- My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland
Tin House Books, 2020, 288 pp. ISBN 9781947793286, $22.95 hardcover.
The essays included in the 1993 volume The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism, edited by Diane Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar, both called for and enacted a new paradigm in literary criticism. The essays advocated for admitting and embracing, rather than eschewing, the personal connections between writers and their subjects, with the assumption that individual scholars are often drawn to and invested in their work due to very personal and often psychological reasons, although they have been discouraged by their disciplines from being honest about those personal connections. While some critics have taken up the mantel in the intervening twenty-seven years and written book-length autobiographical critical works, books of this type remain rarities. Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is perhaps the most significant example of this type of personal critique. And it may be the most honest and subtle consideration to date of the life of Carson McCullers.
Shapland’s title suggests the mirrored, dual nature of the work: it is simultaneously Shapland’s biographical exploration of McCullers’s life, calling into question how previous biographers have represented McCullers, in particular her sexuality, and Shapland’s consideration of her own evolving sexual and affectional identity. The book explores the significance of McCullers to Shapland’s struggle with her self-identification as a woman who loves women. The book provides an accurate and engaging narrative of McCullers’s life and Shapland’s own struggles with identity, especially vis a vis gender and sexuality. Shapland wrestles with a question that concerns all previous biographical writing on McCullers: was Carson McCullers a lesbian, or to avoid prescriptive labeling, did McCullers love women? Relying significantly on Carson McCullers’s posthumously published, unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, and the unpublished transcripts of some of McCullers’s 1958 therapy sessions that came to light in 2013, Shapland’s book is the first significant biographical work on McCullers to draw upon these sources.
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers recounts Shapland’s relationship with McCullers from her first encounter with some of McCullers’s archival materials housed in the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) at the University of Texas at Austin, where Shapland interned while a graduate student in English. The narrative begins when Shapland realizes that “Carson McCullers had loved women” (7). The autobiographical narrative then follows Shapland from the HRC in Texas to living in New York, the city to which McCullers fled the South; to her monthlong stay, four years later, in McCullers’s childhood home in Columbus, Georgia; and through her fellowship at the Yaddo artists’ community in New York, where McCullers spent a significant amount of time and where Shapland continued her work on My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. [End Page 836]
Shapland’s discovery of McCullers’s love letters to another woman in the HRC archives came at a crucial moment in Shapland’s life as she struggled with her own identity. As Shapland recounts the encounter, “I found the letters at the tail end of the major, slow-burning catastrophe of my twenties” (9), and “like most twenty-five-year-olds, I couldn’t figure out what came next. What came next was Carson” (10). The personal struggles that Shapland describes for herself and McCullers prove essential in understanding both McCullers’s life and much of her creative work as well. Accepting the “messiness,” as Shapland describes it, of this endeavor, rather than trying to normalize or regularize it into a heteronormative biographical narrative, also provides a cypher for understanding McCullers as a person and her relationships. And it offers readers a more informed way to read McCullers’s creative work.
Shapland’s autobiographical response to McCullers’s life is not unlike the response many readers have to McCullers’s work, possibly in response to what can be described as her aesthetics of empathy. McCullers’s entire corpus can be read as a call for empathy for her characters, a desire for empathy by McCullers herself, and also a gesture of empathy toward...