McCullers's works are strikingly consistent in their themes and moods. Her bibliography includes five novels, two plays, twenty short stories, poetry, and more than two dozen nonfiction pieces. In all these works there is an element of autobiography. They wade in the waters of rejection and unrequited love, of loneliness and alienation, but often, too, of sympathy for a world in search of beauty, as in the music that pervades her fiction.
All five novels are set in the South with the common undercurrent of the insularity of small-town life. Her second book, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), was published—like the two novels that followed—first as installments in Harper's Bazaar, then as a book by Houghton Mifflin. As the novel that followed The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), it is a darker, more terrifying drama of isolation and despair. The story is set in a stark Army post in peacetime where the hidden desires of its soldiers and their wives and lovers collide.
The novella The Ballad of the Sad Café was selected for The Best American Short Stories of 1944. Inspired by a hunchbacked dwarf who frequented a bar in her Brooklyn neighborhood, the story tells of the relationship between a dwarf and a tall, mannish woman, which ends tragically after the woman's ex-husband gets out of prison.
Perhaps her most autobiographical work, The Member of the Wedding (1946) features a preadolescent girl not unlike Mick Kelly. Whereas The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter explores the effects of isolation on relationships and societal issues of class and race, The Member of the Wedding turns inward to show the effects on just one individual, a twelve-year-old who wants desperately to be part of her brother's wedding. This story is "one of those works that the least slip can ruin," McCullers wrote in a letter to her husband. "Some parts I have worked over and over as many as twenty times." The novel was an instant critical and popular success.
McCullers arduously wrote her last novel, Clock Without Hands (1961), over a ten-year period, as her disabilities had made the act of writing physically painful. The novel returns to another portrait of several characters coping with loneliness, this time in the New South of the 1950s.
McCullers's works will not be remembered for intellectual philosophizing, but rather for her understanding of the human heart. Few American writers have expressed the ubiquitous theme of loneliness so empathetically, and for that her works will surely endure.
Unlike the woman herself, who in many portraits looks unforgettably intense, the fiction of Carson McCullers rarely photographs well. The movies adapted from her work make fascinating viewing for those who know the material, less so for anyone coming to them cold.
After Alistair Cooke's unsubtle 1952 TV version of her haunting short story "The Sojourner," the film version of The Member of the Wedding that same year became the first McCullers adaptation to reach a screen. Rarely shown today, it preserves well the now legendary stage performances of Ethel Waters, Brandon De Wilde, and Julie Harris. (A later TV version adapted by David Rintels starred the hard-working Anna Paquin as Frankie and, as her maid and confidant, a thrillingly natural Alfre Woodard.)
Fifteen years later, McCullers's friend the writer-director John Huston and his co-screenwriters Gladys Hill and Chapman Mortimer adapted her 1941 novel Reflections in a Golden Eye. The movie's gold-tinted cinematography eerily catches the book's gothic fog of frustrated desire, and Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, and Julie Harris (again) each give an enthralling—if, in Brando's case, baroque—performance.
As with Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), McCullers approved the screenplay of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968) but didn't live to see the finished film. The resulting movie is an odd, uneven affair. Alan Arkin deserved and received an Oscar nomination as John Singer. Sondra Locke was nominated too, in her first role as Mick. Percy Rodriguez as Dr. Copeland, Cicely Tyson as his daughter, and Stacy Keach as Jake Blount each make memorable impressions in smaller turns. The best scene comes when Mick tries to act out for Singer how a symphony sounds. It's a moment later borrowed by William Hurt and Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God (1986), but the lonely longing of Locke's pantomime is pure McCullers.