Jenn Shapland wasn’t particularly a fan of the writing of Carson McCullers, the American writer whose first novel was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but when she came across some of McCullers’ love letters, a particular journey began.
Discovered while Shapland was an intern in the archives at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, the letters were an exchange between McCullers and Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a Swiss writer who spent time in New York in the 1930s and 1940s.
The finding of such letters is significant to members of the queer community. We like to learn about others who are part of our “family.” As Shapland puts it: “It’s not all that important to me to define what it is to be a lesbian – constant shifting, the ever-new – but I can’t help but want to know who else is at the table with me, who I can call kin.”
The book is a stimulating approach to memoir, as Shapland explores the previously untold life of Carson McCullers while stepping into her own. As she says: “I kept coming out through my project.” The chapters are short, sometimes humorous, and contain facts, questions and reflections on queer life.
Shapland had a lot of material to sort through in her extensive research, including cataloging McCullers’ personal effects; living at her home, now a museum in Columbus, Georgia; and spending time at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York where McCullers spent time in the 1940s and in 1954.
“You have to read like a queer person, like someone who knows what it’s like to be closeted, and who knows how to look for reflections of your own experience in even the most unlikely places,” Shapland says of her innovative approach to this innovative work of non-fiction.
Shapland also went through transcripts of McCullers’ therapy sessions with Dr. Mary Mercer, with whom McCullers had a relationship beyond the professional one. She found other relationships with women which have not previously been described in biographies about McCullers. As Shapland says, the biographies discount the love of and friendships with various women in favor of her “tortured” relationship with Reeve McCullers, the man Carson “married and unmarried twice in her life.”
Shapland describes herself as a “chronically ill person” who is often bedridden. McCullers too had a variety of afflictions: strokes; temporary blindness; and (as Shapland says) the “trauma of being queer without the language or space to express it.”
The book begins with a question asked of McCullers by her husband Reeves. Was she a lesbian? She was uncertain of the term,“but she never denied her love for women,” Shapland writes. It ends with the various euphemisms Carson McCullers and her biographers used to describe her woman lovers. And with Shapland’s assertion: “I, for one, am weary of the refusal to acknowledge what is plainly obvious, plainly wonderful. Call it love.”