Literary Daybook, May 24

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.


the Salon Books Editors
May 24, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

Today in fiction

On May 24, Susan and Peter break into their teacher's house so they can prove he is an alien.
-- "My Teacher Is an Alien" (1989)
by Bruce Coville

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1951, Carson McCullers' "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works" was published. Included in this omnibus edition were most of the pieces upon which her reputation now stands: "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," "Reflections in a Golden Eye," "The Member of the Wedding" and a handful of short stories. These had all been written over the previous decade, and the critics used the occasion of the omnibus publication to confirm 34-year-old McCullers as one of America's most important contemporary writers, in a rank with Faulkner, de Maupassant and D.H. Lawrence, said V.S. Pritchett, for her ability to give regional settings and characters "their Homeric moment in a universal tragedy."

During this productive decade McCullers lived, on and off, at 7 Middagh Street, the famous Brooklyn boardinghouse run by George Davis, editor of Harper's Bazaar. This was home to a shifting group of artists and bohemians, which included W.H. Auden, Louis MacNiece, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, Richard Wright, Paul Bowles, Janet Flanner and others. It was while drinking in a bar with Davis and Auden that McCullers had the "illumination" that inspired "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe": "Among the customers there was a woman who was tall and strong as a giantess, and at her heels she had a little hunchback." McCullers describes another such moment, this time related to her plot problems in "The Member of the Wedding": After Thanksgiving turkey and much alcohol, as she and Lee raced along the street trying to catch up to a fire engine, "suddenly, breathlessly, I said to Gypsy, 'Frankie is in love with the bride of the brother and wants to join the wedding.'" (Apparently Lee, too, found 7 Middagh Street conducive, writing the successful "G-string Murders" there.)

The publication of "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Works" proved to be the high-water mark for McCullers' writing and health: Over the next 15 years -- she died in 1967, aged 50 -- she wrote little of note, much of her energy sapped by the pain, depression and operations brought on by the progressive invalidism which had begun in her teens.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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