NEA Big Read
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

by Carson McCullers

The dimensions of a work of art are seldom realized by the author until the work is accomplished.

The Life and Times of Carson McCullers

  1. 1920s
    • 1927: Lula Carson Smith begins piano lessons at age ten.
    • 1929: The stock market crash marks the start of the Great Depression.
  2. 1930s
    • 1931-37: Racial tension rises in the South when nine black teenagers (the "Scottsboro Boys") are charged with raping a white woman.
    • 1934: The textile workers strike sweeps through southern cotton mills but fails to improve conditions for overworked, underpaid employees.
    • 1937: Lula Carson Smith marries Reeves McCullers.
    • 1939: Germany invades Poland beginning World War II.
  3. 1940s
    • 1940: Richard Wright's Native Son is published in March.
    • 1940: McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is published in June.
    • 1941: Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, America enters World War II.
    • McCullers divorces Reeves in 1941; remarries him in 1945.
    • 1949: An FBI report names numerous artists as Communist Party members, posing a threat to their employment.
  4. 1950s
    • The Cold War intensifies; artists are accused of communist ties.
    • 1951: The Ballad of the Sad Café, the first anthology of McCullers's stories, is published.
    • McCullers and Reeves buy a house in Paris in 1951; Reeves commits suicide in 1953.
  5. 1960s
    • 1963: President John F. Kennedy assassinated.
    • 1963: McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café, adapted by Edward Albee, opens on Broadway.

The Depression-Era South

The 1930s were a turbulent time for the South. A decade earlier, the boll weevil wrecked the cotton crops—a major part of the South's fragile economy. As prices for cotton and other agricultural goods fell, so did the farm workers' ability to earn a living wage. Tenant farming and sharecropping were common. The collapse of the stock market in 1929 and falling prices of farm products signaled a death knell for the "Old South."

People flocked to cities, hoping for steady wages as laborers in the textile mills. Though the industry had once been located mostly in northern states, by the mid 1930s southern mills produced more than 70 percent of cotton and woolen textiles. Dispossessed Southern farmers earned roughly 40 percent less than workers in the North. Many mills in the South were owned by northern corporations. As the economy slowed, mill owners cut employees' hours and decreased production, angering workers who were already living near the poverty line.

Some workers, enraged by reductions in wages, turned to a form of Marxism that embraced working-class emancipation. In the opening of The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx writes, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Marxist theory addressed a wide range of social issues, including the alienation and exploitation of the workforce, capitalism, and materialism.

While the South wrestled with its economic challenges, it was also battling the devastating effects of racism. Racial segregation and discrimination were prevalent throughout the South. For example, blacks were not allowed to eat in the same restaurants, drink from the same water fountains, or attend the same schools with whites.

By the late 1930s, blacks began to protest against discrimination. President Roosevelt shepherded in a new era when he appointed Hugo Black—a U.S. Senator from Alabama and eventual proponent of racial equality—to the Supreme Court in 1937. As early as 1938, courts began to display a new attitude toward minority rights, and the seeds of the Civil Rights Movement were sown.

"The largest buildings in the town were the factories, which employed a large percentage of the population. These cotton mills were big and flourishing and most of the workers in the town were poor. Often in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and of loneliness."
—Carson McCullers, from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

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