Jenn Shapland: My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill
How do you tell a story that you believe someone was never able to tell?
Jenn Shapland answers this midway through her first book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, which she’ll read from at Flyleaf Books on February 12.
“To tell another person’s story,” she writes, “a writer must make that person some version of herself, must find a way to inhabit her.”
Shapland’s memoir accomplishes this by weaving her own process of self-discovery with that of her subject. Her interest in the writer began in 2012, when she was interning at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, where some of McCullers’s material is archived. She’d never read any of McCullers’s writing, but upon stumbling across a set of fiercely tender letters between the author and a woman named Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Shapland was transfixed.
In these letters, Shapland saw a queer side of the Southern author, which has always been known but never explored in depth. She also began to work through transcripts from McCullers’s therapy sessions with a woman named Mary Mercer.
In McCullers’s photos, letters, and transcripts, formative relationships with these two women flicker just below the surface, never fully seeing the light of day.
Shapland also began to see her own experience—a childhood in a small town, struggles with chronic illness, evolving queer desire—reflected in the research. Soon, newly in her first relationship with a woman, she found herself staying at McCullers’s childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, ordering takeout pizza and taking long, possibly forbidden baths in the family tub. The resulting memoir is a fluid, fragmentary blend of archival research and personal storytelling that pays homage to the complexity of queer narratives.
McCullers, a playwright and novelist of outcasts and misfits in the deep South, was born in 1917. Upon marrying Reeves McCullers—an ex-Army man and failed writer who was often given false credit for her work—at the age of 20, she moved with him to North Carolina, first to Charlotte and then to Fayetteville, where McCullers finished The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
The debut novel won instant acclaim; in The New Republic, Richard Wright wrote that the book possessed “astonishing humanity” and a despair that was “unique and individual.” She was 23.
As a literary persona, McCullers cut an eccentric figure: In photographs, her lounging posture is as leisurely and lugubrious as her drawl. She died at the age of 50, and during her life experienced chronic illnesses, a tumultuous marriage, the suicide of her husband, and—as Shapland would have it—a sexuality she was never able to fully inhabit. She was deeply in touch with loneliness and longing, and her writing is threaded with brutal truths about reciprocity.
“Most of us would rather love than be loved,” she wrote in The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories. “Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many.”
McCullers’s feelings for Schwarzenbach—a tempestuous figure who, in the letters, seems much more interested in being beloved than returning the favor—were largely unrequited. With Mercer, whom McCullers began therapy with at age 41, there appears to have been more mutual affection. In Illumination and Night Glare, McCullers’s unfinished autobiography, she writes that meeting Mercer was “the happiest and most rewarding experience of her life” and made her “awash in the joy of self-revelation.”
Still, Shapland says that biographers have never made much of McCullers’s relationships with women. In the posthumously published autobiography, her correspondence with Schwarzenbach was omitted entirely, despite McCullers’s explicit wish that it be included.
“It was her retroactive closeting by peers that I found most disturbing,” Shapland writes. “If Carson was not a lesbian, if none of these women were lesbians according to history, if indeed there is hardly a lesbian history, do I exist?”
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers draws that history to the surface, queering the text with an experimental, sinuous style that honors the nonlinearity of McCullers’s own experience. Shapland is an informal writer, but her genre-blurring search for the self is serious. At no point does she claim to be an objective or reliable narrator: As she sinks into McCullers’s bathtub, she is making good on her promise to inhabit the writer.
The result is raw and a little messy, like a paper cut, but that’s as it should be. McCullers’s writing is also raw and messy. Her characters flicker at the edges, lonely, homesick for love, unable to articulate their desires or step fully into the frame. They yearn. Their writer does, too.
Contact deputy arts + culture editor Sarah Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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