Friday, February 10, 2017

The Great Eaters of Georgia

Carson McCullers (1917–1967)
From Carson McCullers: Stories, Plays, & Other Writings

Barbecue stand near Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia, 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott (1910–1990) for the Farm Security Administration (Library of Congress). “It is in Columbus that I feel most strongly the continuity of the past,” McCullers later wrote. “It was at Fort Benning that I spent the happiest years of my childhood.”
By 1953 Carson McCullers’s long-troubled marriage was at a breaking point: both she and her husband were in Paris, drinking heavily, and Carson found out that Reeves had (once again) forged her name on checks. That summer he attempted to kill himself and tried to talk Carson into committing suicide with him. She fled Paris and returned alone to her home in Nyack, New York.

A few months earlier, Holiday magazine had offered Carson McCullers fifteen hundred dollars to write a piece on Georgia and so she planned a return to the state in November to gather materials and memories. She wrote to a friend, the novelist and social critic Lillian Smith, and announced her intention to visit the town of Clayton and stay at the home Smith shared with Paula Snelling. But Smith was exhausted and frail; she had just finished her latest novel and had recently undergone surgery for breast cancer. “It was not easy to change Carson’s plans once her mind was made up,” Snelling later told McCullers biographer Virginia Spencer Carr. Yet when the unwanted guest arrived, they all stayed up late drinking bourbon and caught up on their lives and gossip, and McCullers complained at length about her rocky marriage.

During her stay with Smith and Snelling, McCullers learned that her husband had committed suicide in the Hôtel Chateau Frontenac on November 18. Although her hosts initially urged her to remain at their home to recover from the shock, McCullers insisted on going to visit Hervey Cleckley, a friend who was also a psychiatrist. Cleckley, who was busy at work (with coauthor Corbett H. Thigpen) on his book The Three Faces of Eve, later told Carr that he and McCullers discussed his research in psychopathology and talked at length about Reeves’s suicide. Their conversations helped McCullers understand both her husband and their relationship, as she later described in her unfinished memoir:
Hervey Cleckley has written a masterful book called The Mask of Sanity, and in that book I could see Reeves mirrored. Psychopathic people are very often charming. They live on their charm, their good looks and the weaknesses of wives or mothers.
McCullers finally returned to Nyack at the end of November—and the next day The New York Times published her husband’s obituary, which suggested as a possible cause of death injuries suffered from a car accident several weeks before. Yet the actual cause was hardly a secret to the couple’s acquaintances and, amidst the deluge of calls and condolences, there seemed to be a palpable sense of relief among some of McCullers’s friends. Carr reports that the actress Helen Hayes, who also lived in Nyack, dropped by and told Carson’s mother, “I’m not going to say I’m sorry, Bebe, because I don’t think I am.”

McCullers soon returned to the task of writing the article for Holiday, and she completed a version in early 1954. The events of the previous year surely explain the wistful and somewhat melancholy tone, and the essay was rejected because (according to biographer Josyane Savigneau) the magazine was “looking for a lighter, more descriptive, less personal piece.” McCullers’s various drafts were eventually stored at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas, Austin, and in 2004 Carlos L. Dews and James G. Mayo collated the drafts to prepare “The Great Eaters of Georgia” for publication in Oxford American. It has been reprinted in the Library of America’s new collection Carson McCullers: Stories, Plays, & Other Writings and we present it here as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: Une petite combine is French for “a little scheme.” Annie Dennis' Cookbook: A Compendium of Popular Household Recipes for the Busy Housewife was originally published in 1893; the volume familiar to McCullers was probably the later publication The New Annie Dennis Cook Book, which appeared in various editions between 1901 and 1921.

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After many years in Europe I visited my home state, Georgia. Until that time I did not realize that I was homesick, homesick for Georgia countryside, Georgia voices, Georgia ways. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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