Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Adventure classics -- Longing to belong to the 'we of me'

The Member of the Wedding

by Carson McCullers


Carson McCullers had good reason to feel bitter about fellow Southern writer Harper Lee’s immediate entry into the club of successful writers. Lee achieved the feat with the instant acclaim for her first novel. It took McCullers three tries to achieve similar success with The Member of the Wedding, and not until the book’s adaptation as a play and movie was she able to gain financial independence as a writer.

Both McCullers’ and Lee’s stories about lonely girls struggling to understand life in a South paralyzed by rigid racial segregation. Both Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding and Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird are raised by black housekeepers after the deaths of their mothers, leaving their rather detached fathers pursued their own careers. The similarities seem to justify McCullers’ quip about Lee “poaching” on her literary territory.

What sets them apart is the size of their canvas. McCullers wrote deep where Lee wrote broad. The world continues to celebrate Lee’s novel while McCullers’ jeweled miniature has become what The Guardian’s Tom Cox termed an overlooked classic.

“It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. . . Frankie had become an enjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid,” McCullers begins.

Even while Frankie affects to despise the tiny world she knows, her longing to become a member of something bigger than herself, some “we of me,” leads to her tragicomic fascination with her brother’s impending marriage. She will spend the entire preceding walking around her small town, telling the story of the wedding to every stranger she meets, longing “to be known for her true self and recognized.”

Of course, no one recognizes her true self, not even Frankie. Certainly not the drunken soldier whose attentions leave the reader gasping in horror but Frankie herself still innocent enough to believe she can accompany her brother and his bride on their honeymoon.

McCullers deals gently with Frankie’s final agony as the married pair leave without her. “The rest was like some nightmare show in which a wild girl in the audience breaks onto the stage to take upon herself an unplanned part that was never written or meant to be,” leaving Frankie heartbroken, and still longing as her creator would all her life for that elusive “we of me.”

Although still in her twenties when The Member of the Wedding was published in 1946, McCullers was almost as broken as Frankie. A bout with rheumatic fever in her teens was followed by a series of paralyzing strokes. At barely twenty, she married another aspiring young writer, Reeves McCullers, already teetering on the verge of alcoholism. She and Reeves would divorce, remarry and separate for the last time when she refused to join him in a suicide pact.

Knowing her dubious health, McCullers must have doubly envied Lee in 1960 -- a healthy young woman with success and the prospect of a long career ahead of her. But though McCullers was dead at fifty and Lee at 87 is still strong enough to have won a suit this month over the literary rights of To Kill a Mockingbird, she has yet to publish another book.

For a discussion of McCullers’ life and work, I liked Virginia Spencer Carr’s introduction to Carson McCullers: Collected Stories.

(Next Wednesday, in a September devoted to young protagonists, a young man learns about love, death and friendship in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.)

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