliness here.
However, I think the novel is more about being poor, and I think McCullers did several brilliant things in her debut novel. The first was in all of her small observations about what the conditions of poverty will have people do – the novel is full of these genuine, authentic touches. She’s also quite good at understanding the psychology of her characters. I found her understanding of older men to be remarkable, particularly as she was a 23-year-old woman when she wrote this. Lastly, she makes the case that the American dream is phony when so few are rich and so many are poor, a message that was appropriate in 1940, and still rings true loud and clear today.
Some of this was natural as America was just coming out of the Great Depression, and indeed we see some of these themes in novels like Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ which came out the year before, and which I liken parts of the book to. Others are ahead of their time, such as the call for African-Americans to march on Washington to assert their rights. And still others are uniquely McCullers, who is critical of religion, capitalism, racial inequality, and the American Dream, all while fascism was exerting its dark hold on Europe and the world was on the brink of war. “At least one third of all Southerners live and die no better off than the lowest peasant in any European Fascist state”, she says through Jake Blount.
The novel is touching because it illustrates loneliness in so many ways, but it’s profound because of its radical ideas. Dark and truly horrible things happen to some of these people, but McCullers’ genius is in correctly linking the causality of those events to the twin injustices of economic and racial inequality. You may disagree with how far she takes it, but the novel has honesty and real truth, and should be regarded as a masterpiece.
On capitalism, and America:
“Wherever you look there’s meanness and corruption. This room, this bottle of grape wine, these fruits in the basket, are all products of profit and loss. A fellow can’t live without giving his passive acceptance to meanness. Somebody wears his tail to a frazzle for every mouthful we eat and every stitch we wear – and nobody seems to know.”
“But say a man does know. He sees the world as it is and he looks back thousands of years to see how it all come about. He watches the slow agglutination of capital and power and he sees its pinnacle today. He sees America as a crazy house. He sees how men have to rob their brothers in order to live. He sees children starving and women working sixty hours a week to get to eat. He sees a whole damn army of unemployed and billions of dollars and thousands of miles of land wasted. He sees war coming. He sees how when people suffer just so much they get mean and ugly and something dies in them. But the main thing is that the whole system of the world is built on a lie. And although it’s as plain as the shining sun – the don’t-knows have lived with that lie so long they just can’t see it.”
“The men who fought the American Revolution were no more like these D.A.R. dames than I’m a pot-bellied, perfumed Pekingese dog. They meant what they said about freedom. They fought a real revolution. They fought so that this could be a country where every man would be free and equal. Huh! And that mean every man was equal in the sight of Nature – with an equal chance. This didn’t mean that twenty per cent of the people were free to rob the other eighty per cent of the means to live. This didn’t mean for one rich man to sweat the piss out of ten thousand poor men so that he can get richer. This didn’t the tyrants were free to get this country in such a fix that millions of people are ready to do anything – cheat, lie, or whack off their right arm – just to work for three squares and a flop. They have made the word freedom a blasphemy.”
“That is the way Marx says all of the natural resources should be owned – not by one group of rich people but by all the workers of the world as a whole.”
Lastly this one, shades of Bernie Sanders message while running for President in 2016:
“The whole system of capitalistic democracy is – rotten and corrupt. There remain only two roads ahead. One: Fascism. Two: reform of the most revolutionary and permanent kind.”
On the African-American condition:
“Listen! One out of five of us labors to build roads, or to take care of the sanitation of this city, or works in a sawmill or on a farm. Another one in five of us is unable to get any work at all. But the other three out of five – the greatest number of our people? Many of us cook for those who are incompetent to prepare the food that they themselves eat. Many work a lifetime tending flower gardens for the pleasure of one or two people. Many of us polish slick waxed floors of fine houses. Or we drive automobiles for rich people who are too lazy to drive themselves. We spend our lives doing thousands of jobs that are of no real use to anybody. We labor and all of our labor is wasted. Is that service? No, that is slavery.”
“We will save ourselves. But not by prayers of mourning. Not by indolence or strong drink. Not by the pleasures of the body or by ignorance. Not by submission and humbleness. But by pride. By dignity. By becoming hard and strong. We must build strength for our real true purpose.”
“The Nazis rob the Jews of their legal, economic, and cultural life. Here the Negro has always been deprived of these. And if wholesale and dramatic robbery of money and goods has not taken place here as in Germany, it is simply because the Negro has never been allowed to accrue wealth in the first place.”
“Bill uncorked the bottle. He stood shirtless before the mirror and dabbed some of the perfume on his dark, hairy armpits. They scent made him stiffen. He exchanged a deadly secret glance with himself in the mirror and stood motionless. He was stunned by the memories brought to him with the perfume, not because of their clarity, but because they gathered together the whole span of years and were complete. Biff rubbed his nose and looked sideways at himself. The boundary of death. He felt in him each minute that he had lived with her. And now their life together was whole as only the past can be whole.”
“Take Jesus. He was one of us. He knew. When He said that it was harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God – He damn well meant just what He said. But look what the Church has done to Jesus during the last two thousand years. What they have made of Him. How they have turned every word He spoke for their own vile ends. Jesus would be framed and in jail if He was living today.”
On being stunned; I liked the imagery:
“She spoke and he could not understand. The sounds were distinct in his ear but they had no shape or meaning. It was as though his head were the prow of a boat and the sounds were water that broke on him and then flowed past. He felt he had to look behind to find the words already said.”
Loneliness is the pervading theme, a common pain that ironically isolates. The novel centers around the other characters finding kinship with deaf-mute Singer, probably because his isolation is made obvious through his disability, yet they do not succeed at finding similar connections with one another. In my favourite scene they are all visiting Singer at the same time and feel awkward in each other's presence. "Each person addressed his words mainly to the mute. Their thoughts seemed to converge in him as the spokes of a wheel lead to the center hub." The spectrum of characters permits the exploration of a variety of responses when they are confronted with despair. Biff is often lumped with the other three as someone who learns from his experience with Singer, but I viewed him as a Singer alternate; the one to whom the others should have turned instead for learning how to communicate outside the range of their isolated views. They surely would have found in him a more informed and meaningful reflector.
I'm going to shelve it with "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" for the mood it creates: an acknowledgement that although life can be hard, bewildering and often unfair, it is worth the struggle.
In Singer each has found a confidant, someone to discuss issues and questions, someone who doesn't judge them.
And yet, throughout their discussions and the increasing political and racial tensions in the small town, no one tries to understand what Singer's going through. He's separated from his most intimate friend by hundreds of miles, and the toll it's taking on him grows more and more until he learns the fate of his friend which ends up affecting more than just Singer.
A sad and rich book that it sometimes surprises me that Carson McCullers was only twenty-three when the novel was published. She tackles the politics and race relations of the day with a careful and thoughtful eye. When Dr. Copeland speaks of the struggles of blacks in the South, it comes across as someone speaking who has experienced those struggles, who truly cares for all peoples, wanting them to succeed even when they feel wronged and blocked at every step. Such insight from McCullers strikes me as remarkable. Her attention to detail also helps to bring the story to life, from the traveling carnival at which Blount finds work to the depictions of how Mick feels the music which she loves.
Her description of the intimacy between SInger and his Greek friend to me almost borders on homosexual. They never do anything more than talk -- Singer singing with his hands while the Greek nods and sometimes signs back -- but their closeness is apparent in Singer's feelings of loss when separated from the Greek or his complete happiness at their brief reunions. It's interesting that everyone turns to Singer as the most understanding and non-judgmental when, if they scrutinized his association with the Greek, they would have most likely turned on him.
"The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" is an incredible book that I recommend to anyone who enjoys the written word.
Yet rereading this novel almost 60 years later with "a lot of water under the bridge, both personally and nationally, I realized I had no memory at all of the book. The paperback edition I have just read suggests Mick is the focus of the book, a book about a teenager looking at the world, and I think that is how I took it back in the 50s. A recent look into an encyclopedia of American literature says nothing about the racial focus of the book.
But it IS a racial book and the most amazing pages is the dialogue when the black doctor talks about organizing a march on Washington. It seems to predate M L King's march. How can the reviewers have missed this. It is as if no one really understood.
It also raises the question how this 23 year old girl raised in Columbus Georgia could have understood so clearly the issues of race in the south and have been so enlightened.
Amazing book. A true classic of American literature.
Denise made comment on how she had never read an American novel that dealt so well with the anger of the working class and at the injustices of society. A few of us found similarities with Steinbeck’s work; the struggle and inequities of life tends to overflow in his novels, and Heart seems to find the same space. Here is a story of unique tenderness and love that lacks the ability to share and soar, leaving more than a few souls lost and forlorn. There are few who could not be touched by this exquisitely human dilemma.
Interestingly, Jeanette and Lorna found the character of Singer to be a representation of Christ, and their points were well taken by all of us. He was, to many a confessor, a listener, a sign of hope and a friend. And although this religious slant seems to be generally missed by most critiques that we read, it is a good example of the many diverse views a book club can unearth.
To sum up, we found this book to be beautifully written, considering the young age of McCullers, which was just 23, an incredibly mature book for such a young woman. The adolescent female character of Mick, we are sure, has some biographical foundation, and the supporting roles so exceptional that they certainly must have come from personal life experience.
This was not an easy book to get copies of, so approximately only half of us were able to read it before meeting. But as the others read and offer their views I dare to predict that it will be one of our best loved books this year.
The grotesque, displayed as supernatural beings or events in European gothic can be pure frustration / boredom / inability to fit in, as displayed in O'Connor's work or in Carson McCullers' wonderful work. The heroes are usually nere-do-well's in southern gothic as opposed to knights. And the damsels in distress usually aren't as helpless as they are in Europe, though they are as passionate. The racial tensions and general southern hardships and also the southern formality (manners) also add to the 'gothic-ness'.
McCullers understands the panicky void that gapes around those who are alone, who cannot express the complications of their minds. Each character here, floating alone through life in a miserable southern mill town, each one shares two things in common.
One: their inner life is impossible to express to those around them. Two: a messiah-like reverence for deaf-mute John Singer, who is for all of them an apotheosis, a summation of everything they need him to be.
There is a lot of aching and yearning here. A profound understanding of humanity. A gripping story. Tragedies, a moment caught like a fragile insect of history. Beautiful.
She tells the story of John Singer, a deaf-mute who lives in a small Southern town populated by an array of well-rounded characters (Mick was my favourite, and the author's too, I suspect).
Singer initially lives with another deaf-mute friend - Antonapoulos - but when his friend becomes ill, he finds himself alone.
In attempting to combat his loneliness, Singer starts taking meals at the New York Cafe, where he meets wannabe revolutionary (and drunk) Jake Blount. He is befriended by a tomboyish and ambitious young girl named Mick and a serious-minded black doctor.
I loved this book because although it is set in the segregated South at a post-Depression time of great poverty, it is not about any of these issues, per se. McCullers writes about her characters and their lives in such detail and so vividly and evocatively, that you become emotionally invested in them rather than looking clinically at the political and social aspects of that time, which have an impact for sure, but the book doesn't come across as being about "issues" in the way that something like To Kill A Mockingbird does.
Politics are simmering away in the lives of Blount and Doctor Copeland most certainly, both of whom have their own causes to promote. Mick is desperate to escape small-town life and dreams of a bigger future for herself, but she is tethered to the poverty of her large family.
Singer becomes a confidant to them all and is perceived as a wise and educated man. He has time and hospitality for each of them, but his attempts to get them to befriend each other are unsuccessful, and of course they fail to see that he is desperately lonely.
I was surprised that I hadn't heard more praise for this book. The characters are so closely observed, and the struggles of their lives so subtly portrayed, that I'd recommend it to all to be read at as early an age as possible. It really was that significant to me.
The story focuses on five main characters. All are underdogs, oddballs or battlers. Each has a dream, but each finds themselves frustrated, and sadly these dreams turn to ashes - and in some cases death.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a work of true craftsmanship. The characters are well-appointed, the relationships between them are well structured. The themes and issues picked up by the book are not only conveyed in sympathetic manner, the fact that they are conveyed at all is an act of both foresight and courage.
The fact that Carson McCullers was only 23 when she wrote the book is astounding – and humbling.
McCullers throws us into the sweltering heat of summer in a small town in Georgia, where Mick Kelly is a tomboy on the cusp of growing up. One of things that set Mick apart from the other people around her is a love for music.
We also get to meet Mr Singer, a mute, who owns a radio, keeps himself to himself and focuses his life on his one friend – Mr Antonapoulos. This chosen retreat from society, from the people in the town has the remarkable consequence that the townspeople attribute Mr Singer with all sorts of rumours.
In a way, the character of Mr Singer, reminded me much of Brian in Monty Python’s story – where people would mistake the main character for the messiah and project their expectations on him.
Mr Singer really is the centre character that holds the story together. Through him we also meet Biff, the owner of the local all night cafe/bar, Jake, whose desire for social change leaves him mostly drunk, and Dr. Copeland.
Each of the characters has a story that is revealed. Each has hopes and dreams. Each is a representation of different minority groups of the time and at the time that the book was written. We are confronted with the violence against African Americans, the struggle of artistic young people who are pressured into mundane jobs, the idealists who are despairing over the lack of change.
The major turning point in the novel comes with the death of one of the characters. For the past few days I have been wondering if that death was meant to symbolise Nietzsche’s aphorism that God was dead. And in a way, this event does come close to it but that would presuppose that the events that follow this turning point were caused by or in any way influenced by that death. However, they are not. What follows the death of that character is merely the unravelling of the inevitable. In a way I understood this as a joke. As if to say, whether or not there is a God has no relevance on the suffering that is caused by humanity.
I did not love reading this book. I regard The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as a great and clever book, but it did not enjoy the act of reading as much as I hoped. For all its fabulous structure and courageous stances, I was not gripped by the writing. It is slow, languid, and perfectly at home in its southern setting, in contrast to which I am more at home with the few passages that contrast this.
“The silence in the room was deep as the night itself. Biff stood transfixed, lost in his meditations. Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valour. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labour and of those who – one word – love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only.”
Set in the 1930s in the American deep south, the central character is Mister Singer, a deaf mute. Like Singer, the other four main characters are outsiders with few friends. They are Biff Brannon, a cafe owner; sometime drunk Jake Blount who rails against the expoitation of workers; Benedict Copeland, a "coloured doctor" who is disappointed in the failure of his adult children; and a young girl, Mick Kelly who has a talent for music but no money for lessons.
Mister Singer moves into a room in a boarding house owned by the Kelly family and begins to eat his meals at Biff's New York Cafe. Individually, the four begin to confide in Singer believing they have found someone who truly understands them.
But they are wrong. Singer has no capacity to understand them. They are all projecting a connection that isn't there. One of the saddest moments in the book is when Mick asks Singer if she should drop out of school to take a low paying job in Woolworths and he says yes.
Other moving scenes are where Mick sneaks into a stranger's yard to listen to a radio playing classical music, and when she tries to make a violin out of a broken ukelele and some violin and guitar strings.
Something else the characters don't realise is that Singer is missing deeply his friend and old housemate, Spiros Antanopoulous ( "The Greek"), also a deaf mute, who has been taken to an asylum in another town.
One of my favourite, and again, very sad parts of the book was a letter that Singer wrote to the illiterate Greek, describing his four visitors and how they all talk so much and he has no real understanding of what they are saying.
Ironically, the Greek is interested only in food and drink, and doesn't seem to care much for Singer either.
The book's characters and themes transcend time although there are are also some great moments that fix it as being written in the 1940s, for example when 12 year old Mick Kelly buys herself cigarettes, goes to a cafe and orders beer, and leaves her baby brother tied to a wagon and in the care of another infant brother!
There are no happy endings but I won't spoil what happens.
This is no heart-warming story of friendship and fried green tomatoes. There's no happy ending for anyone to be found. McCullers has written a brilliant book about suffering and loneliness. It's beautifully written and utterly heart-breaking.
John Singer is a deaf mute living in a moderate-sized town in the South. He is "befriended" by four other citizens - Jake Blount (a drunkard and carny worker), Biff Brannon (owner of the New York Cafe), Mick Kelly (a teenage girl who loves music), and Doctor Copeland (the only Negro doctor in town). Each pours out his/her soul to Mr Singer, feeling uniquely understood. But Singer is all alone himself - isolated by his deafness - and ultimately pays the price for being everyone's confidant. Beautifully written but very dark. A classic. (Note: McCullers was only 23 years old when this was published. That is she in the photograph on the cover.)