Saturday, December 16, 2017

Home for Christmas

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

Wynnton School, Columbus, GA, late 1920s. Postcard (no. 28 in a series on Columbus landmarks) printed in 1930 by Curt Teich Co., Chicago, IL, from artwork provided by The White Company, Columbus, GA. As a third grader, Carson McCullers transferred to the Wynnton School in 1925, two years after the school’s current building was completed.
In the 1920s, when Carson McCullers was a child, a highlight of Christmas (perhaps the highlight) was gift giving—as is still true for most children. There was never any question about what to give little Lulu Carson, however. According to biographer Virginia Spencer Carr, even as a preschooler Carson would be asked what she wanted and the answer was, “I want book—lots of books, Mama.”

As an adult, Carr writes, “Carson was almost as excited over Christmas as she was over birthdays.” She would become obsessed with worrying (for weeks) and choosing and giving “just the right present,” but her inability to keep a secret led to occasionally awkward situations. When her therapist, Mary Mercer, learned that McCullers was planning to give her a mink stole, she was appalled—not by the idea of owning a stole but by the cost of one. Unaware that the fur had already been purchased (and was actually not that expensive, as far as such things go), Mercer decided to confront her patient directly and told her that she “simply did not want a blond mink stole and would not wear it.” McCullers was “crushed,” Carr reports, and the ensuing misunderstanding and kerfuffle (which eventually involved several others and is too complicated to be detailed here) ended up with a cousin being struck from the will.

Fortunately, most of McCullers’s holiday gestures did not end up with somebody being disowned. Friends and other writers gratefully recalled holidays spent with McCullers. In 1971 New York Times reporter Mary Cantwell asked Truman Capote to describe favorite Christmases of the past. In the mid-1940s, before he had become a published author, he met McCullers, who invited him to join her and her sister for Christmas at their place in Nyack, thirty miles up the Hudson in New York. On Christmas Eve his Manhattan apartment was robbed—along with all the presents he had bought for the hosts and their guests. “I went up anyway and we played old Marlene Dietrich records and drank wine. It was a very southern Christmas—my last southern Christmas up north—and we had all kinds of fried chicken and pies and cakes. And everybody was very kind about my not giving them a present although they all gave me one.”

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that among the writings published during McCullers’s all-too-short career are four autobiographical pieces about childhood Christmas memories. She wrote her first yuletide essay in 1949. The piece was commissioned by Mademoiselle for a special “Home for Christmas” issue, and it appeared alongside offerings with the same title by popular food writer M.F.K. Fisher and novelist Jessamyn West, author of The Friendly Persuasion. In what strikes us as a fitting close to McCullers’s centennial year, we present her version of “Home for Christmas” as our Story of the Week selection.

Note: One of the books Carson read during summer vacation was Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland, an 1865 novel by American writer Mary Mapes Dodge.

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Sometimes in August, weary of the vacant, broiling after noon, my younger brother and sister and I would gather in the dense shade under the oak tree in the back yard and talk of Christmas and sing carols. . . . 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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