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.
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.
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.
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Have you read Carson McCullers? What did you think?