Oft-listed alongside the likes of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor as a pioneer of Southern Gothic fiction, Carson McCullers was an American novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and poet whose work delved into the internal lives of lonely people. Born in Columbus, Georgia in 1917, McCullers’ chronic health problems and extensive periods of bedrest prompted a passion for reading she would foster throughout her life.
Finding inspiration in the pages of Tolstoy, Forster, Dostoevsky and Proust, McCullers began writing in earnest after moving to New York at the age of 17. Her first novel, 1940’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, explored the spiritual isolation of social outcasts in a small mill town in the American South. Centering a deaf-mute character and his interactions with four acquaintances – a tomboyish teen girl, an alcoholic political activist, an observant diner owner, and an aging Black doctor – the work garnered a tremendous amount of critical and commercial success for the young author.
Embracing the eccentric and examining the human search for connection are enduring themes that appear throughout McCullers’ oeuvre. Other notable works include 1941’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1946’s The Member of the Wedding, 1951’s The Ballad of the Sad Café, 1958’s The Square Root of Wonderful, and 1961’s Clock Without Hands. A Collected Stories anthology, comprising nineteen works of short fiction that explore the tragicomedy of Southern life, came out in 1987.
Revered as a writer’s writer, Tennessee Williams highlighted the “intensity and nobility of spirit” in her work, Gore Vidal stated that her “genius for prose remains one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture,” and Richard Wright noted “the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race” in a review of her debut novel.
More than six decades after its original publication, Oprah Winfrey selected The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for her book club in 2004, skyrocketing sales and reviving interest in the author’s work. In celebration of McCullers’ lifelong love of reading, Oprah’s Book Club also compiled a list of books and authors that had a profound impact on her writing, culled from her unfinished autobiography Illumination and Night Glare.
From Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to Joyce and Proust, explore a selection of Carson McCullers’ greatest literary influences below, and complement with the reading recommendations of other iconic authors.
“Tolstoy is considered by almost everyone as the greatest novelist that ever lived, and I can only say, me too. From his first beautiful book on [war] and [Sebastopol,] all through his long and marvelously productive life he stands alone as a writer…It is interesting to me to think of the seeds of his stories, ‘his illuminations.’ Anna Karenina was evolved because he had heard of a woman who had jumped in front of a moving train and died. The grandeur of [War and Peace], a historical novel, which must have brought Tolstoy almost daily illuminations. He was fastidious as Proust in his realism of the styles and fashions of the times, and like Proust he was working on an immense canvas.” -CM
“The next and possibly one of the strongest influences in my reading life is [Dostoevsky] – Tolstoy, of course, is at the top… One is just swept away from one incredible scene to another incredible scene. The scene when [Nastasya] lights a fire to burn up the bank notes in front of [Ganya] is almost like a [True Story] fiction, but in spite of it, the emotions of the scene make it so real.” -CM
My Life by Isadora Duncan
“When I was fourteen years old, the great love of my life, which influenced the whole family, was Isadora Duncan. I read [My Life,] not only read it but preached it. My daddy, who believed with my mother, that a child should read without censorship, could not help but be amazed by my preaching of ‘free love’ to the family at large, and anyone else who would listen. One nosy neighbor criticized my parents for letting me speak so precociously about [Isadora] Duncan and her love life.” -CM
“This week I’ve been reading [Dubliners.] How such a spasm of poetry could have come out of the grimy Dublin streets of that time is miraculous to me. [A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,] I also read every year or so. … Whenever I think of artists having a hard time I think of James Joyce. He had one hell of a time to earn a living for himself and his family. [Dubliners] was suppressed, and at one time burnt, I believe [Ulysses] was suppressed and pirated all over the world, and of course James Joyce did not receive any of the pirated money. He earned only the fame and the grandeur of a noble spirit.” -CM
“…Another lesser writer who is also dear to me. Scott Fitzgerald, always in debt to his agent; with a wife that was mad and confined to institutions. Scott, extravagant, [lovable,] playful and impossible. His genius flourished, and he wrote [Tender is the Night,] in the most appalling psychological situation.” -CM
“It’s a bleak white January day, and I’ve been drinking cup after cup of hot tea and reading Henry James. I’d never realized how really good he is. One is quite willing to stumble through pages of ambiguities for those sudden, exquisite lines, those almost unexpected revelations. I’d never realized how deeply he has influenced the present poets—Eliot, Auden, etc. I want us to read the Beast in the Jungle together.” -CM
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
“[Edwin Peacock and John Ziegler] insisted that I read a book called [Out of Africa,] and since I thought it was about big game hunting, I insisted just as firmly I didn’t want to read it. In the end they got their way, for when Reeves and I were in the car on our way to Fayetteville, they slipped two books in my lap; they were [Out of Africa] and [Seven Gothic Tales.] I started [Out of Africa] in the car and read until sundown. Never had I felt such enchantment. After years of reading this book, and I have read it many times, I still have a sense of both solace and freedom whenever I start it again. I have naturally read all of her books, but these particular two are my favorites.” -CM
“Another writer who was particularly dear to me is Richard Wright. … Dick and I often discussed the South, and his book, [Black Boy,] is one of the finest books by a Southern [Negro.]” -CM
“After the postman comes this afternoon I’ll read Proust. Today I was thinking of the immense debt I owe to Proust. It’s not a matter of his ‘influencing my style’ or anything like that—it’s the rare good fortune of having always something to turn to, and great book that never tarnishes, never become[s] dull from familiarity.” -CM
Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
“Another author whom I read constantly is E.M. Forster. One of the most enjoyable times I’ve ever had was when Mary Mercer read aloud [Where Angels Fear to Tread.] We both went into fits of laughter.” -CM
(via Oprah’s Book Club)