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Washington, DC

Carson McCullers. Portrait by Carl Van Vechten, July 31, 1959. From Carl Van Vechten photography collection at Library of Congress.

Now based in Athens, Georgia, musician and filmmaker Jim White discovered The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter when he moved to Europe in his early 20s.  As he puts it, he first read Carson McCullers "somewhere between Faulkner and [Jack Butler's] Jujitsu for Christ."  In this excerpt from an interview with the NEA, White discusses his take on McCullers's debut novel as  "American" rather than "Southern"  fiction.

Well whenever I see a work of art, I always look to see where?s the creator in this. And it?s strange because in [The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter], every character seems like an incarnation of [Carson McCullers] . . . .Each one of those people?s hearts had a hole in the center of it, and they were all hunting.  And it was like she needed all those voices.  Much like a person writing a symphony needs French horns and tympani and piccolos to express a profound musical thought, she needed all those characters to express, it seems to me, an existential thought. . . .

It doesn?t at all feel like a southern gothic novel.  It feels like an American existential novel. All the characters in this novel, it seems to me, are looking for God without calling it God, which is why it?s interesting that the characters are . . . all satellites of Singer, the central character.  And if you read southern novels, Jesus is always in the thick of things.  If he?s not the center of things, he?s  in tandem with the center or he?s running parallel.  And there is no Jesus in this.  In fact, she takes great pains to have her characters rule out Jesus as a possibility. . .and that really interested me, because when you?re desperate and your life is unraveling, and you take no solace in the notion of God, how do you fix things? 

That?s what this book deals with.  The doctor [is] seeking social justice, and Jake Blount, the drunk, he?s looking for economic equality. And Mick is looking for a faraway place where she can escape the endemic poverty---not just economic poverty, but the poverty of the mind---because she has this powerful mind that is never going to be fed what it needs to be fed.  All the characters have this hunger to connect to something, but it?s not God, and in the south, that?s quite an anomaly, which is why I don?t think it?s a southern novel, so much as it?s an American novel.

Hear more on Carson McCullers and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter from Jim White, Mary Louise Parker, Gore Vidal and others on The Big Read radio show.

 

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