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  • Tension and Transcendence: “The Jew” in the Fiction of Carson McCullers
  • Larry Hershon (bio)

It is illuminating to consider how Carson McCullers saw the European and American Jew of the 1930s and 1940s, the time during which all her major fiction was conceived and almost all completed. Against a background of rising Fascism and Nazism and the frequently anti-Semitic literature of her contemporaries (much of which she knew well), McCullers specifically and repeatedly addresses the issue of Jewish identity in terms of its being one, if by no means the only, symbol in her work of spiritual wisdom and oppression. Her particular notions of spiritual transcendence are often explored through the figure of the Jew in general and the Jewish musician in particular. Indeed, Irving H. Buchen contends that McCullers’ “elect” includes “a Jewish musician as an adolescent” (537). One such character, Heime Israelsky, appears in her very first published short story, “Wunderkind” (1936).

To what, then, does such a Jew aspire? The transcendence that most interests McCullers involves a survival of soul effected by progressing from a materialist outlook to a spiritual state of mind via more ethereal forms of communication, principally music. McCullers’ sense of the American artist as quester aligns this transcendence with the constant spiritual searching of foundational American writers such as Walt Whitman. To McCullers, an “artist” is so simply by virtue of that search. [End Page 52] For both Jew and non-Jew, then, searching rather than “finding,” as such, is what counts. But searching, for McCullers’ Jewish characters, interrelates with the particular socio-historical circumstances of her time and place—the South and beyond—to create a tension in her writing that reveals her understanding of “the Jew” and Jewishness. I shall discuss these interrelations as they unfold chronologically, introducing the work of other authors as they bear upon the texts.

It must be made clear that McCullers’ engagement in philosophical, religious, literary, and political conceptualization is ungrounded in any structured theoretical models. Though an accomplished musician as well as writer, McCullers was no philosopher, theologian, literary theorist, or politician. My account is inevitably predicated to a large extent on her educated but unsystematic and often idiosyncratic sensibility. That is not to say she was apolitical or aphilosophical. But, for example, the socio-political situations depicted in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) do not amount to studied polemic. Nor in that novel does the strain of pantheism presented by Harry Minowitz owe more than the loosest of allegiances to the more accepted progenitors of such ideas. In The Member of the Wedding (1946), world events concerning Jew and non-Jew alike are subordinated to the private world of Frankie Addams and questions of Jewish and black civil rights are refracted through the consciousness of Berenice Sadie Brown. But the novel is not intended by McCullers to stand as a historically or politically accurate viewpoint. Similarly, she once stated, “I bless the Latin poet Terence who said, ‘Nothing human is alien to me’ ” (The Mortgaged Heart 282). And all her work imbues her particular brand of transcendence with a pervasive concern for human dignity and the worth of the human soul. But this owes nothing to conventional intellectual, philosophical, or religious notions of “humanism.”

Although McCullers came to form deep personal friendships with many Jews, she knew few of the technicalities of Judaism, nor, for her, was that important to her perception of “the Jew.” Indeed, she regarded the more formulaic spirituality of organized religion as working against transcendent progressions. Doctor Copeland in Heart, for example, has no time for church or the Bible. McCullers was God-fearing in a general way: “I try my best to live according to the teaching of Jesus Christ” (Illumination and Night Glare 65). But her sense of the tantalizingly unresolved more certainly informed her view of Catholicism: “When I was a child of about four, I was walking with my nurse past a convent . . . I saw the children eating ice-cream cones, playing on iron swings, and I watched, fascinated . . . year by year . . . I knew all the time that [End Page 53] there was a marvellous party going on, but I couldn’t get...


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pp. 52-72
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