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Richard Hyatt: Celebrating a tiny literary giant

Even at home, Carson McCullers was a stranger in a strange land.

Her talents as a writer made others happy, but she never seemed to find that much happiness in her own life.

So what would this tiny literary giant think about people in her hometown throwing her a birthday party on the day she turns 99?

You're invited to a reception at her childhood home at 1519 Stark Ave. on Friday between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., then to a concert at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free and birthday gifts are not required.

The Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians is under the umbrella of Columbus State University, and Director Nick Norwood is in charge of the birthday celebration. He also conducts tours of the house and said that even though she died 49 years ago, people who visit still get emotional.

"People tell us how much she meant to them. One visitor broke down sobbing," Norwood said.

Born Lula Carson Smith, her father worked as an engraver at a downtown jewelry store and her mother devoted much of her time doting on her sickly daughter. Carson dreamed of being a classical pianist but blossomed as a writer soon after graduating from Columbus High School.

Her Southern Gothic novels have been translated into many languages, but back home she has been rejected and scorned. Even now she is accepted outside of Columbus more than she is in the town where she was born and the place she wrote about so much.

"That's changing but it's changing slowly," Norwood said. "This is not unique to Columbus though. William Faulkner wasn't accepted in Oxford, Mississippi, until he won the Nobel Peace Prize. As the saying goes: 'No one is a hero to those who knew them.'"

As her 99th birthday draws near, Columbus State is sensing how big the celebration will be when she turns 100. International publishers are planning to reissue special editions of her works, and literary symposiums are being discussed around the world -- including Columbus.

Norwood talks about a major stage extravaganza that will include a Carson impersonator, specially produced dramatic sketches and a big-name keynoter. The program will continue to evolve over the next 12 months.

So maybe, after 100 years, Carson McCullers will be a stranger no more.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at