Jenn Shapland Names What Needs Naming in “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers”

If you’re a queer person today, you might have heard of the author Carson McCullers. You might have even read one or more of her books. Then again, there’s a good chance her name is new to you, and that’s no surprise. Despite being a celebrated author during the mid-20th Century, her name often falls to the wayside when today’s literary critics talk about the American greats. Perhaps it’s the nature of her stories that makes her easier to forget than others. McCullers’s works —The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and more — are quiet narratives that focus on internal human struggles, instead of splashy action.

Or maybe the gatekeepers of the literary world, who remain painfully male and heteronormative, have been uneasy with the characters themselves: lonely people longing for things they can’t quite name. McCullers hid queer people in plain sight in all of her work, at a time when being gay could’ve gotten you arrested or accused of being a Communist sympathizer. Similarly, McCullers herself has been hiding in plain sight all these years, her queerness deliberately obscured or erased by her family, her biographers, and even some of her lovers for over 50 years.

Enter: Jenn Shapland, the perfect combination of lesbian, writer, and archivist to bring McCullers to life for a modern-day audience… and set the record gay.

“What is the precise evidence for love?” Shapland asks in her stunning, full-length nonfiction debut, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers (Tin House, Feb. 2020). Throughout her riveting and tender investigation into this question, Shapland travels the country chasing down letters, photographs, and objects in order to uncover the truth about the love life of an oft-overlooked titan of American fiction. She approaches the daunting task, she says, like “a crime scene,” examining every clue she finds and telling us about them. By doing so, by finally saying aloud what has been known only in the shadows, Shapland protects the evidence of McCullers’s love from total destruction. In the process, she builds a sense of deep empathy across generations of queerness through the power of shared experience.

From the title alone, we know we’re in for something different. How does one person write someone else’s autobiography? It seems impossible. But sometimes, a magnificent life occurs before the language exists with which to honestly write about it. Many praised McCullers as an author “ahead of her time.” But as a queer woman in the mid-20th Century, she was also ahead of her time in a way that left her unable to express her own identity aloud or on paper; she literally did not have the words. Shapland reaches back and painstakingly crafts the story McCullers was never able to tell. She dissects artifacts from the author’s life and draws on her own modern-day experiences as a queer woman, which aren’t all that different even fifty years later. We are left with the sense that queerness is infinite, that it transcends time and unites us in the “feelings of isolation, loneliness, and longing” only we in the margins can understand.

This book will change the way you think about the truth. It’s about McCullers, yes, but also about how one builds a biography. I was taught in school that biography was absolute, objective fact, free from point of view, that told the whole truth about a life, and I was naive enough to believe this until now. Shapland interrogates the entire form and sheds light on the subjectivity of nonfiction, saying: “I have read enough biographies to know, in no uncertain terms, that they are built of artifice and lies.” She focuses primarily on the omissions, both inadvertent and deliberate, that have obscured and erased queerness not just from McCullers’s story but from history since time immemorial:

“Many of the details of Carson’s lesbian life are right there, in plain sight. It’s just that they are housed within another narrative: the straight narrative, the one in which inexplicable crushes on and friendships with women surface briefly within the confines of an otherwise ‘normal’ life.”

Shapland then pinpoints a realization that now explodes in my own brain: “To know that Carson was a lesbian… is to open up all of history: everyone may have been lesbian, no matter what the marriages or the records show.” The idea that the world has always been as queer as it is today leaves me both thrilled with validation and mournful for all that’s been taken from us. We have been gaslit, my dears, and the loss is incalculable.

Shapland is methodical and meticulous, as one would expect a good archivist to be. She leaves no stone unturned in her pursuit, and it feels like a race against time. She catalogs McCullers’s archived clothing, which tells the story of her specific, queer style and her chronic illness. She transcribes the love letters to McCullers from women abroad and puts us in the room of the intimate therapy sessions that McCullers tried, and failed, to use as a breeding ground for her own autobiography. She makes a list of McCullers’s potential girlfriends…and other “possible lesbians.” She inhabits McCullers’s Georgia home, and the author’s favorite writing retreat, as well as countless library basements and records departments, hitching rides and retracing her steps, all in service of the mission: to put the real puzzle together at last.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers never loses its forward momentum; it is never tedious. As Shapland picks up clue after clue, she leaves us our own breadcrumb trail to follow, hinting at and building toward the biggest love of McCullers’s short life. It is a love that, to Shapland’s disbelief, no biographer has yet put down on paper. When the remnants of this relationship appear in the book, you will know there is only one rational explanation for the way these two women felt about each other. As Shapland puts it: “I, for one, am weary of the refusal to acknowledge what is plainly obvious, plainly wonderful. Call it love.”

There are several beautifully rendered threads that weave throughout this collection and have made it nearly impossible for me to stay within my assigned word count: the importance of language as it relates to identity; McCullers’s and Shapland’s rebellion against the gender binary. Addiction issues among the queer arts crowd of the mid-20th Century, how objects and clothing define us, and the parallels between queerness and chronic illness for both Shapland and McCullers. But above all else, this is a love story: or, better still, this is a story about love and all the forms it can take. For McCullers, love was a catalyst for creation, for community, and she longed for it more than anything else. Her dogged pursuit of love finally finds its match in Shapland’s tenacity to name what needs naming, without euphemism or innuendo: to tell the world who Carson McCullers was and where she found love and family.

It has taken over 50 years for us to get the full, queer truth about Carson McCullers’s life, and now I know why. We were waiting for Jenn Shapland. Where physical artifacts fall short, the parallels between the two women’s lives give Shapland the ability to intuit how McCullers must have felt at pivotal moments in her life; for instance, both McCullers and Shapland were first outed to their relatives by a close family member. This is only one of the many eerie coincidences the book holds, to the point that Shapland herself starts to feel as if McCullers is haunting her: or perhaps, it’s the other way around. Shapland’s time as an archivist is evident in her expert rendering of objects in sharp detail on the page; we can see McCullers’s blue chair and feel the texture of her long, red, wool coat.

Shapland possesses the perfect storm of talents to push McCullers’s love life, and beautiful writing, into the light of this century during a moment when we need all the queer heroes we can get. In My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, we regain one hero, and discover another: McCullers and Shapland, respectively. I recommend adding both of these women to your 2020 reading lists.


Are you thinking to yourself, “Wow, this book sounds incredible, I’d really like to read it!”? Great news! We’re giving away 5 free copies of My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland. Enter our contest on Instagram by Wed Feb 12.

Kate has written 2 articles for us.

26 Comments

  1. “The idea that the world has always been as queer as it is today leaves me both thrilled with validation and mournful for all that’s been taken from us. We have been gaslit, my dears, and the loss is incalculable.” I obsess about this ALL THE TIME.

    Beautiful review–I can’t wait to read this book!

  2. I read a lot of memoir and biography and am often wondering why. but this sounds fantastic, thanks for the rave review!
    between this and Portrait of a Lady on Fire I really have been thinking a lot about recorded history gaslighting us. love to see us being able to imagine predecessors where we (I) couldn’t before.

  3. A wonderfully written and considered review and now I can’t wait to read the book. I got my MA at UT and am thinking about how this was there at the Harry Ransom Center the whole time. I’m looking forward to reading more of your reviews–it actually was the tipping point to my finally signing up as a member.

  4. Oh goodness.
    Carson McCullers is my lifelong favourite writer – no other author has ever come close. And I have pined for this exact book for so long. To the degree that last week (last week! I’m not kidding), completely oblivious to this book, I secretly hatched a plan to write it – pondering these kinds of questions (if I base a biography in McCullers’ queerness, doesn’t that just reveal the artifice and bias of biograph-ing?)
    Completely amazed to check AS today and find that it’s just been published! Thank you so much for this gorgeous review/teaser Kate – I’ll be buying the book today. (And so glad I don’t have to write it, haha ‘meticulous and methodical’ are not words I’d use for my own work style).

  5. Am I really the only one who thinks that Carson McCullers was a queer trans guy? It explains all “contradictions” of their biography and their novels. It also explains why they had such a hard time living their queer self, while they were surrounded by lesbians and gay men.
    They were even married to a gay man.

  6. I skimmed this review when it was published but am back now, having read an advanced copy of the book. I loved many things about it–that researcher feeling of “wait, if this isn’t Clearly Gay, what am I? am I real?”, and the creeping reminder that we’re all Heterosexual Until Rigorously Proven Otherwise; the spiral-shaped trajectory of Shapland’s journey and her queer interest in revisiting points previously established.

    I do want to mention for others who plan to read it, and hear anyone’s opinion about, Shapland’s insistence on using “lesbian” to describe any woman who experiences desire for other women, regardless of what other desires or directions were at work in her life. On the one hand, I appreciate such an expansive vision of lesbianism, particularly in a time when there’s some fucking awful gatekeeping of “lesbianism” going on, but bisexuality is only floated occasionally by name, usually as “tendencies,” and I felt like she was overly reductive in using queer desire to prove, QED, that therefore Carson didn’t feel real desire for her husband. (Which she may not have! But to conclude that from primarily her queer expressions is… not how it works.)

    • I get what you’re saying, and in the book Shapland does talk about the fact that she, like all biographers, is coming from a certain angle when looking at McCullers’s life. But I also think we can look at the intensive work Shapland has done, and the fact that there don’t seem to be any men in the picture romantically, besides her gay husband of convenience who physically abused her, and that all of her romantic pining was for women, and conclude that she was most probably a lesbian. I don’t see it as a stretch at all.

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