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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson…
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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

by Carson McCullers

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This is one of a pile of Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s I inherited from my father. Some of his collection I wasn’t interested in, but I kept many – including four by Carson MCullers: The Member of the Wedding I read a while ago but wasn’t that impressed; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is her first full-length novel and probably her best-known work, and I liked it a great deal more; still to come are Clock Without Hands and a collection, The Mortgaged Heart. A pair of deaf and dumb men (referred to throughout as “mutes”; actually, one is only deaf, but speaks so infrequently everyone assumes he is unable to do so), live in a small town somewhere in Georgia in the 1930s. One of the two men becomes mentally ill and is sent away to an asylum. The other, Singer, moves into a boarding-house and becomes a sort of listening post for a variety of characters, who come to talk at him and relax in his company. There’s something obviously Christ-like about Singer, although McCullers never quite makes it explicit. The novel actually focuses on four of Singer’s “friends”: a teenage girl who loves music, a drunken labour activist, the widowed owner of a local café, and a black doctor who is a communist and preaches Marxism to his family at Christmas. I enjoyed this a great deal more, and thought it much better, than the earlier MCullers novel I’d read. There was apparently a film made of it, which changed the setting to the 1960s. Not sure how that would work… ( )
  iansales | Apr 21, 2016 |
From the back cover: “At its center is the deaf-mute John Singer, who becomes the confidant for various misfits in a southern mill town during the 1930’s. Each one yearns for escape from small-town life. When Singer’s mute companion goes insane, Singer moves into the Kelly house, where Mick Kelly, the book’s heroine (loosely based on McCullers), finds solace in her music. Brilliantly attuned to spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition, and with a deft sense for racial tensions in the South, McCullers spins a haunting, unforgettable story that gives voice to the rejected, the forgotten, and the mistreated – and through Mick Kelly, to the quiet, intensely personal search for beauty.”

I find there is quite a bit of commentary about the novel being about loneliness, and it’s true. Singer longs to be with his friend and fellow deaf-mute again. Doctor Copeland longs to lead his fellow African-Americans out of the darkness, and while having their best intentions always in mind, is stiff and cannot connect personally to them. Jake Blount feels oneness with all races and longs to tell others the truth about capitalism and affect change, but cannot control his alcoholism. Biff impassively looks on at the customers in his café and begins to feel attraction for Mick, someone he can never have legally or morally, and in addition to that, because she dislikes him. Mick and the others are all drawn to Singer, imagining him to have qualities he doesn’t, simply because he listens and is good-natured. There is indeed real loneliness here.

However, I think the novel is more about being poor, and I think McCullers did several brilliant things in her debut novel. The first was in all of her small observations about what the conditions of poverty will have people do – the novel is full of these genuine, authentic touches. She’s also quite good at understanding the psychology of her characters. I found her understanding of older men to be remarkable, particularly as she was a 23-year-old woman when she wrote this. Lastly, she makes the case that the American dream is phony when so few are rich and so many are poor, a message that was appropriate in 1940, and still rings true loud and clear today.

Some of this was natural as America was just coming out of the Great Depression, and indeed we see some of these themes in novels like Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ which came out the year before, and which I liken parts of the book to. Others are ahead of their time, such as the call for African-Americans to march on Washington to assert their rights. And still others are uniquely McCullers, who is critical of religion, capitalism, racial inequality, and the American Dream, all while fascism was exerting its dark hold on Europe and the world was on the brink of war. “At least one third of all Southerners live and die no better off than the lowest peasant in any European Fascist state”, she says through Jake Blount.

The novel is touching because it illustrates loneliness in so many ways, but it’s profound because of its radical ideas. Dark and truly horrible things happen to some of these people, but McCullers’ genius is in correctly linking the causality of those events to the twin injustices of economic and racial inequality. You may disagree with how far she takes it, but the novel has honesty and real truth, and should be regarded as a masterpiece.

Quotes:
On capitalism, and America:
“Wherever you look there’s meanness and corruption. This room, this bottle of grape wine, these fruits in the basket, are all products of profit and loss. A fellow can’t live without giving his passive acceptance to meanness. Somebody wears his tail to a frazzle for every mouthful we eat and every stitch we wear – and nobody seems to know.”

“But say a man does know. He sees the world as it is and he looks back thousands of years to see how it all come about. He watches the slow agglutination of capital and power and he sees its pinnacle today. He sees America as a crazy house. He sees how men have to rob their brothers in order to live. He sees children starving and women working sixty hours a week to get to eat. He sees a whole damn army of unemployed and billions of dollars and thousands of miles of land wasted. He sees war coming. He sees how when people suffer just so much they get mean and ugly and something dies in them. But the main thing is that the whole system of the world is built on a lie. And although it’s as plain as the shining sun – the don’t-knows have lived with that lie so long they just can’t see it.”

“The men who fought the American Revolution were no more like these D.A.R. dames than I’m a pot-bellied, perfumed Pekingese dog. They meant what they said about freedom. They fought a real revolution. They fought so that this could be a country where every man would be free and equal. Huh! And that mean every man was equal in the sight of Nature – with an equal chance. This didn’t mean that twenty per cent of the people were free to rob the other eighty per cent of the means to live. This didn’t mean for one rich man to sweat the piss out of ten thousand poor men so that he can get richer. This didn’t the tyrants were free to get this country in such a fix that millions of people are ready to do anything – cheat, lie, or whack off their right arm – just to work for three squares and a flop. They have made the word freedom a blasphemy.”

“That is the way Marx says all of the natural resources should be owned – not by one group of rich people but by all the workers of the world as a whole.”

Lastly this one, shades of Bernie Sanders message while running for President in 2016:
“The whole system of capitalistic democracy is – rotten and corrupt. There remain only two roads ahead. One: Fascism. Two: reform of the most revolutionary and permanent kind.”

On the African-American condition:
“Listen! One out of five of us labors to build roads, or to take care of the sanitation of this city, or works in a sawmill or on a farm. Another one in five of us is unable to get any work at all. But the other three out of five – the greatest number of our people? Many of us cook for those who are incompetent to prepare the food that they themselves eat. Many work a lifetime tending flower gardens for the pleasure of one or two people. Many of us polish slick waxed floors of fine houses. Or we drive automobiles for rich people who are too lazy to drive themselves. We spend our lives doing thousands of jobs that are of no real use to anybody. We labor and all of our labor is wasted. Is that service? No, that is slavery.”

“We will save ourselves. But not by prayers of mourning. Not by indolence or strong drink. Not by the pleasures of the body or by ignorance. Not by submission and humbleness. But by pride. By dignity. By becoming hard and strong. We must build strength for our real true purpose.”

“The Nazis rob the Jews of their legal, economic, and cultural life. Here the Negro has always been deprived of these. And if wholesale and dramatic robbery of money and goods has not taken place here as in Germany, it is simply because the Negro has never been allowed to accrue wealth in the first place.”

On memories:
“Bill uncorked the bottle. He stood shirtless before the mirror and dabbed some of the perfume on his dark, hairy armpits. They scent made him stiffen. He exchanged a deadly secret glance with himself in the mirror and stood motionless. He was stunned by the memories brought to him with the perfume, not because of their clarity, but because they gathered together the whole span of years and were complete. Biff rubbed his nose and looked sideways at himself. The boundary of death. He felt in him each minute that he had lived with her. And now their life together was whole as only the past can be whole.”

On religion:
“Take Jesus. He was one of us. He knew. When He said that it was harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God – He damn well meant just what He said. But look what the Church has done to Jesus during the last two thousand years. What they have made of Him. How they have turned every word He spoke for their own vile ends. Jesus would be framed and in jail if He was living today.”

On being stunned; I liked the imagery:
“She spoke and he could not understand. The sounds were distinct in his ear but they had no shape or meaning. It was as though his head were the prow of a boat and the sounds were water that broke on him and then flowed past. He felt he had to look behind to find the words already said.” ( )
3 vote gbill | Mar 28, 2016 |
The book was okay, well written but very dark. I found it quite slow at times. I recently saw the movie with Alan Arkin on television though, and I quite enjoyed it. ( )
  junepearl | Mar 4, 2016 |
Narrated by Cherry Jones. I picked this up as one of those classics you hear about but I'd never read. I didn't expect it to be such a character study, the focus on five characters' internal lives. It seems nothing much happens until BOOM, the unexpected occurs. Even as I got to know the characters it always seemed there was something just unknowable and out of reach about each one. These are not detractions; I enjoyed the story in a way I didn't expect. Jones' narration and accent work creates pictures of Mick, Singer, Dr. Copeland, Brannon and the cafe owner whose name I forget, and also evokes the pace of a sleepy southern town. Definitely a work to make you ponder afterwards. ( )
  Salsabrarian | Feb 2, 2016 |
Oof, what a heartbreaking read. A novel that highlights the futility and struggle of the human experience. The four main characters all find wisdom or understanding via their conversations with deaf mute John Singer, whose silence and sadness is mistaken for something more. Singer in turn sees his fellow mute Antonapoulos as a soulmate and friend, while to the reader he seems oblivious and simple. Alongside the gradual unfolding of these relationships, McCullers paints a vivid portrait of the South - racial and political tensions, cruel poverty and random violence interspersed with brief moments of beauty and love. ( )
  mjlivi | Feb 2, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 142 (next | show all)
No matter what the age of its author, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" would be a remarkable book. When one reads that Carson McCullers is a girl of 22 it becomes more than that. Maturity does not cover the quality of her work. It is something beyond that, somthing more akin to the vocation of pain to which a great poet is born. Reading her, one feels this girl is wrapped in knowledge which has roots beyond the span of her life and her experience. How else can she so surely plumb the hearts of characters as strange and, under the force of her creative shaping, as real as she presents—two deaf mutes, a ranting, rebellious drunkard, a Negro torn from his faith and lost in his frustrated dream of equality, a restaurant owner bewildered by his emotions, a girl of 13 caught between the world of people and the world of shadows.

Carson McCullers is a full-fledged novelist whatever her age. She writes with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming. "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" is a first novel. One anticipates the second with something like fear. So high is the standard she has set. It doesn't seem possible that she can reach it again.
 

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
McCullers, Carsonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bruggen, W.F.H. tenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Elst, Ad van derCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618526412, Paperback)

With the publication of her first novel, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, Carson McCullers, all of twenty-three, became a literary sensation. With its profound sense of moral isolation and its compassionate glimpses into its characters' inner lives, the novel is considered McCullers' finest work, an enduring masterpiece first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1940. At its center is the deaf-mute John Singer, who becomes the confidant for various types of misfits in a Georgia mill town during the 1930s. Each one yearns for escape from small town life. When Singer's mute companion goes insane, Singer moves into the Kelly house, where Mick Kelly, the book's heroine (and loosely based on McCullers), finds solace in her music. Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition, and with a deft sense for racial tensions in the South, McCullers spins a haunting, unforgettable story that gives voice to the rejected, the forgotten, and the mistreated -- and, through Mick Kelly, gives voice to the quiet, intensely personal search for beauty.
Richard Wright praised Carson McCullers for her ability "to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness." She writes "with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming," said the NEW YORK TIMES. McCullers became an overnight literary sensation, but her novel has endured, just as timely and powerful today as when it was first published. THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER is Carson McCullers at her most compassionate, endearing best.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:28 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

With the publication of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers, all of twenty-three, became a literary sensation. With its profound sense of moral isolation and its compassionate glimpses into its characters' inner lives, the novel is considered McCullers' finest work, an enduring masterpiece first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1940. At its center is the deaf-mute John Singer, who becomes the confidant for various types of misfits in a Georgia mill town during the 1930s. Each one yearns for escape from small town life. When Singer's mute companion goes insane, Singer moves into the Kelly house, where Mick Kelly, the book's heroine (and loosely based on McCullers), finds solace in her music. Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition, and with a deft sense for racial tensions in the South, McCullers spins a haunting, unforgettable story that gives voice to the rejected, the forgotten, and the mistreated -- and, through Mick Kelly, gives voice to the quiet, intensely personal search for beauty. Richard Wright praised Carson McCullers for her ability "to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness." She writes "with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming," said the New York Times. McCullers became an overnight literary sensation, but her novel has endured, just as timely and powerful today as when it was first published. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is Carson McCullers at her most compassionate, endearing best.… (more)

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