Thursday, September 17, 2009

She Gets It

The Mortgaged Heart: A Collection of Writings
by Carson McCullers

As a kid, I read a children's historical novel called A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver (anyone remember it?) by E. L. Konigsberg. It was about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and began with Eleanor and a couple of other figures from her life sitting on a cloud in heaven discussing their pasts. They also talk about watching other people get admitted to heaven. One says "They just let an English teacher up. He made a beeline for Shakespeare." Another says "They all do." The response then is "I know, but it's still fun to watch." Of course I doubt that this is really how one's entry into heaven really is, but if it did turn out that way, when I got through the gate I would first drop by Carson McCullers' cottage for a cup of tea. There's a lot I would like to talk about with her.

A few years ago, a St. Matthew friend recommended Carson McCullers' debut novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, published when she was only 22 years old. I read it and was moved by McCullers' articulation of the interior loneliness that so many people experience. I mean, she just nailed it. She especially seems to understand the angst that adolescent girls have to live through. She understands them, which is also evident in her later novel The Member of the Wedding. Lonely Hunter is on my short list of favorites, and every time I read something by Carson McCullers, my esteem for her and her work grows.

The Mortgaged Heart is the title of a poem that McCullers wrote, and also of this collection of short stories, essays, and magazine articles that her sister Margarita put together after Carson's death in 1967. Carson McCullers had a life that was in many ways tragic. Her health was always fragile - she began having strokes in her 20s and by the age of 31 was paralyzed on her entire left side. She married the same man twice, a fellow writer named James Reeves McCullers, and their union was apparently a turbulent one. In one of her essays, McCullers describes the primary theme of her writing as "spiritual isolation," and reading through these short stories shows that theme to be pervasive. Again, she just seems to understand the sense of waiting and wanting to be heard and understood that we all feel at times (if we are honest enough to admit it). All the short stories are good, but "The Haunted Boy" just killed me. "Who has Seen the Wind?" was another gut wrencher.

McCuller's essays on war and peace, the writing process, and the meaning of Christmas are all excellent as well. In one of her Christmas writings, she describes the momentary deflation of learning that her parents were really Santa Claus. She says that at first this was sad for her, but then she began to see the bright side of it "At first I had, in my childish mind, thought that Santa Claus and Jesus must be related because they were so intertwined in the holiday. But if my parents were Santa Claus, then that must mean that they were related to Jesus, and that was wonderful too." Amen to that.

Reverent Reader


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