A town. A book. A film:
Columbus, Ga.; “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”; “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.”
“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” will count as both film and book as Columbus celebrates the 100th birthday of native author Carson McCullers (1917-1967). The book is this year’s National Endowment of the Arts “Big Read” — Columbus State University’s having all first-year students read it — and the 1968 movie starring Alan Arkin will be shown in the auditorium of the Columbus Public Library at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
That’s among a series of events to culminate on Feb. 19 at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, where performances include a showing of actress Karen Allen’s film adaptation of McCullers’ short story “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.”
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“That’s the event that’s taking place on the actual birthday,” said Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. It starts at 4 p.m.
Allen, who starred in iconic movies such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Animal House,” produced and directed the short film that will premiere that night.
Also on the playbill are monologues set to music drawn from McCullers’ work, from playwright and poet Scott Wilkerson, as directed by Larry Dooley, and “Carson’s Favorite Music,” curated and conducted by Paul Hostetter of the Schwob School of Music and performed by the CSU Philharmonic Orchestra.
A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.
It’s about learning to love:
A boy delivering newspapers stops at a café for a cup of coffee, and an old man having a pre-dawn beer calls him over. The man tells the kid about losing his wife, whom he loved dearly, to another man.
Before he met her, he was disassembled, he says.
“I am a person who feels many things. All my life one thing after another has impressed me. Moonlight. The leg of a pretty girl. One thing after another. But the point is that when I had enjoyed anything there was a peculiar sensation as though it was laying around loose in me. Nothing seemed to finish itself up or fit in with the other things.”
Then he fell instantly in love with this woman, whom he married three days later.
“And do you know what it was like?” he tells the boy. “I just can’t tell you. All I had ever felt was gathered together around this woman. Nothing lay around loose in me anymore but was finished up by her.”
Then she left him bereft, and after a desperate search, he gave up on ever finding her again.
Then he had an epiphany. Men need to learn to love, and start by learning to love something simple:
A tree. A rock. A cloud.
A beloved tale
“I think it’s her most beloved story,” Norwood said, referring to McCullers’ shorter works rather than her novels. “I think it’s a really different kind of story because of the plot.”
It is McCullers’ “clearest statement ever on love,” he said.
Though the setting mirrors other cafes in McCullers’ writing, it is not so clearly Columbus, Ga.
Unlike this passage from “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”:
“The town was in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few…. On the main street there were several blocks of two- and three-story shops and business offices. But the largest buildings in town were the factories, which employed a large percentage of the population. The cotton mills were big and flourishing and most of the workers in the town were very poor.”
Or this description of the main street in “A Member of The Wedding”:
“There were the same brick stores, about four blocks of them, the big white bank, and in the distance the many-windowed cotton mill. The wide street was divided by a narrow aisle of grass on either side of which the cars drove slowly in a browsing way.”
Said Norwood: “It’s clear that she’s got Columbus, Georgia, on her mind.”
Some locals have not been flattered by her portrayal. They see it as an airing of grievances against her hometown, Norwood said.
“I don’t think that’s how readers around the world see it,” he said. The stories have universal appeal, and those who don’t know Columbus aren’t going to recognize it the way natives do.
Why do we care?
So, Columbus has made big plans to mark the 100th birthday of a native whose work gets mixed reviews here. Why should it care about McCullers?
“She is the most famous literary artist this town has produced,” Norwood said.
People all over the world have been touched by McCullers’ work, he said, recalling a Japanese family to whom he gave a tour of McCullers’ old home on Stark Avenue, now the McCullers Center. The visitors presented him with a Japanese translation of “The Member of the Wedding” from renowned writer Haruki Murakami, reportedly a Nobel Prize candidate.
One day Norwood walked out and found visitors from Sweden looking at the house.
A travel writer is coming to town just to cover the McCullers events, he said.
Each time he meets McCullers fans from far away, he recommends they see the rest of Columbus, such as the museum, the downtown and the river, he said. She’s an international tourist draw.
She’s also a significant influence on other artists.
Take Allen, for example: She was drawn to make a film of McCullers’ story because she read McCullers in college. Musician Suzanne Vega, who was here for a 2011 McCullers’ festival, just released an album based on McCullers’ work. She read McCullers in high school and college.
“Game of Thrones” co-creator David Benioff, a novelist, screenwriter, producer and director, named a daughter Frances for the character Frankie in McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding,” Norwood said. Producer, writer, director, actor and comedian Judd Apatow has said that granted the wish for a dinner party with any artists, living or dead, he would put McCullers on the guest list.
“Great artists around the world credit McCullers” as an early influence, Norwood said.
Perhaps she would be so influential no matter where she grew up. But she did not grow up just anywhere, so Columbus was the cradle that rocked her, and the setting for her insights into love, loss and loneliness.
For a complete schedule of events scheduled for “Carson at 100,” visit the library web page at www.cvlga.org/blog/carsonmccullers100 or the McCullers center website www.mccullerscenter.org.