Carson McCullers makes us feel like slackers. She wrote and published her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1940, when she was twenty-three years old. Yeah. What have you done today?
The novel was a breakout hit and jump-started McCullers' extremely successful literary career. Over the next twenty-ish years, she wrote novels, short stories, plays, reviews, articles, poems, and even Hollywood scripts. In case you weren't impressed enough already, she did all of this while battling some severe health issues: McCullers suffered a series of strokes while she was very young, and she battled depression and substance abuse issues throughout her life. Top it off with a rollercoaster of a marriage that ended in her husband's suicide, and you've got yourself a tough life.
Carson McCullers was very much a Southern writer, and Hunter is very much a Southern gothic book. Basically, Southern gothic is a genre that mixes traditional gothic elements – mystery, suspense, anxiety, the grotesque, the supernatural – and plops it all down in the American South. It was a super popular genre, practiced by heavy-hitters like William Faulkner. To read more about the genre itself, check out the "Genre" section.
When McCullers published The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Southern gothic, and Southern literature in general, was on fire. People like Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, and Thornton Wilder were all publishing landmark works in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. And the Southern gothic craze extended to Hollywood, too – Faulkner and Tennessee Williams movie adaptations were all the rage in the 1950s and 1960s. McCullers got in on the movie adaptation craze too – The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was made into a film in 1968 and was adapted for the stage in 2005.
Bottom line: McCullers' debut novel was part of a cool moment in American history, when a lot of literature challenged the status quo and took a look at the seedier side of life and the dark underbelly of the American dream. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is no exception, and while you might need some tissues – and a few deep breaths – this one is worth the tears.
Let's take a second to think about the most important universal themes in literature:
That's some pretty hefty stuff right there, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter has it all – and deep philosophical musings to boot! There's a reason English teachers will flip over the thematic content here, and we're guessing it's something you can get behind, too.
See, as specific as the setting is, this novel is pretty much timeless. Timeless in a downer kind of a way, of course. Everyone in this novel is lonely and searching for who they are. While we (hopefully) don't experience these things on as intense a level as the characters in the story, they're emotions that we all know. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter packs a huge emotional punch, and the powerful feelings it evokes really stay with you. Don't say we didn't warn you.