When Caron McCullers published The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, aged just 23, she became a literary sensation almost overnight.
Now, 70 years on, her story has ridden out that early hype. The book's popular acceptance as a modern classic is evidence that the themes of frustration and longing which McCullers painted so skillfully are universally open wounds. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter touches the tender part that is as innately human as the brain or lungs.
McCullers conjures the most disparate of characters: a tomboy musical prodigy, a jaded black doctor and a belligerent white worker, and opens them up to show their identical innards.
Time Magazine included the book in its "100 greatest English-language books from 1923 to 2005". The original Time review said:
Published last week were three books which, utterly divergent in most respects, all operated in a common, powerful, magnetic field. Each centred in a Messiah.
First Novel. Slightest of the three was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the talented first novel of 22-year-old Carson Mc-Cullers, Georgia girl.
In a deep-southern mill town a half-mad anarchist, a Negro doctor desperate to free his race, a girl who loves music, and a quiet, watchful cafe owner all come to share a mystical admiration for deaf-mute John Singer. Out of Singer's stunned face and his silence, each of the four constructs an image of absolute understanding, a godlike sounding board for prayerlike confessions. The fact that Singer himself is coolly puzzled by them, is himself even more piteously dependent than they, escapes them. The fact that no one of them can understand the other they scarcely realize. But when they lose John Singer, three of them lose the mainspring of their precarious spirits. Only the restaurant owner remains relatively intact.
The book is such a study in the relationships of human Christs and semi-Christs to a suffering world as Dostoevski made into the most annihilating literature of his century. As a candidate for high honors, however, Mrs. McCullers flunks out flat on a crucial matter. As a writer of words, she is never distinguished, never in one glint verbally original.