A Georgian’s Ireland – An Irishman’s Diary about Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers inherited an ancestral connection with Ireland that she would grow up to romanticise
On the last of several visits here, she had just turned 50.
Alas, it probably hastened her demise. As a result, there are not one, but two, major anniversaries this year – she died in September 1967.
The Irish heritage came via her mother – a diminutive woman named Marguerite Waters – as did at least one of her bad habits. Waters (by then a Mrs Smith) shocked their straight-laced southern neighbours with her liberal parenting habits. When her daughter was a teenager, Marguerite liked to boast of how they always had “such a good time smoking together”.
The writer’s ambition was a maternal inheritance too.
Lulu Carson Smith, as McCullers was born, declared early on that she would be rich and famous. But Plan A was to do it as a concert pianist, in which cause she left home for New York, aged 17, with $500 “pinned to her underwear”.
According to a story recounted years later by her friend Tennessee Williams, her first lodgings were in a brothel, to the workings of which she was oblivious. Unfortunately, she trusted one of the staffers to show her how to get to the Juilliard School of Music.
Instead, Smith was abandoned in the subway, minus her tuition fees.
In any case, the first of what would be several bouts of illness persuaded her she didn’t have the stamina for a musical career. So she turned instead to literature. And like James Joyce, one of her heroes, she would spend the rest of her life writing about the place she had abandoned, in her case the American south.
Lulu Carson Smith, as McCullers was born, declared early on that she would be rich and famous
In her early 20s, she spent a year working on a book that, by her own admission, she didn’t understand. This appears not to have mattered. Published in 1940, when she was 23, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a classic account of the lives of misfits in a southern town. It was an instant commercial and literary sensation.
One the characters is a tomboyish teenage girl “Mick Kelly”. And this was at least partly autobiographical. As a successful author, the woman from Georgia became noted for, among other things, her androgynous dress and manner.
Despite marrying the same man twice, fellow writer Reeves McCullers, she also pursued many women, sometimes aggressively. But none of her lesbian liaisons were ever consummated, according to friends. She was still with her husband when he killed himself in a Paris hotel in 1953.
Her own health was by then very poor. A series of strokes had left her an “invalid” – in the language of the time – before she was 30. As with many writers, her self-medication included drinking a lot.
Her first visits to Ireland were in 1950. But then as later, she didn’t see much of the country. Her base was Bowen’s Court, the ancestral pile of fellow writer Elizabeth Bowen, who during a trip to New York may have invited her, but was disturbed at the alacrity with which she turned up.
This was another of McCullers’ doomed romances. She greatly admired the very reserved Bowen, but Bowen found her a “handful”. Nor did the distressed grandeur of the Cork mansion live up to the American’s hopes. She had planned to write there, but her muse was overwhelmed.
Undaunted, although in much worse health, she returned to Ireland in April 1967. This time she was guest of John Huston, who was filming one of her books in the US and who had also been surprised at her acceptance of a casual invitation to visit his Connemara home.
A series of strokes had left her an 'invalid' – in the language of the time – before she was 30
There were by now big logistical challenges. McCullers was paralysed. So before risking the transatlantic trip, she had to undergo physiotherapy and then road-test herself with a weekend in a New York hotel.
Once in Shannon, the plan was for a helicopter transfer to Galway. But when it was pointed out that her stretcher would have to be suspended under the aircraft, driving her was deemed safer. Huston afterwards admitted the trip shortened her life, but thought it worth the liberation it delivered her.
Among their visitors in Galway were this newspaper’s literary critic, Terence de Vere White, who was granted a bedside audience with McCullers. She smoked while talking to him and, like others, he was impressed at the contrast between her physique and personality.
Likening her to a “chrysalis”, he said he had never met anyone “so frail and alive”.