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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter–McCullers’ Masterpiece Of Race And Despair

Carson McCullers is a Southern writer and she does share much in common with Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, and Faulkner.  All are set in the South in the early-mid-Twentieth Century; and all describe the intimate but uneasy racial relationships common to the age and the region.

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Faulkner is perhaps the most accomplished at writing of these complex arrangements.  Absalom, Absalom tells the story of Thomas Sutpen who leaves the hills of Western Virginia to build Sutpen’s Hundred, a one-hundred square mile cotton plantation cut from cypress swamps, dense forest and shrub undergrowth.  His ambition is not only to become Mississippi’s wealthiest and most influential landowner but to achieve respect, a proper marriage and the social status to which he had always aspired, and personal fame.

His ambitions are far too grand and his understanding of race, family jealousies and human nature itself to be realized. His interracial love affair in New Orleans comes back to haunt him as does his daughter by a slave woman; and the struggles between and among his legitimate and illegitimate children end in the destruction of the empire Sutpen had hoped would last for centuries.

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In The Sound and the Fury, the Negro cook of the Compton family is one of the main characters of the book and Faulkner devotes the final and perhaps most important section of the book to her.  She has raised many generations of the Comptons, but more importantly has been the only centering moral force of an increasingly dysfunctional and disintegrating family.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is also about race, but placed within a more political context.  Atticus Finch, a lawyer, decides to take the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman and by so doing offends his deeply segregationist Southern community and by so doing, exposes his family violent censure.

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Flannery O’Connor is less interested in race per se; and although her stories are s set within still segregationist Jim Crow South, they are more about the strange, twisted, and lonely and isolated people who live there.

In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers’ first book (1940) has elements of Faulkner but is a more restrained and less melodramatic story of the residents  of a small Georgia town whose lives intersect.  Both blacks and whites are poor and struggling but with similar, very American ambitions. Dr. Copeland, the town’s black physician knows that he will never achieve the influence or reputation of his white colleagues, is appalled by the poverty and despair of his patients, but is determined to mobilize the black population to resist their centuries-long oppression.

His daughter, Portia, is the servant in the Kelly rooming house, and like Faulkner’s Dilsey is central to the story.  She, like many mammies of the old South was a surrogate mother to Bubber and Ralph, the two youngest children, but especially to Mick, the oldest girl beginning a difficult adolescence. 
Various Copeland relatives –especially Dr. Copeland’s sons – are also important characters, less in their own right than as catalysts for the actions of others.  When one son is convicted of assault and then brutally dismembered by white guards in prison, Jake Blount, a white man intimately involved with the Kellys and the Copelands decides to intervene.

What makes McCullers’ story unique is her discussion of race without hyperbole or melodrama.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a story of troubled and lost people whose circumstances – poverty, illness, drunkenness, and madness – are concentric, limiting forces than minimize racial differences   While Dr.  Copeland becomes increasingly radicalized, he never loses his grace and generosity.  He insists on probity and rational judgment; and never excludes Jake, Biff, or Singer – all white men – from his life.

In fact it is the anger and resentment at injustice that both he and Jake Blount share that bring them together.  Copeland wants to fight for racial justice. Blount believes that race is only peripheral to Marxist philosophy which claims that inequities of social class, capital, labor, and ownership are at the root of all problems, whether black or white.

Singer, the deaf mute boarding at the Kellys’ rooming house is considered a friend by both black and white families.  They trust him and confide in him.  Both think him honest, intelligent, and compassionate. He is the central character in the story because of his sense of right and equality and human concern. 

It is ironic that so many people rely on his judgment and advice, for he confides that he has understood little what has been said to or around him.  He has no idea what Dr. Copeland and Jake Blount argue about; nor any comprehension of what the desperate Mick asks. 

In fact Singer is a very troubled man, isolated and marginalized by his deafness, and whose only emotional and social link is with another deaf mute who has been institutionalized in a mental hospital after years of rooming with him.  When his friend dies, Singer realizes that the Copelands, the Kellys, Biff Bannon, Mick, and Jake Blount were never friends; and his relationships with them were passive, patient, never indifferent, but remote and emotionally void.  They all thought of him as a trusted friend, but to Singer they were marginal interlopers in his sad, misunderstood, and desperate life.  In a final despair of profound loneliness, he kills himself.

All the characters in the book are lost and troubled but depend on each other.  Blount is a drunkard who, without Singer would be lost.  Although he has no idea how little Singer understands, his needs are only confessional.  It matters little that Singer cannot respond.  It is enough that he is always there, patient, and responsive in his own way.

Biff, the owner of a local café, has lost his wife and, despite years of a difficult and unsatisfying marriage, is disconsolate.  Without her he has only his work, his customers, and Singer.

Mick, the most composed of McCullers’ characters is too young to be lost, too naïve to be discouraged, and too smart to accept an unsatisfying life.  Yet as she enters adolescence she is unsure of herself, her sexuality, her attractiveness, and her purpose; and she, like all the others, confides in Singer for advice and counsel.  Of all the personal stories in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, hers is the most hopeful.  One feels that she does have musical talent and the ambition to fulfill it; that she will sort out her sexuality and social clumsiness; and that she will survive the South and her small town.

The message of the book, however, is not hopeful.  Singer commits suicide, Dr. Copeland dies frustrated, angry, and with little hope for the future of ‘his people’.  Blount’s wish to be engaged in civil resistance ends badly, and he is forced to flee the town.  Only Biff senses possibility, but the hope that he feels is, he knows, impermanent.
For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who – one word – love. His soul expanded.  But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended…One eye was opened wider than the other.  The left eye delved narrowly into the past while the right gazed wide and affrighted into a future of blackness, error, and ruin. And he was suspended between radiance and darkness.  Between bitter irony and faith. Sharply he turned away.
For McCullers personal passion and commitment have amounted to nothing.  Family and community have been ill-suited to individual survival and have failed everyone.  The ‘radiance’ that Biff briefly glimpses are the purity of Dr. Copeland’s vision, Jake’s passionate resolve, and Mick’s future; but the darkness of injustice, poverty, meanness and cruelty is overwhelming.

The only hope or at least solace in McCullers’ vision is our irrepressible ability to soldier on.  She concludes the novel with this passage:

Biff wet his handkerchief beneath the water tap and patted his drawn, tense face. Somehow he remembered that the awning had not yet been raised.  As he went to the door his walk gained steadiness. And when at last he was inside again he composed himself soberly to await the morning sun. 

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