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Jenn Shapland takes a queer lens to Carson McCullers

The author of “My Autobiography Of Carson McCullers” will speak on February 17 via A Room of One’s Own.

Photo by Christian Michael Filardo.

While archiving authors’ personal effects and papers during grad school, Jenn Shapland retrieved a batch of letters written to a long-dead woman. Filled with passionate, covert intimacies, they were from another woman. She was intrigued.

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The messages were mailed to mid-century American Gothic fiction author Carson McCullers by smoldering silk heiress and morphine addict Annemarie Clarac-Schwartzbach, a fellow writer. The last lesbian love letters Shapland had seen were the ones she wrote to her college “roommate.” Then her conservative mother found the letters and read them aloud to the undercover couple when they visited on a break.  

The mid-century correspondence sent Shapland chasing McCullers’ ghost as she sought clarity on her own sexuality. In the process, Shapland used the queer gaze to blow the dust off of a literary legacy. She chronicles her experience in My Autobiography Of Carson McCullers (Tinhouse, 2020). The memoir was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award in non-fiction and long-listed for the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence in Non-fiction. Shapland will discuss the book virtually at an online event via A Room of One’s Own at 6 p.m., Wednesday, February 17, in conversation with Autostraddle book critic Kate Gorton. 

McCullers, who went by her middle name, wore pants and went braless—scandal!—hailed from the reserved city of Columbus, Georgia. She moved to New York City in 1934 at age 17. Her husband arrived shortly after—fresh off of a lengthy boat journey with a close male companion. McCullers had a loose dream of studying piano at Juilliard. Instead, she misplaced her tuition money and eventually turned to writing for income. In 1940, her first book was published to wide acclaim. In The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, a deaf-mute man copes with unwanted seclusion. This and other works, like The Member Of The Wedding and Clock Without Hands, incorporated themes of racism, disability, inequality, alienation—and intricacies that, at the time, only the queer eye would detect. Shapland finds indications that the young McCullers knew she was a lesbian. Shapland found that McCullers was as out as progressive society would allow, though other biographers have swept that fact under the rug or euphemized it. The young author struggled with her sexuality, in part because society at the time deemed homosexuals to be mentally ill.

“I didn’t feel like I was outing her so much as recovering a more accurate picture of the life she lived and the unabashed way that she lived it,” says Shapland, who came out while writing the book. 

In My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Shapland traces the intersections of McCullers’ life with her own, fully aware that biographers project themselves onto their subjects to understand them. Common between them is the feeling of an outsider looking in. 

McCullers moved in interesting circles of artists and performers. She resided for a time in a Brooklyn artists’ residence dubbed February House by Anaïs Nin, as well as Yaddo, an upstate New York artists’ retreat where Shapland follows in her footsteps to write the book. McCullers shared space with poet W.H. Auden and helped Truman Capote get his start. She later feuded with Capote, saying he poached her style. She was writing buddies with Tennessee Williams and had a crush on housemate and pioneering burlesque performer Rose Lee Hovick.* 

“Her friendships really came through for me writing the book,” Shapland says. She found these queer communities that followed her for the rest of her life. They were vital for her and for people of her generation who were existing in this liminal kind-of closeted, kind-of out space where they’re navigating multiple identities.”

Near the end of her life, McCullers began seeing a therapist and recorded the sessions to use as source material for her unfinished autobiography, Illuminations And Night Glare (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000). In another archive, a surprised Shapland uncovers the therapy transcripts that past biographers either didn’t find or didn’t fully appreciate for their significance. In them, McCullers seems to have come to terms with her identity in old age. She began a romantic relationship with her therapist that would last the rest of her life. 

Revelations about McCullers’ identity have helped readers fill in gaps in their own queer history.

“A lot of readers … read her in a class and that framework is missing—the facts of her life are just not stated outright,” Shapland says. “There’s this lovely thing that happens. They can reflect on this reading that they did when they were an adolescent and think, “That was really formative for me, but… I didn’t understand why I loved this book so much.”” 

Shapland finds another kinship with McCullers—chronic illness. After a lifetime of health issues that friends, family and other biographers blamed on mental illness and heavy drinking, McCullers died at age 50 in 1967. 

In the book, Shapland pieces together Carson’s unacknowledged history of intermittent strokes and bouts of temporary blindness. Toward the end of her life, McCullers was partially paralyzed and unable to physically write but for typing one key at a time.

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“I glommed onto that because I was managing a chronic illness right at the time of starting to research McCullers. It was interesting to me as a way to empathize with her,” says Shapland, who has Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS). PoTS causes lightheadedness, fainting, and rapid heartbeat. 

“[Others’ interpretations of McCullers’ health] speaks to a much larger tendency to discount women’s physical experiences… they go to the doctor and aren’t listened to or believed,” she says. 

Shapland hopes other biographers will look back at more women artists, writers and intellectuals, possibly as fodder for films and series.

“I encountered so many other queer women in my research in the 20th century in all different fields,” she says. “These communities have all of these connections, but I don’t think we’ve adequately stretched out [in examining them].”

*Stage name omitted from the story because it contains a slur.

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