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The 100 Novels You Must Read Before You Write Your Own: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

By Shelly Lowenkopf, SBLJ Poetry editor

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Carson McCullers, 1940

This novel came into my life when a professor noticed my constant companion, The First Forty-nine Stories, by Ernest Hemingway. I had the seriousness only a nineteen-year-old in his first college creative writing class can contain.

“A word with you,” the professor said, “before you get carried away by-- ” he pointed to the Hemingway collection. “—this. Good as he is, you want more from Southern writers.”

At that point, I’d gone through all of Thomas Wolfe—ho hum—had a brief stop with Flannery O’Connor—much more like it—then decided Faulkner was near impenetrable. I reported this to the professor. He scribbled a name and title on my note pad. “Start here.” Thus came my first meeting with Carson McCullers and her remarkable ensemble of characters, satellites orbiting about the even more remarkable John Singer.

Whatever hold Hemingway had on me; he’d have to wait. I was swept up in the evocative mystique of John Singer, the deaf mute who before my eyes lost his lover, the obese and dreamy Greek, Spiros Antonapoulos, also a deaf mute, to the abyss of dementia. Here was an unexpected link to one of my favorite poems, “To a Louse,” written by one of my favored poets, Robert Burns. “O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!”

The incendiary moment of being able to see John Singer the way the other principals saw him, lit my imagination.

Soon, I was seeing John Singer as Mick Kelly, the tomboyish, music-loving narrator saw him, followed by Jake Blount, a driven, troubled labor organizer (who immediately made more sense to me than Hemingway’s politically idealistic Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls), then, Biff Brannon, the owner of the local diner where much of the novel’s encounters take place. At one point, while reading the narrative as seen through the eyes of Dr. Copeland, the black physician, in his own way as troubled and driven as Jake Blount, I paused to wonder if he were the intended lead character.

This last inner debate was no idle mid-term examination type of speculation. Well into my desire to create characters who were driven enough to carry the weight of narrative, I’d recently gone through the crucible of deciding Romeo was the lead character, even if the play was known as Romeo and Juliet. Within the pages of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I not only rooted for Mick Kelly, I identified with her.

When each of the successive narrators took stage to carry the story, I noted how important each was to the overall and continuing implications of Carson McCullers’ extraordinary design and her intelligent use of language as a guide to the interior regions of each character.

Who is the lead character here? The answer: yes. The multiple point of view, as executed in this novel, was for me the equivalent of the legendary apple, conking Newton on the head. Much as I admired the potentials for conflict and suspense in the plot-driven story, this novel became my advocate for the picaresque aspects of story toward which I was gravitating. Instead of the roller coaster causality of the plot-driven narrative, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter taught me how story best takes hold when a group of strong, yearning characters, each somehow caught up in a situation, each believes he or she has the right course of action.

Each of Carson McCullers’ characters saw in John Singer aspects of themselves. In his sincere and naïve wonderment at how this could be so, John Singer saw within himself the unspoken anguish, frustration, and dignity he saw in them.

Soon after allowing the thematic and technique-related aspects of this novel to percolate, I was able to approach William Faulkner through his monumental pair, As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, with monumental results. My tour guide, Carson McCullers.

A distinguished writing teacher and author, as well as the journal's poetry editor, Shelly is presenting the novels that intrigued and mesmerized him into wishing to join the ranks of published writers.

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