Carson McCullers, Home for Christmas (#Review)

Carson McCullers, 1959

Carson McCullers, 1959 (photo by Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As you will guess from the title of this Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week, I meant to post on it closer to Christmas Day than I have in fact achieved. I chose it for two reasons – firstly the obvious seasonal one, and secondly because my first Carson McCullers post was an unusual piece and perhaps not completely reflective of the writer she was. Her story “Home before Christmas”, while nothing like her best-known novels, does get us a bit closer to them.

First, though, some background. LOA’s notes tell us that the story, written in 1949, was the first of a few essays McCullers wrote for magazines like Mademoiselle and Redbook. McCullers’ biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, says, according to LOA, that “even as a preschooler Carson would be asked what she wanted and the answer was, ‘I want book—lots of books, Mama’.” I suspect many of you reading this will say the same about yourselves. I know I would!

LOA shares a couple of other stories about the adult Carson and gift-giving – including one that resulted in such a kerfuffle that someone was written out of a will, and another involving Truman Capote. However, they take us further away from the point of THIS story.

“Home for Christmas” was apparently commissioned by Mademoiselle for its 1949 Christmas issue, and was published alongside pieces by food writer MFK Fisher and novelist Jessamyn West (whom I plan to cover here one day via the Library of America). LOA chose to share McCullers’ piece this last Christmas because 2017 was the centenary of McCullers birth.

Now I said in my opening paragraph that this story, although nothing like her best-known novels, does connect us a little with them. Firstly, an autobiographical piece, it describes life in a southern family, but more significantly, like The member of the wedding, it is seen through a child’s eye. It is not like her novels in the sense that it is not Gothic, and nor does it deal in any major way with the loneliness or “outsiderness” that I remember from her oeuvre – though there is a touch of melancholy in it, all the same.

In some ways, it’s a traditional story about childhood yearning for Christmas. It begins in August with our young first person narrator, that is, Carson, pondering Christmas, and it concludes, just after Christmas, with her yearning for the next Christmas. In between, we hear about the buying of Christmas presents, the cooking of Christmas food, and how Christmas day itself was spent. But, there is also a little unifying theme running through this – the “mystery of Time”.

In the second paragraph, it is August and our narrator is up a tree thinking:

I did not want to talk with my brother. I was experiencing the first wonder about the mystery of Time. Here I was, on this August afternoon, in the tree-house, in the burnt, jaded yard, sick and tired of all our summer ways. (I had read Little Women for the second time, Hans Brinker and the Silver SkatesLittle Men, and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. I had read movie magazines and even tried to read love stories in the Woman’s Home Companion—I was so sick of everything.) How could it be that I was I and now was now when in four months it would be Christmas, wintertime, cold weather, twilight and the glory of the Christmas tree? I puzzled about the now and later and rubbed the inside of my elbow until there was a little roll of dirt between my forefinger and thumb. Would the now I of the tree-house and the August afternoon be the same I of winter, firelight and the Christmas tree? I wondered.

You can see biographer Carr’s point about books can’t you? Anyhow, again, I suspect many of us have pondered Time in this way. McCullers doesn’t labour the point but it pops up a few more times in the article,  including the notion of time behaving differently for different people. “How”, she writes, “could it be that when she [her sister] opened her eyes it would be Christmas while I lay awake in the dark for hours and hours? The time was the same for both of us, and yet not at all the same.” There’s also a delightful little – almost throwaway – line about how her father would manipulate the clocks to enable them to get up early on Christmas morning but not too early for the parents.

“Home before Christmas” is not a particularly deep story/article, but then as an article for a Christmas edition of a magazine, it probably wasn’t meant to be. It is, however, an enjoyable read and, while presumably part of that bread-and-butter work that writers do to survive, it also provides some insight into a significant writer of, and from, America’s south.

Carson McCullers
“Home for Christmas”
First published: Mademoiselle, December 1949
Available: Online at the Library of America

Carson McCullers, The great eaters of Georgia (Review)

Carson McCullers, 1959

Carson McCullers, 1959 (photographed by Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Regular readers of my Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week posts will probably guess why I’ve chosen to write about this story: it’s by an appealing American writer and it’s about food. However, it’s quite different from the other food stories. Firstly, while it’s called “the great eaters” it’s more of a little memoir essay albeit structured around food, and secondly, it was published posthumously in 2005. McCullers was born in 1917 (on Feb 19 in fact, so this month in the centenary of her birth) and died in 1967. “The great eaters of Georgia” was written, LOA’s notes say, in 1954 but was not published, because …

It’s a complex situation, which the Wikipedia article section on her personal life fills in, but the significant thing for us is that she had returned (fled) to the US from Paris in 1953, because her husband had tried to encourage her to commit suicide with him. Soon after her return, he succeeded in taking his life. Now, this is relevant because LOA tells us that McCullers had been offered money by Holiday magazine for a piece on Georgia, but, according to McCullers’ biographer Josyane Savigneau, the magazine rejected the article because they were “looking for a lighter, more descriptive, less personal piece.”

I guess that’s fair enough for a holiday-oriented magazine, but for readers more interested in McCullers than in Georgia – sorry, Georgia – it’s great that the piece didn’t disappear. Like many people, I’ve read and/or seen The heart is a lonely hunter and The member of the wedding – but in my case so long ago that my main memory is not of the plots but of melancholy and loneliness, the sorts of emotions that appealed to my teenage self!

But now, “The great eaters of Georgia”. It’s an intriguing piece that doesn’t perhaps quite cohere – certainly as a piece for a holiday magazine. For example, she mentions visiting various people. First is the controversial writer Lillian Smith, who openly confronted such issues as race and gender equality. McCullers writes:

Lill, like other Southerners, feels passionately about the problems of the Negro. Most Georgians do not agree with her, and often when her name is mentioned there is that strange area of silence.

This may not have been what Holiday was looking for, particularly when she adds that during her visit they “discussed Georgia politics”. Then she visits psychiatrist Dr Hervey Cleckley. She doesn’t share her discussions with him about her husband’s suicide – this I learnt from LOA – but they did talk

of the improvement in the understanding of racial problems and the migration from the rural cotton areas to the cities and towns.

Again perhaps not Holiday content? She says they also talked about Dr Crawford Long, a Georgian who was the first to use ether in an operation. You may wonder why this came up, but it resulted from their discussion of “ether parties”:

These odd-sounding affairs must have been like marijuana parties to the modern teenager but there was no social stigma attached, and my grandmother told me that, as a young lady, she often held ether parties for her young friends after they had ridden home from church and gathered for Sunday dinner.

Fascinating eh? Dr Long apparently noticed the numbing effect of ether (!) and thought it might work in surgery! I found this interesting because I have reviewed Sawako Ariyoshi’s The doctor’s wife, which fictionalises the story of Hanaoka Seishū who is believed to have been the first to use general anaesthesia in surgery – in 1804. Long carried out his first surgery in 1842.

Anyhow, I guess McCullers included this story of Long as an example of Georgian ingenuity? Again it may not have been what Holiday was looking for.

She was probably on firmer ground in her description of eating practices and food, because yes, she does talk about those too as the title suggests! I enjoyed little tidbits such as that in her mother’s day:

a child wore an asafetida bag around his neck to ward off colds and contagious diseases. Asafetida is the foulest-smelling substance. I suppose it makes good medical sense because one was not apt to go very near a person wearing an asafetida bag.

Hmmm, that’s not a food story though asafetida is used in cooking – and, anyhow, it’s adds a touch of humour.

She also talks about what great eaters (hence the title) Georgians are – at every meal:

Georgians eat big meals three times a day. I have never gotten over this orange-juice-and-coffee breakfast they have up North. A respectable Georgia breakfast means fish roe and grits or at least eggs or maybe country sausage.

She remembers chewing sugarcane as a child, and the historic cultivation of chinaberry trees “to counteract miasma”. She mentions the razing of the home she was born in, and sneaks in a comment about the reduction in (though not removal of) poverty in her home-town, before returning to the subject of breakfasts. She talks of the Yankee vulgarity of referring to children as “kids”. And she tells us that fried chicken is probably Georgia’s best-known dish, closely followed by “field peas”. She surprised me by mentioning a dish I have in my recipe folders from my early recipe-gathering days, Country Captain. It’s a sort of curried chicken dish, and I didn’t realise it came from the American south.

She also tells us that “any discussion of Georgian food is incomplete without the mention of watermelon” and provides a loving description of the “special operation and procedure” it demands. Fruitcake, tupelo honey, and the smells of Savannah are also shared with us, before she comes to a little anecdote about a “town character”, a bachelor who prefers to eat alone. This is very “un-Georgian”, and she concludes her piece by saying that

Although we have our share of eccentrics, I know very few Georgians who do not love fellowship, good hunting, food, and laughter—who do not enjoy life.

All in all, it’s a fascinating article – for what it tells us about Georgian life and food but more, for the little insights we glean of her interests and her emotional state. A good read for anyone interested in McCullers.

Pam (Travellin’ Penguin) has also written a response to this story.

Note: My other LOA food stories are by John Duncan (“A Virginia barbecue“), Ana Menéndez (“Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban offerings“), George G. Foster (“The eating-houses“) and George Augustus Sala (“The tyranny of pie“).

Carson McCullers
“The great eaters of Georgia”
First published: Oxford American, Spring 2005
Available: Online at the Library of America