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Reviewed by:
Virginia Spencer Carr. Understanding Carson McCullers. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990. 181 pp. $24.95.
Joseph C. Voelker. Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1989. 185 pp. pb. $9.95.
Lee Milazzo, ed. Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989. 192 pp. $28.95 cloth; pb. $14.95.

Few would deny that ours is a society that places a high premium on uniformity. One of the last bastions of genuine originality left would appear to be book production, that (hopefully) happy joining of writer, editor, and designer in the interest of creating something unique, personal, and original. But even that, alarmists would say, seems to be falling victim increasingly to a dreaded new spectre: the book series. Actually, it is not entirely new: witness the wildly uneven, but wildly successful, Twayne's United States Authors Series. What is new is the proliferation of book series, as extravagant production costs are pricing scholarly studies beyond [End Page 569] the reach of budget-strained research libraries, let alone individual buyers. A number of books featuring the same physical size, format, jacket design, and type-face, all being written simultaneously by a stable of seasoned authors and all being typeset by a stable of volume-minded compositors, are relatively inexpensive and easy for an academic press to produce. And alarmists' fears notwithstanding, cookie-cutter production values do not always make for saccharine books. Substantive, attractive volumes are being produced steadily in series sponsored by the University of South Carolina Press, the University of Missouri Press, and the University of Mississippi. They often are not reviewed by scholarly journals, but they deserve better.

Virginia Spencer Carr's Understanding Carson McCullers is part of South Carolina's "Understanding Contemporary American Literature" ("UCAL") series, produced under the general editorship of Matthew J. Bruccoli. The typical UCAL volume is a classic vade mecum: small (about 5'' x 7''), short (usually less than 200 pages), and with a large typeface which, if not exactly primer, is nevertheless a relief to anyone who has endured the cost-conscious microscopic print of so many scholarly studies these days. In brief, a UCAL book does not look like much—especially because each diminutive chapter usually focuses on just one text. But as Understanding Carson McCullers confirms, a UCAL book can deliver far more than it promises. Carr is of course the preeminent interpreter of Carson McCullers; her monumental biography of McCullers, The Lonely Hunter (Doubleday, 1975), was deservedly nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Carr's considerable expertise is evident on every page of her UCAL volume, which in many instances offers more critical commentary on individual texts than did The Lonely Hunter. To be sure, there is plot rehash aplenty of such standard McCullers novels as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding; that feature is, after all, integral to the UCAL format. But Carr makes generous use of contemporary reviews, unpublished letters, and her own conversations with those in McCullers' circle—Tennessee Williams, W. H. Auden, even her brother Lamar Smith, and her music teacher Mary Tucker—to offer insightful readings which demonstrate not only the artistry (or lack thereof) in McCullers' works, but also the capacity of McCullers' personal life and misgivings to shape her choice and treatment of materials. Carr's book is not hagiography; her analysis of McCullers' play The Square Root of Wonderful, for example—a work essentially ignored in the scholarship—concludes with the appraisal that it fails as literature because McCullers had not been able "to work out in it the ambivalent love/hatred emotions" that had been kindled during its composition by the suicide of her bisexual husband and the unexpected death of her beloved mother. Carr also makes judicious use of both classic and quite recent studies by other scholars, such as Barbara Farrelly's important 1988 study of the structural affinities between The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Beethoven's Third Symphony Eroica. Especially welcome are her discussions of such overlooked McCullers works as Reflections in a Golden Eye, Clock Without Hands, and the short stories, which are accorded...


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