American literature is still trying to figure out exactly what to do with Carson McCullers.
A baby-faced sensation all of 23 years old when her debut, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," was published in 1940, McCullers earned accolades all over the place.
Richard "Native Son" Wright said of the novel: "To me the most impressive aspect of ‘The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter’ 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."
McCullers was friends and rivals with Tennessee Williams (whom she called "Tenn") and Truman Capote (who probably lifted more than a little of her schtick).
But by the age of 31, a series of strokes had rendered her left side paralyzed; she typed with one finger. McCullers died at the age of 50 in 1967.
Then there is the question of her sexuality. When I was an undergraduate in the early and mid-1990s, I recall my peers and I thinking of her as a queer author — even though she was married (twice) to a man (who himself had relationships with men and women) — who wrote about queer characters.
As Hilton Als put it in the New Yorker in 2001: "Thanks to her compulsion for blurring the line between male and female in her work and in her personal life, she enjoyed an exalted status in a milieu dominated by gay editors and writers."
When you look at a resource as publicly facing (and as publicly sourced) as Wikipedia, her entry insists McCullers "fell in love with a number of women and pursued them sexually with great aggression, but seems not to have succeeded in having sex with any of them." (There is no citation for this sentence.)
This was the image Jenn Shapland, then a grad student in English at the University of Texas, knew about vaguely when — as an intern at the Harry Ransom Center in 2012 — she started engaging with McCullers’ legacy. There, she came across eight letters from Swiss writer, photographer and bon vivant Annemarie Schwarzenbach to McCullers that certainly seemed to Shapland like love letters.
Further research yielded extraordinary transcripts of McCullers’ recorded therapy sessions with Dr. Mary Mercer and love letters from McCullers to Mercer. At the same time, Shapland began reflecting on being a queer woman who struggled with her own identity.
The result is Shapland’s intriguing "My Autobiography of Carson McCullers," a singular mix of memoir and literary analysis.
As Shapland writes: "Many of the details of Carson’s lesbian life are right there, in plain sight. It’s just that they are housed within another narrative: the straight narrative, the one in which inexplicable crushes on and friendships with women surface briefly within the confines of an otherwise ‘normal’ life."
Shapland, who now lives in Santa Fe with her partner, knew McCullers only as a name when she discovered the letters.
"I knew who she was, but she was just not on my radar in school," Shapland says. "Then I found those letters and glimpsed a part of her life that I hadn't heard anything about. So I started reading her fiction and the biographies that have already been published. And that was the gateway into just being fascinated by her life."
This fascination led to an exceptionally deep dive into all things McCullers, which included Shapland living at McCullers’ childhood home in Columbus, Ga. — which is also a museum — for a spell, as well as cataloging her clothing and personal effects at the Ransom Center.
"This kind of intimacy that kinda took me beyond the scope of just the research from the books and gave me a different insight into her daily life," Shapland says.
Shapland found a kinship with McCullers "immediately" when she started reading McCullers’ work. "But the combination of reading the books and the letters allowed me to see something about her life that the biographies really were just kind of dancing around," she says. "My familiarity with the ins and outs of queer relationships and the secrecy that can be around them and loneliness within them really spoke to me, that I could pick up on in her work."
The more Shapland read, the more she thought there was a story she felt she could tell that hadn’t really been told, a story that had nothing to do with the dissertation she was working on at UT ("Fiction and the environment," Shapland says, "super contemporary stuff, living authors and questions of climate and toxicity and landscape").
As for Columbus itself, Shapland says it’s only recently that the city, which boasted a population of 194,000 or so in 2017, has come to call McCullers one of their own.
"At the time she was alive and publishing, she was thought of as this woman to be ashamed of, not celebrated," Shapland says. "‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ explores these queer themes at an Army base, and folks were outraged. But they also didn’t like that she wore pants and smoked all the time, either."
Shapland assumed things had changed. But she says when she got there, one of the first things she heard was that there was no evidence that McCullers had any romantic relationships with women. "Sometimes it's easy to forget how conservative certain places can be," Shapland says.
The letters at the Ransom Center, the fiction, the bios — those were one thing. Discovering the Mercer material in Columbus, on the other hand, was the biggest "OMG" moment for Shapland. It had been held back from the public archive until McCullers died in 2013, so Shapland was there right on the heels of the material becoming available. The therapy sessions were a way for McCullers to try to organize her life in order to attempt an autobiography.
"It was what I had been looking for the whole time," Shapland says. "How did Carson describe herself? What did she have to say about her own life? How would she narrate it? I found so many instances of people trying to tell her story or who had their own versions of it, but in these transcripts, she is trying to process things in her own words."
Shapland adds that when she talks about her book with people, she gets one of two responses. "Queer readers say, ‘Of course she's gay, we've known this our whole lives. Isn't that completely obvious?’ And then I talk to other readers who say, ‘I never would've thought that.’"
This, of course, speaks to the larger issue of lesbian visibility. "There's a reason why people who wrote about her chose to say that she wasn’t a sexual person and never had sex," Shapland says. "Which is blatantly false and a kind of an absurd thing to say, but it's almost like people are more comfortable saying ... she just had these crushes, these longings. She never acted on them.
"I just really felt seen by her work."