Friday, February 18, 2011

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Last week I read another old book and hit another home run. (I'd just read Great Expectations and loved it and now plan to read more Dickens soon, perhaps reread some because I'm not sure which I read in high school.) This time it was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. It's embarrassing to admit I'd never read it, or any of McCullers' work. I don't know why that is, it's just one of those weird lacunae in my reading resume, but boy am I glad to have corrected the omission and boy now do I ever want to read her other books.

For this is a magnificent novel. So humane, so political, so full of consciousness about oppression, rage at this society, yearning for liberation. Wow. It's not the writing, for sentence by sentence, word by word, McCullers is not a dazzling stylist. It's what the words add up to. What she says with them.

How could I not love a book that devotes several pages to a Depression-era African American doctor's soliloquy on Marxism and the need for revolution? That depicts the soul-weariness of a would-be union organizer who can't get anyone to listen to his radical message? That shows a poor teenaged girl's constricted options and wide-open dreams?

From Richard Wright's 1940 review:
Tto 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. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politcally; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.
And from May Sarton's:
This book is literature. Because it is literature, when one puts it down it is not with a feeling of emptiness and despair (which an outline of the plot might suggest), but with a feeling of having been nourished by the truth. For one knows at the end, that it is these cheated people, these with burning intense needs and purposes, who must inherit the earth. They are the reason for the existence of a democracy which is still to be created. This is the way it is, one says to oneself - but not forever.
I'm going to try to swing by the Strand soon, to pick up a used copy of The Lonely Hunter, Virginia Spencer Carr's biography of McCullers. I've just got to know more about the artist behind this masterpiece of working-class literature.