French biographer Savigneau (Marguerite Yourcenar, 1993) paints a compassionate, almost overly generous portrait of the Southern novelist and playwright who created an impressive if limited oeuvre despite comprehensive medical problems.
Savigneau begins in 1964 with 47-year-old McCullers arriving after much urging from friends (those few her persistently adolescent behavior hadn’t yet alienated) at the door of psychotherapist Mary Mercer. “It seemed,” writes the author, “the writer inside her had died.” The narrative then turns to 1917, the year Lula Carson Smith was born in Columbus, Georgia, and adopts a firm chronology thereafter. Young Carson’s hometown was not a cradle for unconventional behavior (her specialty), so she suffered the sort of lonely, estranged youth she would later refashion into such novels as The Member of the Wedding and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. In the early 1930s, she went to New York City and by sheer persistence began placing stories in magazines. In 1932, she suffered her first attack of rheumatic fever (improperly diagnosed) and commenced a long physical decline which Savigneau chronicles with sad precision: strokes, breast cancer, fractures, pneumonia—she endured them all, as she did a stormy, alcoholic relationship with Reeves McCullers, whom she married twice and who took his own life in 1953. (His ex-wife died in 1967.) Savigneau is McCullers’s advocate; she takes on the late writer’s previous biographers and critics, including playwright Arthur Miller, whom she chastises for considering McCullers a minor writer. Lengthy quotes from European critics and friends provide an interesting international perspective on McCullers’s life, but the biographer’s decision to allow others to speak at length in her book is not always a happy one. Too many quotations from minor players consume entire pages, effectively silencing or at least muffling Savigneau’s amiable and capable voice.
A partisan but convincing view of McCullers as a volcanic writer with the imagination and technique to transform her adolescent eruptions into lyricism and loveliness. (b&w photo insert, not seen)