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Monday, October 15, 2018

Carson McCullers’s Home in Columbus, Georgia

It was early in March and the weather alternated between chilly and wet, and bright green blossoming spring. I walked down the old sidewalks in the neighborhood where Carson McCullers lived, and I could feel a certain vibration – was it the feeling of the underdog?  The town is on a river that had just flooded, and like all towns on rivers, the heart and soul of the flowed in the waters.

Columbus, Georgia and the Chattahoochee River (photo Susan Smith Nash) 
Carson McCullers lived only a few miles from the Chattahoochee River, which involved driving on old brick streets, where lawns are manicured and green, and the shrubs and bushes grow rapidly, to bud out, flower and fade equally rapidly. It feels like a place of genius, and that it certain has been.

Carson McCullers’s home in Columbus, Georgia is now a living museum and a place for researchers working on Carson McCullers to stay in residence. It is connected to the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians (where Nick Norwood is its director) at Columbus State University. There they can immerse themselves in her life, times, and literary productions while living in a town that was, during Carson’s childhood, highly socially stratified and segregated industrial textile mill town.

Columbus, Georgia - Converted mills.  (photo - susan smith nash) 
Once inside the home, I was struck by the fact that people did not include hallways in the floorplan and they had to walk through the different rooms. That may explain some of the odd floor plans I’ve seen in older homes. Further, they do not have closets. It’s necessary to have armoires or large cedar chests and chests of drawers. So, you walk in and out of each other’s rooms without any sort of separation or buffer.

Carson McCullers's home and now museum in Columbus, Georgia (photo: susan smith nash) 
So, in such a home where there are no halls, you will always be a part of another person's room. As I looked at Carson's books, her work spaces, and her living quarters, I felt the sickness and the exultation. I felt the body desperately ravaged by rheumatic fever, and then by stroke after stroke, but more, I felt the body that felt itself connected to all of society’s harmed, broken, vulnerable, and desperately fragile, all of whom had in common the fact they loved, and they loved deeply, usually unrequited, unknown, or simply the wrong person. She has a special ability to describe the loneliness and isolation of the human condition, and the special human qualities of society’s misfits, outcasts, sick, young, old, and more.

Photo of Carson McCullers in her childhood home in Columbus, Georgia (photo: susan smith nash) 
Love was the condition that pushed the individual directly from room to room, place to place, feeling connections, but perhaps not able to express it, and certainly not able to articulate the pain and anguish when that love was not returned. It was a bright spring day and outside the azaleas were already blooming, the trees oxygenating the air with their showy green foliage. In this close, narrow house, I felt the harsh ironies of love when one does not love oneself. Carson McCullers was small, pixie-cut, brave, but fame was too much for her. She fell in love with a soldier at Fort Benning. They married. They loved each other, competed with each other, and ultimately had to separate. People blame her drinking, but that was probably only a symptom. Carson needed the competition as a conversation to continue to write, to have the courage to write about taboo subjects: The racial issues of the Deep South, the loves of the developmentally delayed, the deaf-mute, the same and “other-sex” confusion, all are painted in through scenes in which people react to each other, sacrifice themselves for each other, and then realize that their sacrifices ultimately meant nothing.

I saw the sofa where she composed many of her works, and I was moved by the fact that she continued to write, even after experiencing severe pain from her condition. Common wisdom holds that Carson McCullers was a desperate alcoholic, but others maintain that it was not really so much alcoholism as heart and vascular issues stemming from rheumatic fever and the series of strokes she suffered. At a certain point the sense of grief in the home was too much for me. I shivered lightly and looked out the front window and contemplated the neatly trimmed yards. The home is on a quiet residential street in a very nice part of town.

The lots are large and there are wide sidewalks where people walk their dogs. It reminded me of Ardmore, Oklahoma, and my grandmother’s house. Where did “The Ballad of the Sad Café” take place?  Near here? Near the river where Coca-Cola was supposedly formulated, and where people either worked as laborers in the textile mills or as gentry who spent time sipping mint juleps and capturing life in dreamy watercolors to hang in galleries with impossibly high ceilings and the musical tones of hushed, low Deep South antebellum accents. 

The Chattahoochee River at Columbus, Georgia (photo by susan smith nash) 
Life Edge: Interview with Nick Norwood, Director of the Carson McCullers Center

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