Carson McCullers' anguished biography


"Illumination and the Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers," edited with an introduction by Carlos L. Dews. University of Wisconsin Press. 234 pages. $24.95.

A mentor once gave this prescription for avoiding some of life's perils: Never eat at a place called Mom's, never play cards with a guy named Doc and never go to bed with a woman/man who has more troubles than you do. Add to that: Never read a book with the word "unfinished" in the title.

Few American writers have so captured and characterized period and place as McCullers in her best work -- all of which was written before she was 30. Layer that with the startling life she led and you have a fascinating genius. Who wouldn't want to read undiscovered work by such a writer?

Ay, there's the rub. That's why many of us read "True at First Light" (still, inexplicably, on the best-seller list even as Hemingway spins in his grave) and "Juneteenth" (Ralph Ellison spinning with Hemingway). Often very good reasons prevent a writer from publishing a given work in his or her lifetime. Yes, death sometimes intervenes, but the word "unfinished" usually means just that. Hemingway and Ellison were still working on their books when they died -- as was McCullers.

When one reads the outline of McCullers' brilliant novel "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" (begun when she was only 17), which is included in "Illumination," one sees with defining clarity the importance she placed on writing and "rewriting," crafting each layer of her work with deliberation and skill. That makes the publication of this book all the more painful, for this is far from her finest work -- in fact, it's rather dreadful: flat, prosiac and with none of the insight, lyricism or even raconteuring her reputation as a writer is predicated upon.

Context, of course, is everything; Carlos Dews gives a detailed chronolgy of McCullers life to guide the reader through this stream of consciousness ramble. But McCullers had intended this book for students of writing as a teaching tool. She wanted to prepare the young writer for the pitfalls -- the "night glare" -- that had led her close to nervous breakdowns and may have precipitated some of the ill health that plagued her until her untimely death at 50 in September 1967 of a massive stroke.

Unfortunately, McCullers was quite ill when she began "Illumination"; too incapacitated to write herself, she dictated the work to, by her account, an unresponsive amanuensis. Perhaps because of this, the book sounds like someone telling stories of her life one afternoon over a bottle of wine. The narrative is murky and more than a little hard to follow, which frustrates the reader and makes it difficult to determine how good -- or bad -- a job Dews has actually done.

The text is scrupulously annotated for dates, names and places, but not for structure or sense. The tangential nature of McCullers' narrative means that just as she gets to an intriguing point -- as, for example, when she discusses race in the South of her youth -- she goes off on another track, and we never get to where she seemed to be going.

This is particularly maddening when she speaks of her private life -- her marriage and remarriage to Reeves McCullers, her attachments to women, her relationship with her family, her astonishing friendships -- and her writing: how she supported herself, why she allowed her books to be made into films, why her work deteriorated so in the last decades of her life.

Those searching for insights into how McCullers came to be the brilliant writer she was -- or why she ceased to write well after a time -- will find no illumination here, just a sad lesson in the vagaries -- and meritriciousness -- of publishing.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author of seven books and editor of eight, including "Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability" (Seal Press, with Susan Raffo), published this fall.

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