Still Worth a Look
Given the substantial increase in well-written novels for and about young people during the past quarter century, it is possible that certain"goldie-oldies" are placed on the back shelves of secondary-school classrooms.My goal in this essay is to make the case that Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter should not be consigned to such a fate. Whether it be classified as a young adult novel or a work of initiation fiction matters little to me -- although I would opt for the latter. Its value, in addition to its forthright, lucid treatment of its tale, lies in the extent to which it deals with problems, issues, and themes highly relevant to today's young adult milieu. An investigation of those features reveals this novel to be a multi-faceted reflection on the time and place covered.
Whether we are talking about YA novels such as The Outsiders or novels of initiation such as The Catcher in the Rye, a glaring weakness in these books about young people persists: the stereotypic or undercut portraiture of adults in them. Such is surely not the case in McCullers'The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. A legitimate question, "Who is the focal character in this book?" can be raised. Is it primarily the person of MickKelly, the 13-year-old, poor-but-proud female? Or is it Mr. Singer, the deaf mute to whom so many people turn for emotional support? Is it Jake Blount, the oft-drunken vagrant whose philosophical reflections punctuate the novel? Or is it the African-American physician Benedict Copeland, whose attempt to maintain and enhance his own dignity and that of his people brings him only humiliation,frustration, and despair? One of the strengths of this text is the presentation of credible adults and teenagers who play out its drama. In fact, as an adventure in character study, it is hard to beat.
For those teachers of early adolescents who wish to enhance cultural literacy in their classes, the novel offers an intimate view of life in the deep Depression, pre-Civil-Rights years in a small town in the Deep South. The emphasis in this text is on the abject poverty wrought by the Depression on people both white and black. In that sense, it can be linked with Harper Lee'sTo Kill a Mockingbird and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. The impacts of this poverty on family life, on adult fears and aspirations, and on the future hopes of young people are all revealed in one way or another.
The struggles of families to stay united, to maintain both hope and dignity,can also be found in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The two families in the novel, one white and the other black, are not dysfunctional in the contemporary sense of the word, but the external pressures of financial want and segregationist activism deny both the security and comfort which are the hoped for advantages of traditional family life. In the case of Mick Kelly's(white) family, poverty has created an atmosphere of doubt, anxiety, and despair that adds greatly to the difficulties encountered by any adolesentfemale as she negotiates the rites of passage. The manner in which each family member attempts to cope with this adversity is also worthy of classroom consideration, as is the role played by Mr. Singer, the deaf-mute outsider who seems to assist the family members in dealing with their problems.
The multicultural element of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter provides another link to contemporary studies. Mr. Singer is an alien to the small WASP Community in which he settles, as is his incapacitated Greek friend,Antonapoulous. The wary treatment they receive from the townsfolk is to be expected; the extent to which the deaf-mute Singer is able to gain their confidence, respect, and, finally, admiration, is not. Mr. Singer, without the conventional capacity to communicate, eventually bestows his compassion,selflessness, and wisdom on his threatened, prejudiced fellow residents.
Dr. Copeland, who would wish to emulate Mr. Singer's ability to impress and lead, is incapable of doing so. The more he attempts to present the cause of the impoverished and suppressed members of his black community, the more he is rebuked by the white power structure. The vicious, unapologetic, open racism practiced by white community leaders in keeping Dr. Copeland "in his place"symbolizes those dark days of the Jim Crow South, as they have also been revealed in the writing of William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Erskine Caldwell,Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Alex Haley, and, more recently, in the intense, angry plays of August Wilson (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone). The breakdown in positive communication and understanding between generations within African-American families, the central issue in Wilson's dramatic works, can be found throughoutThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,racism is evident and widespread; objectionable language and descriptions of physical intimacy are not. Thus the text provides a "teachable" source of racism in the early 20th-century Deep South.
The novel also provides insights into the manner in which disabled people struggle with the adjustments they must make to negotiate daily living. While Mick's family is not dysfunctional, a crippling injury sustained by Mr. Kelly,heretofore the main family breadwinner, has intensified the fears,frustrations, and dour outlooks of all family members. These anxieties are particularly evident in the behavior of Mrs. Kelly, whose every statement, act,and thought bespeaks her muted cry, "Why us, Lord?" To the reader, the Kellys are clearly fighting an uphill battle, one for which McCullers provides no dramatic upturn in fortunes. Also disabled, Dr. Copeland deals with his illness in a stoic manner, sublimating his personal worries by attempting to ease the burdens of his fellow black citizens. The focal point of this sub-theme of people facing disabilities, however, rests firmly on the character of Mr.Singer. Rather than bemoan his bad luck, he has developed his craft to an extraordinary degree. He has also become Antonapoulous' protector and counsel as well as friend, and he emerges as the individual to whom Mick, Jake Blount,and others turn for moral support. They gravitate to him despite his incapacity for conventional communication. If ever the bromide "Actions speak louder than words" can be validated, it is in the role played by Singer. That his struggles take their toll is ultimately revealed when, soon after learning of Antonapoulous' death, he takes his own life. The lonely but dignified existence of this disabled individual adds to the meaning within the title of the work.
Another theme, one that has permeated literature for and about young people,can also be found in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: that of death.Portia's prisoner husband dies violently at the hand of his racist jailers.Antonapoulous dies in his hospital prison, largely because of physical infirmity, although it can be inferred that he relinquishes the will to live.Singer, grief-stricken over the sudden, unexpected loss of his long-time friend, takes his own life. And it is evident that Dr. Copeland's end is near as the novel comes to a close. The two young females, Portia and Mick, are left to mourn the loss of husband, father, friend. The deaths are not sentimentalized nor are the rites of mourning exaggerated. In fact, Mccullers' restrained treatment of deeply felt emotions offers teachers much to share with their students. Understated reactions in the text offer those students ample opportunity to draw inferences and make judgments, operations that are at the core of critical reading endeavors.
And finally, the loss-of-innocence, initiation-into-adulthood theme can be identified as one of the features of this text. Unlike so many initiation novels -- The Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Augie March,A Separate Peace, and Lord of the Flies -- the young adult protagonist in this one is female. Mick Kelly's search for self-identify, her determination to retain dignity through poverty, her loss of virginity, and her efforts to comprehend both her relationship with Mr. Singer and the meaning of his tragic, untimely death are all facets of this theme. But The Heart Is A lonely Hunter is much more than just a "girls' book." It offers young readers of this decade some profound human issues to contemplate. For this reason alone it should not be allowed to gather dust on classroom or library shelves.
Editor of a special issue of The ALAN Reviewin 1993, John Simmons teaches literature and struggles against censorship at Florida State University.