Carson McCullers' biographer Virginia Spencer Carr dies at age 82

In 1975, Virginia Spencer Carr introduced Columbus-born novelist Carson McCullers to the world not as a literary figure but as a troubled and complex woman comparable to the fictional characters she created in books such as “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” and “Ballad of the Sad Café.”

Carr, whose McCullers biography “The Lonely Hunter” earned her national acclaim when she worked here teaching English at what was then called Columbus College, died Tuesday at her home in Maryland. She was 82.

She won praise not only for her work on McCullers, but also for “Dos Passos: A Life,” her 1984 biography of writer John Dos Passos, a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, known for his documentary style and unflinching realism.

Each biography took years of research and travel, and persistence in persuading reluctant sources to be interviewed. But Carr was known for her determination.

“It was like a puzzle,” she said in 1975 of compiling different aspects of McCullers’ personality into a coherent whole. “You might have 501 pieces, but you can’t quit until you have examined each one to see how it fits.”

Courtney George, director of the Columbus State University Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians housed in the author’s childhood home on Stark Avenue, said Carr’s intimate portrait of the writer remains “the most valuable piece of scholarship on Carson McCullers’ life.”

In 1978, Carr described McCullers as an enigma, telling a newspaper reporter: “To know her is not necessarily to love her, to be challenged by her, puzzled, aroused, discouraged sometimes and stimulated by her philosophy. Many people thought they knew her very well. Others who knew her best realized they knew her but slightly. Perhaps fewer than a handful from her hometown, Columbus, knew her in any depth. In Columbus she spent the first 17 years of her life and returned intermittently for another 20, yet she could never desert it in her fiction.”

“The Lonely Hunter” took at least seven years to produce. Carr dedicated it to Lucy Quillian Page of Columbus, who was deeply involved in organizing Carr’s research and admired the author’s persistence. Page told the story of Carr’s confronting and charming reclusive author Katherine Anne Porter, with whom Carr could not arrange an interview. Porter’s telephone number was unlisted, so Carr went to the writer’s College Park, Md., home, knocked on the door and announced she had come 700 miles to talk about McCullers.

“Mrs. Porter gave her the phone number through the door, but Virginia somehow managed to charm her through the closed door, and was invited in for an hour and a half Sunday interview,” Page said.

Born in 1929 in West Palm Beach, Fla., Carr was the daughter of a writer, Wilma Bell Spencer, who for decades was society editor of the Palm Beach Daily News. Her father owned a tire company.

Carr graduated from Florida State University, got a master’s degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then returned to Florida State to get her doctorate. She taught at Armstrong State College in Savannah for six years before coming to Columbus.

Joining the faculty at what’s now Columbus State University from 1969 to 1984, Carr taught Southern literature, the American Novel, 20th Century American literature and biography. In 1980-1981, she was a visiting Fullbright Scholar to Poland, where she taught American literature at the University of Wroclaw’s English Institute.

In 1985 she left Columbus to chair the English department at Georgia State University, where in 1993 she was the John B. and Elena Diaz Verson Amos Distinguished Professor in English Letters. She retired in 2003.

Carr often told interviewers of the enormous workload her research and writing required, at one point crediting her three daughters with doing all the shopping, as she had not seen the inside of a grocery store in years.

But to her, writing was never drudgery.

“It is a way of life for me now,” she said in 1984. “If I don’t go to my typewriter several times a day for some sustained writing, then it’s a real loss so far as I’m concerned. I’m very happy writing. It’s never a question of ‘Oh dear, here’s this blank page. What do I do with it?’ I’m constantly scrambling for the time to sit down and do the work.”