Carson McCullers, 1959. Photo: Carl Van Vechten. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Carson and Reeves moved to North Carolina, first Charlotte, then Fayetteville, soon after they married. Reeves later claimed that during that time he wrote a collection of essays, but no one saw his work. Reeves, a writer who never wrote, was credited by numerous critics and reviewers throughout Carson’s life as the “real” Carson McCullers, the writer behind her books. There is no evidence to suggest even remotely that this might be the case. In Carson’s words, “I must say that in all of his talk of wanting to be a writer, I never saw one single line he’d ever written except his letters.”
Reeves was working as a credit salesman, though he rarely came home with any money, and Carson stayed in their shitty apartment all day, trying to write but unable to hear herself think over all the fighting next door. She describes her new marriage as “happy,” but says that she was left alone in a house “divided into little rabbit warrens with plywood partitions, and only one toilet to serve ten or more people. In the room next door to me there was a sick child, an idiot, who bawled all day. The [husband] would come in and slap her, [and] the mother would cry.” Carson was living in one of her own grotesque fictions. Carson and Reeves had never quite reached a level of comfort with physical intimacy. Reeves had cheated on her with one of her friends, Nancy, which he told her their first night together. Their new marriage was already starting to disintegrate. So Carson went home, and Reeves stayed in North Carolina.
She returned to her parents’ house in Columbus, Georgia, to begin a new book, “The Bride of My Brother,” her original title for The Member of the Wedding. Shortly thereafter, in what would become a pattern of reversals for them, separating and reuniting, Carson and Reeves used the advance from her first book to move to New York. Reeves chose to sail first from Charlotte to Nantucket with his old roommate (“roommate”?) Jack Adams. Carson rode the bus by herself. She spent the publication day of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, June 14, 1940, in a boardinghouse room, “cut off and lonely.” When the book appeared the reviews were staggering, especially for a twenty-three-year-old writer. They called her a child, baby-faced, and then in the same breath called her the new John Steinbeck. Richard Wright compared her to Faulkner, commending her “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.” In an ad for the book in the New York Times, T. S. Stribling called it “the literary find of the year.”
In the days following her book’s publication, her own face in bookshop windows was the only friendly face in the city. That lonely summer, after paying a call to Greta Garbo, her idol, and finding her less than hospitable, and while waiting to hear back from Erika Mann, a lesbian transplant from Europe and daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, Carson received a telegram from her editor, Robert Linscott, to meet at the Bedford Hotel. Carson writes that she went right out and bought a new summer suit, wanting badly to look the part of celebrated young writer and unable to do so in the cotton sundresses schlepped from Georgia. At the Bedford, Carson recalls, “a stranger” arrived. “She had a face that I knew would haunt me to the end of my life,” she writes in Illumination and Night Glare, “beautiful, blonde, with straight short hair. She asked me to call her [Annemarie] right away, and we became friends immediately. At her invitation, I saw her the next day.”
Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach was one of the many lesbians Carson encountered in her new life in New York, and she was among the most glamorous. She wore custom suits from Paris, her hair was chicly cropped, and her features were severe and gorgeous. Or, as female writer R. L. York puts it, “Her head was a Donatello David head; her blonde hair was smooth and cut like a boy’s; her blue eyes dark and slow moving; her mouth childish and soft with shyly parted lips. She wore a skirt and boy’s shirt and a blue blazer and she was not afraid of my dog.” When Carson and Annemarie met again the following day, they talked about Annemarie’s morphine addiction (Carson had never heard of the drug) and her travels in Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and the Far East.
Carson immediately fell hard for Annemarie. Who wouldn’t? She’d been dreaming of escaping Columbus and the South for years, and with her first book she had finally gotten out. The arrival of Annemarie offered her something else that she had been longing for without language to express it. Annemarie told Carson that when she was seventeen, her mother called her “a dope fiend, a communist, and a lesbian,” which was how she wound up in New York. Annemarie tried to remain polite to her mother, though she had little feeling for her. But when she would go home to Switzerland, York says, Annemarie “would don her most feminine blouse, pull her stockings straight, and set out to go visiting.” After she was gone, the neighbors would say, “ ‘Really a lovely girl, if it were not for the awful things one hears about her,’ ” York writes. “That was generally the epitaph.” Little remains of Carson’s interactions with Annemarie, but it’s clear from her letters and from the therapy transcripts that Carson was not shy about her feelings at the time or afterward. She did not disguise them or even question them. She loved Annemarie, and that was that.
As I searched through the existing writings about Carson in my downtime as an intern at the Harry Ransom Center, I found over and over that her relationship with Annemarie was sidelined or left out of a story about her and Reeves. It doesn’t seem as if these are, for the most part, acts of outright censorship on the part of biographers or the people they interviewed. Many of the details of Carson’s lesbian life are right there, in plain sight. It’s just that they are housed within another narrative: the straight narrative, the one in which inexplicable crushes on and friendships with women surface briefly within the confines of an otherwise “normal” life. In the published biographies, Annemarie is just a one-sided obsession. (“Carson loved Annemarie far more than Annemarie could ever requite,” according to Virginia Spencer Carr’s The Lonely Hunter, and “Annemarie did not return Carson’s enthusiasm,” writes Sherill Tippins in February House.) The more I read, the more it seemed that all of her profound emotional relationships with women were either dismissed or ridiculed. Her therapist (and probable lover), Mary Mercer, becomes in these retellings some kind of nursemaid to a sickly, emotionally flatulent Carson, and the other significant women in Carson’s life—Mary Tucker, Elizabeth Ames, Janet Flanner, Natalia Danesi Murray, Marielle Bancou, Gypsy Rose Lee, Jane Bowles—all become minor characters.
Yet as I read and reread her letters and conversations with Mercer, I found a fuller version of Carson’s life revealed through her relationships. I am more convinced than ever that we are shards of others. Through her relationships with other women, I can trace the evidence of Carson’s becoming, as a woman, as a lesbian, and as a writer. There are so many crushes in a lifetime, so many friendships that mix desiring to have with wanting to be. It’s the combination of wants that makes these longings confusing, dangerous, and queer. There is a desire to know that is already knowing, a curiosity for what you deep down recognize, a lust for what you are or could be. Writer Richard Lawson describes it as “the muddied confusion over whether you want to be someone’s companion or if you want to step inside their skin, to inhabit the world as they do.”
It is by no means easy to track or trace relationships between women, past or present. Women’s relationships with other women are often disguised: by well-documented marriages to men, by a cultural refusal to see what is in full view or even to believe such relationships exist. In a world built by and for men and their pursuits, a woman who loves women does not register—and is not registered, i.e., written down. Reasons for this layer one upon the other: A lesbian purposely hides her identity and remains closeted. A lesbian refuses to call herself a lesbian, disidentifying from the term and its associations for reasons personal or political. A woman does not know she is a lesbian—because she does not ever have a relationship with another woman, or because she is not aware that the relationships she engages in could be called lesbian. I didn’t call myself one for several years. Or, as in Carson’s case, her own self-understanding and identification are difficult to determine because of the efforts of those who outlived her and pushed her into the closet.
It was her retroactive closeting by peers and biographers that I found most disturbing about my research. I took it personally. I began to feel unreal, deranged. If Carson was not a lesbian, if none of these women were lesbians, according to history, if indeed there hardly is a lesbian history, do I exist?
Rather than name or talk about Carson’s formative loves and friendships with women, the biographies cast them aside in favor of an account of her “tortured” relationship with Reeves McCullers, the man she married and unmarried twice in her life. The straight narrative is given the benefit of the doubt, and writers feel comfortable filling in the blanks to create a great and desperate love story out of what looks, on my reading, like a series of manipulations of a woman struggling to name her own desires. Perhaps it isn’t even as sinister as knowingly replacing one narrative with another. Maybe it’s just that the stories of her relationships with women are partial, hard to compile. To piece them together, you have to read like a queer person, like someone who knows what it’s like to be closeted, and who knows how to look for reflections of your own experience in even the most unlikely places.
There are many ways to interpret a life. But what if we choose the most probable scenario, the path of least resistance, instead of trying to talk our way out of what seems evident, instead of trying to explain away the obvious? Lesbian historian Emily Hamer writes:
We know that they were lesbians because this is the best explanation of their lives … The standard of visibility is not a universal prerequisite for knowledge. We cannot see electricity but we know that electricity exists because electricity is the best explanation of why moving a light switch leads to the illumination of a light bulb.
Josyane Savigneau, the author of Carson McCullers: A Life, doubts whether Carson ever experienced sexual desires, period, “romantic obsessions” with certain women aside. She is, unfortunately, not alone in this opinion. She writes, “The labels lesbian and bisexual have been used by those who denigrate any form of marginality to distance themselves from Carson McCullers by categorizing her as an ‘abnormal artist.’ They have also been used by partisans of homosexuality—both male and female—who would appropriate the writer for their cause.” Savigneau’s biography came out in English in 2001. Her description positions me as a “partisan of homosexuality” seeking to “appropriate” Carson’s story for my “cause.” And perhaps I am. I think the cause rather a worthy one.
Jenn Shapland is a writer living in New Mexico. Her nonfiction has been published in Tin House, Outside, The Lifted Brow, Essay Daily, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. She won the 2019 Rabkin Foundation Award for art journalism, and her essay “Finders, Keepers” won a 2017 Pushcart Prize. She teaches as an adjunct in the creative writing department at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is her first book.
From My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, by Jenn Shapland, published this week by Tin House Books.