by Alexis Sharbel
When I think of Carson McCullers, two words come to mind: beautiful and chaotic. McCullers was so fluent in her writing and descriptions; one feels connected not only to her characters, but also to McCullers herself. Part of that feeling is because McCullers often included personal elements—including the frustrations and confusion she often experienced—in her writing. To help understand this, particularly McCullers’s use of queer identities in her fiction, one must first look at her life as well as her writing.
Carson McCullers was born as Lula Carson Smith in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia. She changed her name to simply Carson Smith when she moved to New York. Carson originally moved to New York to attend Julliard to pursue a career in music, mostly the piano. She then became Reeves McCullers in 1937. McCullers was known for her struggles with rheumatic fever, which caused her to experience multiple strokes and physical issues. This is part of the reason as to why McCullers strayed from music and pursued her passion for writing. Most of her best novels and stories were written while she was in the throes of sickness and sometimes bedridden.
Carson McCullers was married for only four years before the two separated. The main issue that occurred while they were together: they both were alcoholics and suffered reoccurring depression. They also both identified themselves as bisexual. This part of McCullers life was “destructive,” as she and her husband were both very sexually active with men and women alike. They also were somewhat in competition with their writing, and often Carson was in the lead. They divorced in 1941, largely due to jealousy and competition. Both Carson and Reeves fell in love with the same man, David Diamond, which caused Carson and Reeves to tear apart while competing for Diamond’s love.
McCullers’s writing can be described as beautiful, relatable, and influential. While incorporating real life experiences, McCullers had the ability to show readers the significance of learning how to understand who they were. It is one of the many things that set McCullers apart from the other writers at that time.
McCullers’s first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), is about six individuals who take solace in a deaf mute boy. At the heart of this novel are profound themes of “loneliness and isolation.” This novel is important for a number of reasons. As a young woman who just started professionally writing, this novel was a piece of art. It was not taken lightly that McCullers was capable of such poetic greatness at such a young age. It is also important for a very odd reason. One character was unfortunately cut from the novel before it was published. The name of that character is Lily Mae Jenkins, a homosexual, African American man who often cross-dresses. During the time period in which this novel was published, same-sex relationships were looked down upon. For this reason, McCullers’s publisher cut off this pivotal character. Harold Bloom describes Lily Mae as serving “an example of the isolated, shunned, and lonely character; an emblem of the fundamental isolated nature of all humans.” Most importantly, Lily Mae served as a crutch. Jenkins was meant to be a “distraction” from the other character’s own reality. Carson McCullers would remain to use Lily Mae as an example in future novels, such as The Member of the Wedding (1946).
The Member of the Wedding is one of the most important novels of McCullers’ career. The novel is about a young pre-teen who is trying to find her place in the world. The novel is important because it explores a very intimate topic for McCullers, which is that of conformity to gender roles. The main character, Frankie Addams, changes her name multiple times using both masculine and feminine uses of the name Frances and also the name Jasmine. She also has a boy’s haircut and is often considered “rough” and “mean.” All of these things are signs that Frankie challenges her gender role as a female. Through her fiction, such as The Member of the Wedding, McCullers wanted to show people that exploring their mind and actions was okay. She believed that people could gradually understand and express their sexuality, and she understood that people cannot continue to see gender as exclusively binary.
Another piece from McCullers is titled The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951). This novel is about a complicated love triangle filled with “jealousy and obsession.” This triangle is said to be inspired by the triangle between McCullers, her husband, and Diamond. While using her own personal struggles, McCullers was able to explore same-sex love between the characters Marvin and Lymon, though readers cannot be certain of what type of infatuation existed between the two.
For Carson McCullers, writing was not merely a way to make money; she made art. McCullers did not believe that gender should be defined by society, which she expressed through her writing. Carson McCullers used great understanding to get to the hearts of those who have lost themselves. She showed the lost that it is okay to feel isolated. Through isolation, the lost can find themselves and their freedom. McCullers’s writing will forever be a guide to those who are beginning to learn and accept themselves, whether it involves their gender, race, or status.
 Dews, Carlos. "Carson McCullers (1917-1967)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. N.p., 04 Sept. 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2016.
 McKinnie, Betty E. and Carlos L. Dews. “The Delayed Entrance of Lily Mae Jenkins: Queer Identity, Gender Ambiguity, and Southern Ambivalence in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding.” Carson McCullers. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009. Print. 88.