American Literature 71.3 (1999) 551-583
A Mixture of Delicious and Freak”:
The Queer Fiction of Carson McCullers
Rachel Adams *
In April 1963 an aging Carson McCullers made a final visit to the deep South, where she met twenty-six-year-old Gordon Langley Hall at a party in Charleston. At the end of the evening, she pulled him aside as the other guests began to go home and studied him intently for a moment without speaking, then remarked gently, “You’re really a little girl.”1 Years later, physicians concurred that Hall, who had been sexed male at birth, was biologically female and capable of bearing children. Classified as a transsexual, Gordon Langley Hall underwent gender reassignment surgery to become Dawn Pepita Hall. She subsequently married her black butler, John-Paul Simmons, and gave birth to a daughter.2 In a 1971 interview, Hall-Simmons credited McCullers with giving her the courage to acknowledge what were at that time highly unconventional desires: “Carson, her senses sharpened by her own affliction, saw me for what I was in a moment of truth and her heart went out to me. I was a freak, yes, a freak, like one of her own characters.3 Hall-Simmons attributes McCullers’s uncommon insight to her “affliction,” undoubtedly a reference to the author’s chronic illness but also—in the context of an account concerned with the precise correspondence of sex and gender—possibly to her erotic interest in women as well as men and her preference for triangulated rather than coupled love affairs.4 However, it was not only McCullers’s experiences but her position as an author, a creator of freaks, that enabled her to recognize Hall-Simmons’s difference. McCullers’s ability to author deviant bodies has, for Hall-Simmons, a direct relationship to her capacity to recognize the pain experienced by real persons designated as “freaks.” [End Page 551] Likewise, Hall-Simmons’s loneliness and marginality become meaningful through the equation of her freakish condition with that of McCullers’s characters. Indeed, as Hall-Simmons’s analogy indicates, McCullers’s fiction is populated by freaks, characters constrained by corporeal anomalies that defy the imposition of normative categories of identity. These freaks suffer an alienation from their bodies that parallels their experiences of estrangement within and isolation from the society of others. Repeatedly, critics of McCullers’s work have attributed her characters’ suffering to an existential anguish inherent in the human condition. Even those who recognize particular forms of race- or gender-based oppression tend to connect them to “the variety and complexity of human isolation and . . . the destructive repercussions of that alienation.5 This perspective ignores the historical specificity of McCullers’s writing, in which freakish characters point to the untenability of normative concepts of gender and race at a moment when these categories were defined with particular rigidity. This essay seeks to recontextualize two of McCullers’s post–World War II novels—Member of the Wedding (1946) and Clock without Hands (1961)—by exploring the significance of two interlocking concepts that occupy a privileged position in her writing: the freak and the queer. As McCullers uses these terms, their function depends not upon their correspondence to any fixed identity but upon their opposition to normative behaviors and social distinctions. The queer refers loosely to acts and desires that confound the notion of a normative heterosexuality as well as to the homosexuality that is its abject byproduct. Freaks are beings who make those queer tendencies visible on the body’s surfaces. Freaks and queers suffer because they cannot be assimilated into the dominant social order, yet their presence highlights the excesses, contradictions, and incoherences at the very heart of that order. Sometimes, as in the case of Gordon Langley Hall, they inhabit its most intimate and selective social circles. Far from the archetypal portraits of human alienation that so many have detected in McCullers’s work, this interplay of personal suffering and social critique is situated firmly within the context of historical events: the end of World War II, the paranoia...