Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Works was published on this day in 1951. 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 among the 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 boardinghouse run by George Davis, editor of Harper’s Bazaar. This was home to a shifting group of artists and bohemians that included W. H. Auden, Louis MacNiece, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, Richard Wright, Paul and Jane Bowles, Janet Flanner, and others. It was while drinking in a bar with Davis and Auden that McCullers had the “illumination” that inspired The Ballad of the Sad Café: “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.’ ”
The publication of The Ballad of the Sad Café 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 surgeries brought on by the progressive invalidism that had begun in her teens.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.