Carson McCullers at 100 – The New York Times

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Carson McCullers in 1955.

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Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images

Feb. 19 was the centenary of the birth of Carson McCullers, one of the most distinctive and ill-fated writers in American history. McCullers died when she was 50, in 1967. She suffered a series of strokes before she was 30, and spent much of her life in pain.

Earlier this year, the Library of America published a volume of McCullers’s short stories, plays, essays, memoirs and poems. But it’s the author’s fiction (also published by the Library of America, among others) that keeps her reputation strong a century on. Her debut, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” is routinely listed among the best books of the 20th century, and Rose Feld’s assessment of it in the Book Review in 1940 proves that its towering reputation was formed more or less immediately.

“No matter what the age of its author, ‘The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter’ would be a remarkable book,” Feld started. “When one reads that Carson McCullers is a girl of 22 it becomes more than that. Maturity does not cover the quality of her work. It is something beyond that, something more akin to the vocation of pain to which a great poet is born.”

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McCullers was actually 23 at the time, but point taken.

“She writes with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming,” Feld said, concluding that we were to anticipate McCullers’s second novel “with something like fear,” given the standard set by the first.

Despite her ailments, McCullers managed to lead an eventful life. Reviewing Virginia Spencer Carr’s biography “The Lonely Hunter,” in 1975, Robert Phillips said the book plumbed McCullers’s “inordinate dependency upon others” and unraveled “relationships far kinkier than those exposed in Quentin Bell’s ‘Virginia Woolf’ or Nigel Nicolson’s ‘Portrait of a Marriage.’ ” One friend of McCullers was quoted by Carr: “You had to like burdens to love Carson, and many of us could not afford her emotionally or economically.”

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Quotable

“I got an advance in the mid-four figures for ‘300 Arguments’ — a book I worked on for a couple years. So, clearly, this is not a job. Writing these books is not a job. And I guess I’m lucky in that I never assumed it would be, so I made other plans.” — Sarah Manguso, in an interview with Hazlitt

This Land Is Your Land

Stephen J. Hornsby’s “Picturing America” is a beautifully illustrated new book that documents the “golden age” of pictorial maps, from the 1920s to the 1970s. It includes the playful (distorted views of the country from the perspective of New Yorkers, Texans and Californians); the obscure (a map of volunteer fire departments in Philadelphia, circa 1792, commissioned and drawn in 1938); and more of the obscure (a map of Michigan bakeries). This note accompanies that last one: “This may be the only map that has loaves of sliced bread as border decoration.”

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