A couple weeks ago I was looking for something to read on my e-reader. I like to have a book going on it for bedtime reading (no fumbling with a book light, no grumbling from my wife about bright lights). When I’m between books and don’t know what I want to read next, I often download a free preview. Reading one of those is often good enough for the night. In the case of My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, I finished the free preview, immediately purchased the full digital copy, and then stayed up too late reading. It was pure bliss.
The way Shapland entwines McCuller’s biography with her own life experience, research, and interaction with archival objects is exciting and unique. It is a brilliant, ground breaking model of how to deal with archival silences by incorporating life experience and theory. There’s a deep honesty here that I can relate to about how research feels as a lesbian researching another lesbian or queer woman from an earlier time period.
“I didn’t trust the discovery of Carson’s relationship with Mary that I found in the transcripts, in part because I suddenly didn’t trust myself as a reader. If Carson was a lesbian, and if her relationships bore that out, wouldn’t someone already have said so? Wouldn’t it be know beyond rumors in the queer community? It was a real mind-fuck, the back-and-forth between scanning indexes of heavily research biographies that do not contain the words “gay” or “lesbian” or “homosexual” and reading Carson’s adamant descriptions of her own feelings and experiences.”page 41
As a student of archives, I’m well aware of the silences and erasures in archives. In the case of women and queers or any person from a marginalized group, their papers or records (if there were any) were not collected. Archives used to be and still often are places where the papers and records of those with power are preserved. It is often legal and criminal records that inform our understanding of the lives of women and minorities of the past (and present).
The record is not straight
In the case of a person with cultural influence like McCullers whose life was not “straight,” sometimes they restrict access to or withhold certain documents to avoid revealing facets of their own life. In many, perhaps most of such cases, a family member or executrix may place restrictions on particular papers and/or influence how the person is described in the finding aid (if you bury facts deep enough, it will take a long, long time for them to see the light of day). All too often, papers and records are tossed in the garbage or intentionally destroyed.
Another example from McCullers’s life of how the official record “white washes” the truth is her father’s suicide. Not only was his newspaper obituary false, the coroner’s report states that he died of a heart attack. He had actually shot himself in the family home (169). Official records don’t just obscure the truth, they can be outright lies. Later, Carson’s estranged husband also died by suicide. His death was reported in the papers as due to a car accident or from “natural causes” (193). It has taken a tragically long time for humans to move away from seeing suicide as a sin or personal moral failing that need to be covered up, rather than a social and mental health crisis. These are also examples of the importance of research into the historical record and critical thinking, which often starts with a question or noticing inconsistencies.
Either way, in such cover ups the people impacted by the person in question might initially be “saved” from embarrassments or judgements, but, in the long run, the silences have a negative impact on the subject and/or on researchers seeking information about particular groups or identities (women, queer, disabilities, etc). McCullers didn’t hide her life while she was alive, but those trying to shape her biography into a story they deem acceptable, swept away what they did not want to acknowledge or could not understand so they privileged what they could see: heterosexuality.
Instead of throwing up her hands and walking away, Shapland creates a beautiful weave with these archival limitations.
Literary reputations and silences
It makes me think of the case of Willa Cather.* After she died in 1947, there was a drive to keep her literary reputation alive, grow her legacy, and research her life. As these expanded and the whispers about her life blossomed toward the undeniable fact that she was in a lesbian relationship for 40 years, there must have been some “oh fuck” moments in the hearts and minds of conservative folk who love her writing and wanted to use her as a homegrown star from Nebraska to help drive tourism. The same has happened with other writers. Case in point, Shapland’s experience with McCullers.
I knew next to nothing about McCullers before reading My Autobiography of Carson McCullers and have only read one of her novels, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Now I want to read more of her work. I’ve been looking for her novels in used bookstores since finishing Shapland’s book and so far have not found any.
I’ll end with this wise quote from Shapland which I think can help us think differently about people in the past and present:
“A lot of people talk about Carson McCullers as “ahead of her time,” given, I presume, her empathetic writing about gay men, interracial love, racism, and disability in the 1940s and ’50s. But perhaps, in light of a recent election and its aftermath that signal the ongoingness of racist and homophobic and misogynistic and ableist bigotry even during political moments that seem progressive, it feels more accurate to say that she was just plain empathetic to human differences. That it has nothing to do with history, with “the times,” with generation. When I read Carson’s fiction, it is clear that empathy is a choice a person makes, moment to moment, in how they approach other people. On the page and off.”page 143
Title: My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
Author: Jenn Shapland
Publisher: Tin House Books, 2021
Affiliate purchase link: Bookshop.org
* I highly recommend another groundbreaking book, Melissa Homestead’s recent, The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather & Edith Lewis