Rating: 5 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Road Trip Challenge.
Carson McCullers’ debut novel was a surprise. I’d read The Member of the Wedding years ago and loved it. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers captures the lives of people on the edges of society during the Depression. At the heart of the novel is John Singer, a mute who lives in a small unnamed mill town in the US state of Georgia. His silence is intriguing to other residents of the town, including Mick Kelly, one of the daughters of the family run boarding house where Singer lives, Biff Brannon, who runs a café where Singer eats all his meals, and Benedict Copeland, the town’s black doctor who burns with frustration at the lack of ambition of his fellow African Americans. Into town comes a complex character, Jake Blount, who seems to be a down and out. Singer befriends him, and his silence draws from Blount the revolutionary thoughts in his head.
McCullers has an eye for detail, bringing small town America to life at a time of economic and social hardship. Work is hard to come by, people don’t have spare cash, but they find ways of surviving and of having fun. Segregation divides the poor white from the even poorer black community. McCullers’ language is of its time, the words used to describe people from different ethnicities are offensive. McCullers acknowledges this, though, through conversations Portia, the cook at the Kelly boarding house, has with her father Dr Copeland. For the time it was written, the book is surprisingly sensitive to issues of race. Dr Copeland even presages Dr King and Malcolm X in his Christmas speech to the black community in the town.
‘Our mission is to walk with strength and dignity through the days of our humiliation. Our pride must be strong, for we know the value of the human mind and soul. We must teach our children. We must sacrifice so that they may earn the dignity of study and wisdom. For the time will come. The time will come when the riches in us will not be held in scorn and contempt. The time will come when we will be allowed to serve. When we will labour and our labour will not be wasted. And our mission is to await this time with strength and faith.’
McCullers also examines worker rights and unionisation among the mill workers. Blount believes in workers joining together to pressure their employers into paying a fairer wage, but the workers he encounters are resistant to his zeal. They have experience of striking and being replaced by workers bussed in from elsewhere. To demand better pay in a time of economic depression isn’t an easy thing.
Around these political themes based in Communism, McCullers weaves the stories of the townspeople. Mick is desperate to grow up, and has an ambition to be a musician. She goes without lunch so that she can pay a classmate to teach her the piano when her natural ability can take her no further. She stays after school to practice on the piano in the gym, as her family is too poor to buy a piano. She is old before her time, as she takes care of the younger children in the family. Brannon has a curious inner life that has a sweet femininity about it, in contrast with his gruff exterior. He is intrigued by Singer and, unlike the others, doesn’t unburden himself into Singer’s silence, but instead quietly observes the way the townsfolk project their ideas into him. On the face of it, Blount is full of complexity, but in reality he is a simple man driven by a pure rage against injustice. Dr Copeland is the most interesting character in the way he comports himself, and the way he reacts to the tragedies that surround him.
As the story builds, McCullers reveals the different connections between people in the town. Brannon is related by marriage to Mrs Wilson, who dreams of her toddler daughter becoming a movie star. Baby Wilson is admired by Bubber, one of Mick’s younger brothers, and a tragic event changes him from being happy go lucky to being reserved and distant. Brannon seems to have a strange attraction to Mick, which she misreads as hatred. The Kelly family is linked to Dr Copeland through their servant Portia, who is linked to Brannon through her brother Willie, who works in Brannon’s café as a cook. Lives rub up against each other, and while nobody is truly friends, everyone feels connected to Singer.
Singer, however, only has one friend, a fellow deaf-mute. When his friend is sent away by his cousin, Singer is left stranded. He writes long letters to his friend that he never sends, describing how four of the town’s residents have befriended him, and how they seem to think that he understands them. Because of his serene silence, everyone feels that Singer understands with a greater depth than he perhaps possesses. He becomes a talismanic figure. In his letters, Singer reveals his bewilderment about this state of affairs, and the irony is delicious.
Eventually, Blount and Copeland come together to discuss their understanding of Communism. They should be united, but each man has his own truth to pursue, and they don’t quite see eye to eye. Blount in particular is more interested in expounding his own truth, from the perspective of the white poor. It makes for interesting reading almost 80 years on from when McCullers was writing.
‘… the reason I think like I do is this. We live in the richest country in the world. There’s plenty and to spare for no man, woman or child to be in want. And in addition to this our country was founded on what should have been a great, true principle – the freedom, equality, and rights of each individual. Huh! And what has come of that start? There are corporations worth billions of dollars – and hundreds of thousands of people who don’t get to eat. And here in these thirteen states the exploitation of human beings is so that – that it’s a thing you got to take in with your own eyes.’
It’s another piece of evidence that the world is skewed in favour of the rich, and the rich have no interest in equality. The recent fire tragedy in London and the response of the governing party, the party of the rich, shows that. It’s also evidence that we never seem to properly move forward or make progress in establishing equality, and evidence that most people accept the things they are told by politicians who want to maintain a world that works to their advantage and exploits the poorest in society. As Blount says,
‘… the way that the truth has been hidden from the people. The things they have been told so they can’t see the truth. The poisonous lies. So they aren’t allowed to know.’
This book is wonderful. It covers many things that are hard in life and does so with pathos and grace. I really, really loved it and didn’t want it to end. I wanted to know what happened next to each of the main characters. This might become a book I read again.