March 17, 2018

The Sad Cafe of Carson McCullers

On this day in 1951 Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works was published. Included in this omnibus edition were most of the pieces upon which her reputation now stands: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding, and a handful of short stories. These had all been written over the previous decade, and the critics used the occasion of the omnibus publication to confirm thirty-four-year-old McCullers as one of America's most important contemporary writers, in a rank with Faulkner, de Maupassant and D. H. Lawrence, said V. S. Pritchett, for her ability to give regional settings and characters "their Homeric moment in a universal tragedy."

During this productive decade McCullers lived, on and off, at 7 Middagh Street, the famous Brooklyn boarding house run by George Davis, editor of Harper's Bazaar. This was home to a shifting group of artists and bohemians which included W. H. Auden, Louis MacNiece, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, Richard Wright, Paul and Jane Bowles, Janet Flanner and others. Auden apparently liked to play housemother to "our menagerie," one visitor describing a typical evening as featuring "George [Davis] naked at the piano with a cigarette in his mouth, Carson on the ground with half a gallon of sherry, and then Wynstan [Auden] bursting in like a headmaster, announcing: 'Now then, dinner!'"

It was while drinking in a bar with Davis and Auden that McCullers had the "illumination" which inspired The Ballad of the Sad Cafe: "Among the customers there was a woman who was tall and strong as a giantess, and at her heels she had a little hunchback." McCullers describes another such Middagh-moment, this time related to her plot problems in The Member of the Wedding: after Thanksgiving turkey and much alcohol, as she and Lee raced along the street trying to catch up to a fire engine, ". . . suddenly, breathlessly, I said to Gypsy, 'Frankie is in love with the bride of the brother and wants to join the wedding.'" (Apparently Lee, too, found 7 Middagh Street conducive, writing much of the successful G-string Murders there.)

The publication of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works proved to be the high-water mark for McCullers's writing and health. Over the next fifteen years she wrote little of note, much of her energy sapped by the pain, depression and operations brought on by the progressive invalidism which had begun in her teens. She did attend opening night of Edward Albee's stage adaptation of Sad Cafe, in a wheelchair; she was not well enough to play the role of narrator, as she and Albee had first planned. The play opened in the fall of 1963, a year after Albee's Broadway debut with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf – another title inspired by a bar, Albee seeing the line scrawled in soap on a graffiti mirror in a Greenwich Village hangout called "College of the Complexes."

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