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My Autobiography of Carson McCullers: A highly complex woman pared down

Book review: Jenn Shapland’s book is more about her own story rather than her subject’s

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
Author: Jenn Shapland
ISBN-13: 978-1947793286
Publisher: Tin House Books
Guideline Price: £17.79

The reader who knows little about Carson McCullers might easily assume that Jenn Shapland’s memoir is ground-breaking in exposing McCullers, once celebrated as the new Steinbeck, as a closet lesbian: “If Carson was a lesbian, and if her relationships bore that out, wouldn’t someone already have said so? Wouldn’t it be known beyond rumours in the queer community?”

Well, yes it would. And, indeed, it was and is.

McCullers’s lesbianism and gender non-conforming behaviours might have been spoken about in limited circles during her lifetime, but that hasn’t been the case for a long time and if, as suggested by Shapland, biographers have sanitised the story of McCullers’s sexuality, then there are many more scholars who have not. Shapland acknowledges that “many of the details of Carson’s lesbian life are right there, in plain sight. It’s just that they are housed within another narrative: the straight narrative” .

In truth, Shapland’s book has very little to do with McCullers, as woman or writer, and everything to do with Shapland’s own story. McCullers’s role here is that of a hook for Shapland to hang that story on. In essence, the book is a highly personalised treatise on identifying and explicitly naming lesbian culture, and McCullers is incidental in what is otherwise a very interesting and innovative work.

The problem I have is with Shapland’s attempt to rescue/retrieve/reconstruct McCullers as a lesbian at the cost of shutting out anyone or anything that might not “fit” the brief. The overall effect is a body of writing that is not only utterly uncritical in its approach, but claustrophobic, evangelical, discourteous, and downright mean-spirited: “Georgia is basically a swamp”, the McCullers Centre “dusty” with “bad wine”, “intrusive visitors”, “aloof archivists”, and an inexplicable level of shock that the writer’s home was in its original state (“I hadn’t quite grasped that I would be living in a museum”).

If Shapland’s aim was to open McCullers and her work to a broader, less conservative reading than had existed, then, in my opinion, she failed spectacularly. What she has produced is a closed, subjective, pared-down version of a highly complex woman.

Letters

During an internship in 2012 at the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas at Austin, Shapland came across a series of letters, known to scholars, sent to McCullers, between 1941 and 1942, from Swiss journalist and photographer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, with whom McCullers was infatuated. Shapland believed she was reading love letters, but McCullers’s responses were missing. She “immediately, without articulating a reason, wanted to know everything about them both”.

The reading of these letters forms the crux of the narrative of this book, which goes something like this: Shapland, a self-described “child of the snobbish Midwest”, found Clarac-Schwarzenbach’s letters to McCullers at the end of her own “catastrophic” twenties. The catastrophe included a six-year closeted lesbian relationship, a realisation, in year two of a six-year PhD, that she was already bored sick with the academy, and that she also wasn’t cut out to be an archivist. Under pressure, she slept with one of her professors, and ended the six-year relationship with her “room-mate”. She was 25, and couldn’t figure out what came next until “what came next was Carson”. Within a week of finding the letters, she had cut her hair. Within a year she was “more or less comfortable” calling herself a lesbian. Four years later she lived for a month in the childhood home of McCullers, and soon after moved from Texas to New Mexico, with her new love: “Retrospect redefines everything in its path, and I am as hesitant to ascribe steady narrative meaning to my own life as to any other’s. But I suppose we could call those letters a turning point.”

Episodic

Shapland has created an episodic structure for the book, which is perfectly in keeping with her hesitancy over ascribing meaning to any life via a “steady narrative”. There are no fewer than 80 “episodes”, which move between Shapland’s life and that of McCullers’s life and writing: some episodes are just a few words, some a few lines, and some a couple of pages. If I had to name it, I would place the work in the relatively new sub-genre of critical autobiography in which, as Galen Strawson suggests, we see ourselves as: episodic selves… namely as subjects that gain self-knowledge in bits and pieces.

Clearly, Shapland recognised aspects of her own life reflected in that of McCullers’s: “Perhaps this is what I saw, from the start, in Carson: a familiarly protracted becoming”. Both women lived with chronic illness, both felt like outsiders because of their sexuality and illnesses, and both sought answers through therapy: “Therapy has a lot in common with memoir. It’s telling your story. I first visited a therapist the same spring I found the Annemarie letters. In the therapist’s office I said… ‘I seem to have lost the narrative thread of my life... I just don’t know what the narrative is anymore’. What I was trying to say, I think, was that I didn’t know how to talk my way through talk therapy without a story I could comprehend, a narrative logic into which I could insert my actions and my feelings.”

Later, Shapland reflects on this time: “When I finally came out… two years after my narrative breakdown… it felt like an embrace of this kind of rupture. To open myself, my life to queerness was to eradicate the hewn path that had lain before me since I knew anything.”

Many of the issues Shapland touches on in this book are important, not least the existence of a long history of women’s relationships not being spoken about, or not being named as lesbianism, or disguised by other names. But most topics are left undigested: gender identity as performance is central, whilst current gender theory debates – which are more than touched on in one of the episodes – are left dangling. However, this book isn’t about providing answers or, even, intellectual engagement: “Through her relationships with other women, I can trace the evidence of Carson’s becoming, as a woman, as a lesbian, and as a writer.” Perhaps Shapland did trace “evidence”, we just never get to see any of it.

Dr Rebecca Pelan is a retired academic. She lives in Dublin and was the 2011-2012 M M Fort Visiting Scholar at Columbus State University, Columbus, Georgia. She is the author of Real Journeys of the Imagination: Carson McCullers and Ireland. Irish Journal of American Studies Issue 3 (2014).