"All men seek for Thee"
— Mark 1:37
As Southern Gothic Literature goes, it typically must have an element of religion. Not for teaching or preaching, but because religion in the South of the early 20th Century was simply a way of life. In "Wise Blood" by Flannery O'Connor, Hazel Motes is valiantly searching for answers to questions that even he is afraid to voice. In her 1940 debut novel, "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter," Columbus, Georgia's Carson McCullers is in hot pursuit of the root cause of loneliness. Her characters find a "sounding board" in the deaf/mute character of John Singer. While we read, we discover that as humans we all genuinely want our voices to be heard.
Lula Carson Smith was born in 1917. As a child, Lula had two talents: piano playing (the dream of "Lonely Hunter" tomboy character Mick) and writing. Graduating in 1934, Smith came to New York City to study at Julliard. As fate would have it, Smith lost her savings on the subway. So she worked and took night classes until she fell ill with rheumatic fever. After a recuperative trip back to her hometown, Smith returned to the city to study writing at Columbia under Dorothy Scarborough (who in 1925 wrote the harrowing "The Wind," which was turned into a classic film starring Lillian Gish) and Sylvia Chatfield Bates (writer of 1921's "The Golden Answer"). Bates was an early champion of Smith's first work "Wunderkind" (1936). In 1937, Smith married another aspiring writer, Reeves McCullers. Moving to Charlotte, NC, the couple made a promise. One would write, while the other worked to support the family. When one finished their novel, then the other would get their turn at writing.
At 23, McCullers finished her first work in 1940. Upon its release, "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" was a sensation. McCullers novel spoke to nearly everyone who read it. (Critics were of course mixed). In its time, McCullers' work communicated a world that everyone either still in the Depression or coming out of it could comprehend. Her unnamed Southern mill town is a microcosm of the growth problems about to plague post-WWII America. Perhaps, the reason it worked so well in both 1940 and even today, is that McCullers' vision of daily life (captured here in multiple vignettes) is uncompromising.
On the surface, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" could be read as an allegory. However, to reduce her well-developed characters to "representations" of the struggles of class, race, economics, and gender is to sand down the rough edges that make them so vivid and human. The esteemed Richard Wright said in 1973, "To me the most impressive aspect of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Black characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race."
McCullers' characters are in conflict both inside themselves and outside with the world. The character that is closest to the author, the young girl Mick Kelly is coming to terms with dreams that are out of reach and feeling different than the rest of her family. Her place is typically outside of the family circle. When there are too many guests for dinner, Mick is told she will eat in the kitchen. While she does not fight this, one senses that these events and other frustrations are stacking up.
Dr. Copeland is perhaps the character who is in the most turmoil as an African-American doctor knowledge is everything. However, like old philosophers, his professed "love to man" does not extend to religion. As his expertly drawn-out daughter, Portia tells us Dr. Copeland is a changed man becoming "agnostic" and unhappy with children who are sweet and loving - but blissfully unaware of the conflict heading their way. In hindsight, a lot of the frustration echoes the debate between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington from years earlier.
Everyone in the book has a "catalyst" for change. While a character may be happy with not being lonely (for example, Portia and her brother Willie and husband Highboy are admired for living together and taking care of each other), when change is introduced, the supposed return of loneliness is cause for visible unhappiness.
Once set into motion, this visible unhappiness spreads. In Biff Brannon's New York Cafe, the presence of Jake Blount sets him on edge while watching his restaurant and his wife Alice, who is sleeping upstairs as well. Blount represents the true outsider. Welcomed into Biff's cafe spending money, Blount has overstayed his welcome and become the proverbial "unwelcome guest." When Blount suffers his drunken/provoked breakdown and bashes his head into a wall, it is telling that he covers his lips so that no one can see how they are trembling.
Our main character is John Singer, a deaf/mute watch engraver (McCullers' father was a watch repairman who moved his family to Columbus from Tuskegee, Alabama). What is significant about Singer is his relationship with his best friend, Spiros Antonapoulos "humanizes" him and puts the real-world spin on him first. Singer's loss of Antonapoulos, who colors his entire life gray. In his restlessness (and loneliness again), he moves to the boarding house that Mick Kelly's family runs. In addition, two blocks away, he dines three times a day at Biff Brannon's New York Cafe. Here Singer is unknowingly putting himself around people, a world he has really never known.
His presence and clear-eyed attentive look at this world draw all the outcasts to him. Blount is eager to talk to him, only learning when Singer takes him back to his boarding house room that he is deaf/mute. In the whirlwind of nursing her siblings and being largely ignored, Mick finds solace in him. Biff Brannon visits him first out of curiosity - as the only one to truly ask Singer about himself. However, as we discover, Brannon's "guilt" may be hiding other feelings.
For all its heated debate over racial identity, gender roles, and capitalism v. socialism, those discussions are the veneer for a world that is growing more and more lonely. Prior to the Great Depression, immigration from Europe was steadily on the rise with two peaks before WWI and two following it. When the economy collapsed in 1929, immigration was at a standstill. As the cities filled to capacity, the later waves traveled South to their cities and towns. Greeks like Antonapoulos even settled here in Mississippi.
As the nation was suffering through the Depression, the struggle for employment and even to get along took towns like McCullers' in the book into a period of stasis and a period of change. While McCullers could not predict four decades of negative immigration were on the way, the existence of those you did not know or did not agree with as the dreaded "other" was in motion. The abandonment of rural towns for larger cities for work created lives lived mostly in anonymity. While Singer is deaf/mute, the routine of his daily life almost prevents him from interacting with people. Dr. Copeland is castigated for his non-belief by a culture that is largely God-fearing. It is only natural that both of these individuals would have to lead lonely, almost ascetic lives. The more social creatures Mick Kelly, Biff Brannon, and Jake Blount feel as if they are "forgotten." Mick is lost in feeling "different" in her own family. Biff is made to feel "different" in his marriage. Blount is "different" because of his heritage and beliefs.
In the most interesting turn in the book (not spoiling it either), Singer comes up with the idea that all of his new friends should meet. So, he arranges that they all visit him at the same time - and they barely say a word to each other. Their almost messianic (as critics often say) worship of Singer is their commonality. However, they all walk away - preferring instead to be heard by Singer and perhaps receive no response for their innermost thoughts.
"The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" is a deeply thought-provoking work, with so many facets that are still in play in smaller more personal portions in Literature today. McCullers had a definite voice for character development and storytelling, but most impressively was writing about the conflicts that would engulf American society for years to come. While you read it you may never be certain as to who is more right than the other, but through her Southern Gothic masterwork, we can all agree that the lonely road remains the most arduous path to take.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.
New This Week
HEAVY GUS - Notions [LP/CD](BMG Rights Mgmt)
California's Dorota Szuta leads her scrappy trio into Nineties Pop/Rock with the same character-like work of Mattiel. Szuta's idea of love is a collection of the wild peaks (the burning hot "Weird Sad Symbol") and valleys (the sweet dashed expectations of "Dinner For Breakfast"). Aided by pros Stelth Uvlang of the Lumineers and Blind Pilot drummer Ryan Dobrowski, "Notions" hangs all of its promise on Szuta's great songwriting ideas and works.
WILLI CARLISLE - Peculiar, Missouri [LP](Free Dirt)
Eschewing AAA/Americana production and going old style with Louisiana's Joe Savoy, Willi Carlisle shows some real promise as a throwback Folkie. He can pound away on his banjo and sweetly howl like Pete Seeger ("Your Heart's A Big Tent"). Waltz with the best of them on the tears-in-your-beer Marty Robbins-esque travelogue ("Life On The Fence"). Tell a brilliant story that you have never heard anyone else do ("Tulsa's Last Magician"). When Carlisle slims his lyrics down, his voice could be another one everyone talks about like Colter Wall, Charley Crockett, and Vincent Neil Emerson.
HEALING POTPOURRI - Paradise [LP/CD](Run For Cover)
Simi Sohota worked with High Llamas Sean O'Hagan on this brilliant Beach Boys-esque Sixties-flavored Pop. Sohota's songs are simple in lyrical structure ("What Do I Do Now?) so that they can be spun in a zillion directions with bells, horns, and enough countermelodies to make Brian Wilson smile. "Wind" flirts with Yacht Rock but finds its way back harmonious to those Wilson-esque peaks.
(KINDA) NEW MUSIC THIS WEEK
GLASS ANIMALS - Dreamland [GLOW IN THE DARK LP/2CD](Republic)
What a strange odyssey for this record. After a year on the charts (where it should have been in the crucial "Song of the Summer" sweepstakes), when "Heat Waves" was reinstated it reached #1 after 59 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. Now a worldwide #1 and still in rotation, Glass Animals have reissued the vinyl and added an extra CD of remixes and new versions with guest spots by Arlo Parks, Denzel Curry, Diplo, Albert Hammond, Jr., and more.
BAD BUNNY - Un Verano A Ti [CD](Bad Bunny)
Forget all the hype around every album that gets drummed to the stars before its must-hear Thursday 11PM release (truth's out!). While Harry Styles continues to hold his own, and Kendrick will likely tour longer on another brilliant album, Bad Bunny is your chart king in 2022. No offense to Beyonce, but Bad Bunny here even bested her numbers during her opening frame by 22 million Spotify streams. In fact, out of the 23 cuts on this album, only two are not over 100 million plays (yet). Boasting four Top 10 singles, "Un Verano A Ti" is a sizzling hot Latin Hip/Hop album. What is most impressive is how much he uses Reggaeton, Cumbia, and all the Caribbean rhythms in his music. While the production may mirror American Hip-Hop (notably, his processed voice), he strips it all down occasionally (the driving "Despues de la Playa) and burns so many serious Summer jams ("Titi Me Pregunto" is both massive beats and fueled by his personality). Finally, this week he gets the biggest promo boost - a role in the late Summer blockbuster "Bullet Train."
PRIMUS - Conspiranoia EP [WHITE LP](ATO)
On their first new music in six years, Les Claypool and company visit some very Pink Floyd-ian places on the lengthy title track. The funky "Follow The Fool" and the tense "Erin On The Side of Caution" are closer to the weirder years of "Brown Album" and "Tales From The Punchbowl." Claypool's basslines are as serpentine as ever, but the myriad of effects he runs them through makes the whole experience worth a listen at peak volume.
REISSUE OF THE WEEK
THIN LIZZY - Black Rose: A Rock Legend [LP](Music on Vinyl)
Phil Lynott was a man of the people — whether those people accepted him for who he was or not. Long before "The Rocker" was celebrated with a statue in his native Dublin, Lynott led Thin Lizzy from Jimi Hendrix-ian guitar rock to anthemic worldwide stardom. However, all along the way when you listen closely to the songs emerging from Lynott's pen - they are uniquely personal. "Sarah" here is written both for his grandmother and newborn daughter. It largely carries the hope that Lynott is the proverbial changed man. Since 1975's "Fighting," Thin Lizzy had been amazingly consistent. This may/may not have been the result of Lynott taking over as leading writer and relegating his twin guitar gods Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham to melodic creation. However what was evident by 1976's "Johnny The Fox" and the leaner 1977 album "Bad Reputation," Lynott's alcohol and drug use were making things harder. Robertson was once again replaced by Gary Moore, and it looked like the Thin Lizzy of old was back. "Toughest Street In Town," "Waiting For An Alibi" and the thunderous "Do Anything You Want To" were perfect fits for the canon. However, the punchy second side was where the real change in Lynott was becoming far more evident. The diamond-hard "Got To Give It Up" was both a Dionysian celebration and a bleak confession of what needed to be said. "S&M" was even darker. "Get Out of Here" even proclaims "Pack up. I've had enough/That's it/I quit" and the desperate claim that "a dreamer doesn't stand a chance at all," before "With Love" draws the curtain on a relationship. With nowhere else to go, "Black Rose" ends with seven minutes of traditional songs entangled into "Róisín Dubh" as Lynott and the band either retreat to a druggy dreamworld or rifle through the past for the answers to where to go next.