Carson McCuller’s Centenary

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Carson McCullers

I subscribe to the newsletter from Library of America and enjoy it quite a bit. Each week they send a short story on Monday morning. The one  I received last week was The Great Eaters of Georgia by Carson McCullers.

The southern author (of USA) Carson McCuller’s was born 100 years ago Sunday. As a very young person I had not heard of her. Then I saw the film The Heart is a Lonely Hunter  (1968 when I was in grade 12) with Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke. I have never forgotten it. It moved me greatly.  I then read the book and loved it as much. The book had a great deal more information in it as we have come to expect. Once read, seen and thought about it then disappeared from my mind. Last year our book club read it and all those memories came to the fore.

I read one of her short stories yesterday on her birthday.  The Great Eaters of Georgia is a memoir of her returning to Augusta, Georgia in 1953 from Paris when her marriage was breaking up. (Her husband soon died afterwards while she was in Georgia of alcoholism.)  She was raised in Georgia and revisited her childhood haunts. The old Victorian house she grew up in had been razed. When we move away from our childhood homes and revisit them many decades later there is seldom anything left that we remember. This was true of her too. ‘Memory ghosts’ haunt the streets.

She was able to meet her mother’s best friend Lillian Smith again. Lillian and Carson’s mother were like sisters. She  ran a girl’s camp on a remote mountain. They chatted about memories of her mother and the times they knew in younger days. snip20170220_2

She also mentioned Fort Benning, Georgia. Some of her memories included the black Americans picking cotton in the fields, eating watermelon outdoors and gathering pecans. The paragraph on how to anticipate the eating of a watermelon was mouth watering. She quotes,

“Some of the dearest memories of childhood concern the watermelon. It demands a special opera- tion and procedure. Ideally, it should be opened and eaten on a cool back porch with newspapers on the table. It should be frosty, cold to the touch on fevered summer days. When the man of the family is poised with the knife there should be a hush around the table, a breathless and pleasant anxiety. Then when the knife plunges there should be a faint crack of the splitting fruit, then the anxious craning to see if it is properly ripe. The inside should be round with delicate white frosting and the seeds quite black. After the pink part has been eaten the white part can be continued a little longer and the rind saved for pickling.”

When I was 11 years old my father went to military training in Ft Benning, Georgia and took our family with him.  We lived near the base for six months. She mentions looking for pecans. I remember my father driving us into the country when he had free time. We saw cotton picking, poor shareholder houses and yes, people sitting on the steps of the front porch eating watermelon. I found those times really interesting as life there was much different to fairly well off farmers in middle Michigan. I also remember when watermelons had big black seeds and great joy was had from spitting them at each other. My grandmother always told us if we ate the seeds they would grow in our bellies. We used to laugh so hard we would fall off the stoop we sat on.

My mother took us out in the car when my dad was working and we gathered pecans. Once playing with other children we caught a small snake and showed it to our parents. Michigan didn’t have poisonous snakes when we were children. We had heard not to touch black widow spiders we might see in window corners in Georgia but we didn’t know much about the poisonous copperhead or rattle snakes in Georgia at the time. We wondered why the tin can we had the small snake in was quickly thrown a good distance when we showed it to adults. It was a small copperhead.

She wrote of the manners and etiquette of the dinner hour and how much they ate. I heard about the table cloths of pure linen and the way the table was set. They used to have three large meals a day with the lunchtime meal being the largest. They ate all of my favourite southern foods. Grits, chicken, vegetables, pie.

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Stock photo

She referred to the Annie Dennis cookbook. I had not heard of it. She said she could never find one again. I had a look on abebooks.com as I thought it would be fun to find one. I found an old reprint of the cookbook from 1905 selling for $395.00. I don’t think I will own one though it is still in a reprint mode and one can buy it for much cheaper. Somehow I thought having the very old copy would be nice.

Carson McCuller’s went on to write several novels, short stories and essays. I don’t think I will ever forget her or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It is one of those books that get reread every few years and form part of a childhood.snip20161121_4

If you are interested in receiving an American short story a week you can sign up here.

http://storyoftheweek.loa.org

Have you read Carson McCullers? What did you think?

Author: travellinpenguin

I live in Tasmania, Australia. I ride a 350cc Piaggio scooter as I travel the state and sometimes the world searching for vintage Penguin books to add to my archive. My goal is to keep them out of landfill as they are wonderful old books. I travel, socialise, read a lot and have my friend the Travellin' Penguin who accompanies as I traverse through life and books.

8 thoughts on “Carson McCuller’s Centenary”

  1. A fascinating, eye-opening post about McCullers. I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when I was a very young teen. Too young!! I must pick it up again, and you’ve made an excellent case for it and for her writing. Very enjoyable. Thanks.
    Very glad to hear you’re soon to embark on an adventure to Japan. I have a friend who will be there for the month of April as well. Will look forward to reading about your travels.

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  2. Haha, Pam, I’m thinking of writing about this story – because I’ve written about a few LOA stories about food and dining – but decided this week to do the previous Kate Chopin one. I’ve read The heart is a lonely hunter, but in my teens or early 20s so don’t remember much except that I liked it. I look forward to reading this story about the Eaters!

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  3. I’ve never read her, but I really like the excerpt you quote here. I am late in coming to develop an interest in the American south, but recently I read a book by Walker Percy, The Moviegoer, set in New Orleans, and was intrigued by the French names and the atmosphere he conveys. Lately I’ve read Nine Lives by Dan Baum, accounts of people who have lived through both Hurricane Betsy and Hurricane Katrina.

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    1. Nine Lives sounds interesting. There seems there has always been a great deal to write about regarding the south in the U.S. When I was much younger I seemed to breathe books of the south. No idea why. Perhaps it was because it was so different than the north/midwest where I grew up before changing countries.

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  4. i must have been in my teens when i first started hearing her name… and i think i read one or two of her books, but it’s been so long… anyway, i think i sort of liked her writing but was rather mystified by it; at the time i was reading mainly science fiction… tx for the recommend; i’ll look her up the next time i’m in the library… those are amazing memories you have; the only time i’ve been in the south was when a fellow employee and i went to look at a gas compressor located in a swamp; we drove through small towns that looked like shacks and people in rags sitting around watching us drive through… intimidating and depressing at the time…

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