February 22, 2023

In the Month of Love and Black History — “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”

By Stuart Mitchner

Why end the last column in February with Carson McCullers, who had the audacity to call her first novel, written when she had barely come of age, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? True, last Sunday was her 116th birthday. But consider the subjects usually associated with this month  — Valentine’s Day; Black History Month; the birth of James Joyce, whose Leopold Bloom “mutely craves to adore”; the death of John Keats, who “always made an awkward bow.” What about the presidents? McCullers’s magnificent title would surely have had resonance for Lincoln, who once said of Anne Rutledge, “My heart is buried in the grave with that dear girl.” And for Washington, born on this date in 1732? According to the Library of Congress (“Presidents as Poets”), of the two love poems he wrote in his teens, one begins, “Oh Ye Gods why should my Poor Resistless Heart / Stand to oppose thy might and Power” and ends “That in an enraptured Dream I may / In a soft lulling sleep and gentle repose / Possess those joys denied by Day.”

“White and Black Humanity”

After making Black history with the publication of his novel Native Son (1940), Richard Wright reviewed The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in the August 5, 1940 New Republic. It’s a stunning notice wherein he celebrates “the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”

Should Wright’s reference to “the first time in Southern fiction” bring to mind characters like Dilsey in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), Wright mentions a “quality of despair” in McCullers that he finds “more natural and authentic” than the same quality in Faulkner. He also credits her for creating  characters who “live in a world more completely lost than any Sherwood Anderson ever dreamed of.” As for Ernest Hemingway, Wright praises McCullers for describing “incidents of death and attitudes of stoicism in sentences whose neutrality makes Hemingway’s terse prose seem warm and partisan by comparison.”

Wright’s eloquent appreciation, with its reference to “the violent colors of the life” depicted with “a sheen of weird tenderness,” looms above the general acclaim that greeted The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. As if he understood the potential for misreading and mischaracterizing an unknown young author’s first work, Wright closes with an advisory: “Whether you will want to read the book depends upon the extent to which you value the experience of discovering the stale and familiar terms of everyday life bathed in a rich and strange meaning, devoid of pettiness and sentimentality.”

The First Chapter

Although the novel was a success, what attracted the most attention, as Wright seemed to anticipate, was the freak show aspect of the deaf mutes, along with the author’s youth and gender. One of the most accomplished first chapters in American literature begins, “In the town there were two mutes and they were always together.”

As a teenager waking up to literature, I glanced at my mother’s  paperback copy of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter but didn’t get beyond the opening pages. I doubt that I would have cared when one of the mutes had to be committed to an asylum 200 miles away, leaving his friend bereft, walking alone for hours in the street: “Sometimes the nights were cold with the sharp wet winds of March and it would be raining heavily. But to him this did not matter. His gait was agitated and he always kept his hands stuffed tight into the pockets of his trousers.” As the days grew warmer, his agitation “gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise. But still he wandered through the streets of the town, always silent and alone.”

The book’s closing chapter begins at night. “All was serene” as the owner of the New York café, which never closes, walked through the town, “the peaceful silence of the night settled in him. These were the hours for rest and meditation.” Sentences like the ones I’ve quoted occur all through the book, true to Wright’s assertion that it was “not so much a novel as a projected mood.”

The mood that was beyond me at 17 moves me now. Two other paperback books my mother was reading at the time were also in plain sight: McCullers’s short novel The Member of the Wedding and Ethel Waters’s autobiography, His Eye Is On the Sparrow. The play starring Waters and Julie Harris had been made into a film I hadn’t seen, but I had a crush on Julie Harris, James Dean’s girlfriend in the film East of Eden. She was my ideal, Dean was my idol. That’s what it took to move me at 17.

The Film

In the summer of 1968, less than a year after McCullers died at 50, the film adaptation of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was released. Since the movie was available for streaming on Amazon Prime, my wife and I watched it; she gave up after two scenes, but true to our marriage vows, she kept me company, “for better or for worse.”

What saves the film from shaming a great novel is Alan Arkin’s Oscar-nominated performance as John Singer. Arkin sensitively and generously embodies the quality that made the other characters seek out the company of a well-dressed, eloquently empathetic deaf mute. It’s the power of his presence that helps the owner of the café that never closes feel “the peaceful silence of the night” and gives soul-saving solace to the drunken, unstrung, highly intelligent radical played by Stacy Keach, whose political spirit Hollywood cravenly eviscerated.

In spite of a strong performance by Percy Rodriguez, the deeply embittered, terminally ill African American physician whose characterization so impressed Richard Wright is deprived of the scene that fuels his rage and inspires him to think of leading a thousand Blacks on a march to Washington. Played by Cicely Tyson, his headstrong daughter, a character of depth in the novel, is no less problematic in spite of Tyson’s passionate performance. Finally, there’s Mick, the 14-year-old tomboy, played with great enthusiasm by Sondra Locke, who was actually 23 at the time. The relationship between the girl and John Singer is the one on which the filmmakers hang the “heart” of the story. Although several touching scenes bring their relationship to life, particularly the one in which she performs a joyous pantomime in an effort to make Singer “hear” Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, the film closes, sadly but predictably, with a heavily sentimentalized graveyard sequence. Again, what made the picture worth sitting through was the warmth and silent understanding projected by Alan Arkin, speaking to each individual eye to eye, receiving and absorbing with nods and gestures their wishful feelings, questions, hopes, fears, and most intimate thoughts.

Beware Wikipedia

Wikipedia usually proves to be an invaluable resource, with occasional, inevitable exceptions. However, the page devoted to this extraordinary novel is almost completely centered on a scholarly essay entitled, “The Ironic Parable of Fascism in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Two other essays under the heading “Reception” are taken from obscure journals like the one declaring that the presence of “so many mutes” in the storyline “strains the bounds of credulity.” There’s no mention of the Richard Wright review or the June 16, 1940 New York Times rave by Rose Feld (“A Remarkable First Novel of Lonely Lives”). Only after reading these wholly misleading and borderline absurd notices are we told, almost in passing, that the novel is ranked 17th on Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th century and that TIME includes it among the “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.”

Thanks to Labyrinth

If not for a notice in the Art section of the February 8 issue of Town Topics about Labyrinth’s exhibit of “Paintings by artist Cliff Tisdell honoring Southern writer Carson McCullers,” I might have missed this unmissable novel. The exhibit will be on view through February 28. Thankfully, there’s no closing date for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

It’s also thanks to Labyrinth that I found the Modern Library edition, shown on this page. What more can you ask from a bookstore? Not only did Labyrinth alert me to a once in a lifetime reading experience, it had in stock a lovely reading copy, published in 1993, making this a 30th anniversary of sorts. The darkly luminous photograph of McCullers has been a mute, companionable presence, like her creation John Singer, during the writing of this piece. I’ve tried without success to identify the photographer and the date, information usually provided by the publisher. My guess is the photo was taken around the time of publication, in summer 1940.