The full title of this recent book of nonfiction is My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, a memoir by Jenn Shapland. The author, now living here in Santa Fe, spent time living and working on this project in the McCullers House in Columbia, Georgia, which is open to serious scholars working on the subject. Within its walls, Shapland reviews material from the writer’s extensive archives – correspondence, diary entries, even notes of her therapy sessions with a woman who became the second true love of her life, neither of which were her husband, who had his own issues Shapland doesn’t ignore. Here she details the inadequacies and outright errors in the several biographies of McCullers, most especially the assumptions and arguments that she was heterosexual against all the signs to the contrary, some of which are based on evidence not as available to earlier writers as it was to Shapland, thanks to the passage of decades and the opening of the archives.
There and in the years that follow, Shapland pens a biography of McCullers that is equally an autobiography of herself, hence the subtitle. Her work on McCullers sends Shapland back through her own coming of age and maturing through her twenties, then to the frank realizations, informed acceptances and eventual celebrations of being both lesbian and lucky in love. As a person, like many, who has friends and close family members in every direction who are gay or lesbian or somewhere between there and straight, this aspect of the book was welcome and eye-opening. I’m not saying I knew nothing about all this, of course—I arrived in San Francisco in the 1980’s when the bathhouses were being closed because of an unidentifiable scourge eventually called AIDS, and lived there full time until recently. But here we are served true accounts, not of dealing with that scourge, but of growing up after the awakening it wrought and finding a place in the world, a process that is both enabled and informed by the relative openness of the social dialogue about sexuality these days. All of that is reason to celebrate, not the scourge, but the 21st Century atmosphere that allows people to be who they are now.
McCullers’s own story is worth the price of admission. Wickedly intelligent and very successful as an author, she had close friendships with Tennessee Williams and W.H. Auden; lived in “February House” in Brooklyn Heights with the likes of Anais Nin, Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wright; even met and helped Truman Capote get started. But Shapland largely steers clear of all this, to focus on the personal traumas, tribulations and triumphs of McCullers’s personal life—a life filled with talent but hampered by illness, sorting through her feelings and urges to find out who she was, burdened by the complications of dealing with all this in a society that kept homosexuality in the closet. Her two true loves, Annemarie in her youth, and her therapist Mary Carson later in life, figure prominently in the narrative.
Shapland doesn’t ignore McCullers’s husband, Reeves, whom she married twice but never really loved, and who was himself bisexual at a time when nobody talked about that. In drawing conclusions about Carson, Shapland is not afraid to disagree with the several biographies of the subject. Writing nonfiction of this sort often requires disputing what other writers have made of the record they’ve seen, and either concluding otherwise based on new evidence or drawing opposite conclusions from evidence that was there all along. Much of this feels like the product of both her hard work, and the relative freedom one has to tell the truth about these things these days.
This book surprised me and delighted me, right to the end. We learn so much about the mysterious and tortured writer McCullers; the utter failure of that society to accept alternative sexualities to the supposed “norm”; how devastating alcohol was to so many people in the mid-century creative community, and how much talent was burdened by all of this.
It’s a book I would normally shelve to read again, and I doubt I will let go of it unless someone I lend it to loses it. But one thing is certain: I’m going to find a copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter somewhere, and work my way through that and the rest of the McCullers catalogue in the months and years to come. And I look forward to Shapland’s next offering.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .