Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mutual Admiration: Carson McCullers and Richard Wright

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 Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.

- Richard Wright, New Republic (August, 1940)

When Carson McCullers published The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1940, novelist Richard Wright wrote a glowing review of the book. Wright had also published his first novel, Native Son, that same year.

Editor George Davis, who shared a Brooklyn Heights house with McCullers and other artists at 7 Middagh Street, invited Wright to a combination birthday party, housewarming and Thanksgiving celebration.

"My friend Carson McCullers was so deeply touched by your review of her book and is most anxious to meet you," George wrote.

Wright was unable to make the party. Two years later, he, his wife Ellen Poppel and infant daughter Julia moved in with McCullers and her house mates. 7 Middagh was named "February House" by diarist Anais Nin for the several residents --W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, George Davis, and Carson McCullers--born in the month of February.

Wright found a friend in McCullers. The racism of the outside world did not intrude on the community inside February House. However, a black man, his white wife, and their baby daughter raised eyebrows in the neighborhood. Stones were thrown at the windows of February House. Wright was encountered by the coal deliverer, also African African, who refused to offer service to someone of his own race.

A year later, Carson McCullers began to decline from alcoholism and persistent poor health. Wright noticed the self-destructive change in her behavior and decided it was time for him and his family to leave February House especially for the sake of his daughter.

Carson McCullers counted Richard Wright's Black Boy (published 1945) as one of her favorite books. She wrote in her unfinished autobiography....

Another writer who was particularly dear to me is Richard Wright. … Dick and I often discussed the South, and his book, [Black Boy,] is one of the finest books by a Southern [Negro.]

To read Richard Wright's full review of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, visit

The Big Read - D.C. and its community partner Chapters Literary Arts Center looks forward to hosting Sherill Tippins, author of February House in May. Check the Big Read - D.C. calendar in April at

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