A couple of weeks after the 100th birthday of author Carson McCullers, noted writer and theater critic Hilton Als of The New Yorker magazine remembered the Columbus author at a standing-room only event Friday at the Columbus Public Library.
“This is such an incredible landmark in my life,” Als said to more than 130 admirers of McCullers work in a packed auditorium. “I have loved her for so long.”
Als visit was part of the Big Read celebration called “Carson at 100: The McCullers Centennial.” The event was sponsored by the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians and the Chattahoochee Valley Library.
McCullers was born Feb. 19, 1917, in Columbus and died at age 50 in Nyack, N.Y., in 1967. She was best known for her first novel “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” and others including “The Ballard of the Sad Cafe” and “The Member of the Wedding.”
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Although he was only born about seven years before McCullers died, Als said he has been studying and re-reading the author since he was 12. Als, now in his late 50s, read to the crowd from a 2001 article he wrote for The New Yorker called “Unhappy Endings: The Collected Carson McCullers.”
McCullers spent time between Columbus and New York, but her hometown was with her all the time. “I think Carson McCullers never left Columbus,” Als said. “I think she carried it with her always. What she got from it as an artist is an understanding of how small societies reflect bigger societies.”
Where she came from was reflected in her writing. She could cut across racial lines in her use of characters. “I’m glad that came through,” Als said. “When I first started reading, I wanted people to understand she was really a pioneer in that way.”
Als also made note of McCullers ability with race in his article. “Can a white writer, a woman, who came to maturity in relatively secure circumstances during the Depression and the Second World War, be described as Africanist in spirit? In some circles, this would be called having soul.”
He included a view from author Richard Wright on her 1940 novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
“To me, the most impressive aspect of (this book) is 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,” Wright said. “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 pressure of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”
Florence Wakoko, an associate professor of sociology at Columbus State University, said she has been curious about McCullers since she has been at CSU and able to attend a number of lectures.
“That has piqued my interest in it,” Wakoko said. “Hearing from the speaker this evening is very fascinating. He brings out the message in a very calm way but very enlightening. The fact that McCullers brings in black folks in her stories. To me, that was intriguing. At least, I can relate to her stories. “
Beth Bussey of Columbus said the reading has opened up new ways of interpreting McCullers work.
“Like so many, we read it to be entertained and we are fascinated with her ability to write outside of her culture, to really show us what really was,” she said.
“We wonder whether we would have the bravery to see it. Are we so caught up in things now that we accept and don’t see the human conditions like she did? What are we overlooking? We can go back and look at the period she is writing and how many people never noticed those things.”