How a sun hat, an address book, and a character outline enhance Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
By Christine Lee
“It has been said that loneliness is the great American malady. What is the nature of this loneliness? It would seem essentially to be a quest for identity.”—Carson McCullers’s essay “The Nature of Loneliness”
Some things can only happen at the Ransom Center, and one of those is our special take on the book club. One benefit of joining us as a member is to get special access to some of our treasures. Our members-only book club brings readers into close contact with archival material and offers an intimate look at the author, novel, and writing process.
We recently gathered for a discussion of Carson McCullers’s novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Lisa Pulsifer, Head of Education and Public Engagement, had selected materials from the Center’s collections that relate to the book, which were on display at our meeting. Highlights included an undated essay titled “The Nature of Loneliness,” a letter McCullers wrote to her mother during a trip to Paris, a tribute to McCullers from Tennessee Williams, a first edition of the novel, a bound copy of the screenplay, and one of McCullers’s floppy sun hats.
Participants found the novel, with its insight into loneliness, race relations, and poverty, still relevant more than 40 years after publication. McCullers was close friends with Tennessee Williams, and we saw McCullers’s address book, with an address for Williams while he was living in Key West.
Members gravitated to the items that piqued their interest, but most found McCullers’s outline for her novel most compelling. This 20-page document starts with an overview of each main character, continues with minor characters, and has general notes about the novel at the end. It discusses which characters are intentionally flat, what tone McCullers wanted for a pivotal scene between Mick and Harry, and nuances about some of the more ambiguous characters, like Biff Brannon. It mentions characters that do not appear in the final book and includes background on pacing and setting.
McCullers started writing the book at 19, and it was published when she was 23 years old. Our readers were particularly impressed by her literary talent and her keen understanding of relationships, both platonic and marital, given her young age.
During the discussion, members shared how the book related to their personal histories. Conversation was lively, and we adjourned abuzz with excitement about the next book club selection. Why not join us as a member and experience for yourself the excitement of connecting collection materials with your own reading experience?
Do you have a suggestion for a selection that relates to an archive here? Post a comment below!