The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

May 27, 2019

The way I need you is a loneliness I cannot bear.

Carson McCullers

So wrote John Singer, a deaf-mute, in a letter he never sent, to his best friend, a fellow deaf-mute who was illiterate, dumb, selfish, and uncaring. This failure to connect and tendency to project is a repeated motif of Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Huntera disturbing and tragic fugue of a novel with contrapuntal parts played by social misfits and outcasts in a town in the deep South. The novel explores the human struggle to be loved and to express oneself, with themes of man’s struggle against isolation, religion as self-delusion, and heroism. It is striking that this novel, #17 on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, was begun when Carson McCullers, née Lula Carson Smith, was only 19 and published in 1940 when she was 23.

Mick Kelly

There are several fascinating characters in the novel, but the one which captured my heart was Mick Kelly, a young teenage girl in an impoverished family. She walks through town at night, sneaking into the yard of a rich couple to hide in the shrubbery and listen to their radio, as her family cannot afford one. One night she experiences an epiphany, one which spoke to my soul:

 One program came on after another, and all of them were punk. She didn’t especially care. She smoked and picked a little bunch of grass blades. After a while a new announcer started talking. He mentioned Beethoven. She had read in the library about that musician—his name was pronounced with an a and spelled with double e. He was a German fellow like Mozart. When he was living he spoke in a foreign language and lived in a foreign place—like she wanted to do. The announcer said they were going to play his third symphony. She only halfway listened because she wanted to walk some more and she didn’t care much what they played. Then the music started. Mick raised her head and her fist went up to her throat.

   How did it come? For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only that first part of the music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud. It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her.

   She could not listen good enough to hear it all. The music boiled inside her. Which? To hang on to certain wonderful parts and think them over so that later she would not forget—or should she let go and listen to each part that came without thinking or trying to remember? Golly! The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough. Then at last the opening music came again, with all the different instruments bunched together for each note like a hard, tight fist that socked at her heart. And the first part was over.

   This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms held tight around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. It might have been five minutes she listened or half the night. The second part was black-colored—a slow march. Not sad, but like the whole world was dead and black and there was no use thinking back how it was before. One of those horn kind of instruments played a sad and silver tune. Then the music rose up angry and with excitement underneath. And finally the black march again.

   But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best—glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.

   It was over, and she sat very stiff with her arms around her knees. Another program came on the radio and she put her fingers in her ears. The music left only this bad hurt in her, and a blankness. She could not remember any of the symphony, not even the last few notes. She tried to remember, but no sound at all came to her. Now that it was over there was only her heart like a rabbit and this terrible hurt.

   The radio and the lights in the house were turned off. The night was very dark. Suddenly Mick began hitting her thigh with her fists. She pounded the same muscle with all her strength until the tears came down her face. But she could not feel this hard enough. The rocks under the bush were sharp. She grabbed a handful of them and began scraping them up and down on the same spot until her hand was bloody. Then she fell back to the ground and lay looking up at the night. With the fiery hurt in her leg she felt better. She was limp on the wet grass, and after a while her breath came slow and easy again.

   Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.

That whole passage is so strong, so true, that I am convinced the author was describing her own experience in listening to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony for the first time. Lula Carson Smith left Columbus, Georgia on a steamship after graduating high school, planning to study piano at Juilliard. But she lost her tuition money on the subway and worked odd jobs until a bout of rheumatic fever forced her return home to recuperate.

When she returned to New York, thank heaven she had changed her mind about studying music and instead enrolled in night classes at Columbia and studied creative writing under Dorothy Scarborough and Sylvia Chatfield Bates. For that bequeathed to humanity the book with that passage.

I too loved music and piano as a child, taking years of lessons. Throughout elementary school I said I wanted to be a piano teacher when I grew up. And then I discovered physics. But I still identify with Mick Kelly’s fascination and frustration with music. There are songs and music that transported me the first time I heard them and still evoke intense emotions every time they return in my life. They vary in their quality and their complexity, in their context, and in genre. And none have lost their power over me.

But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best—glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.

For you, Mick, it was the 3rd, and for me the 9th. But across the decades we agree…wonderful music like that is the worst hurt there could be. The whole world is that symphony, and there is not enough of us to listen.

  • The grin that cracks my face wide open and how I simply must wriggle and thrash my arms when I hear Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven.

  • How Hanson’s boisterously silly MMMBop takes me right back to how it came up on shuffle play on my first iPod, leading me to caper and dance along a slippery snowy trail at Mt. Rainier, in one of the happiest moments of my life.

  • How whenever I hear Bette Midler sing The Rose, I am destroyed and left in tears.

So it seems fitting that, in the weird ping-pong way of life, it was music that led me to read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Every year or two I get a hankering to take slow nibbles at a great but disturbing novel. I was perusing the Modern Library listing when I was struck by the familiarity of that title. You see, David Byrne of Talking Heads fame sang the song The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter on Thievery Corporation‘s 2005 album The Cosmic Game.  Years ago I stumbled across the song and enjoyed it, with Byrne’s lyrics striking a chord, if you’ll pardon the expression.

R-443026-1333451910.jpegThe truth is unspoken, a promise is broken
I’m under surveillance, they know what my name is
I need some protection, some love and affection
There’s one thousand reasons, but one is the number

Welcome to my spaceship
It’s beautiful forever
Well, she’s right here where you left her
And the heart’s a lonely hunter

Save bottles of water and flour and sugar
Turn off the AC and hang up the bed sheets
Cover the windows, careful where the light goes
Yank out the cable and blow out the candles

Welcome to my spaceship
You’re beautiful forever
She’s right here where you left her
And the heart’s a lonely hunter

Uh huh

1-2-3-4

Perfectly molded, almost unfolded
Under the counter, well, that is your nature
Drip grind or roasted, buttered or toasted
The greater the db’s the higher the AC

Psycho acoustics
Down in the back seats
Stereo nation
Amplification
The brave and the righteous
They’re safe in their houses
And one is just a number
The heart’s a lonely hunter
One is a number
Heart is a hunter
One is a number
The heart is a hunter

Welcome to my spaceship
You’re beautiful forever
She’s right here where you left her
And the heart’s a lonely hunter

Uh huh

Welcome to my spaceship
You’re beautiful forever
She’s right here where you left her
And the heart’s a lonely hunter

Uh huh

800px-William_Sharp_1894

William Sharp

Now, I have no idea if Byrne was thinking of the novel, or perhaps just borrowed the phrase. It comes from the poem The Lonely Hunter published in 1896 by Fiona MacLeod, which was revealed upon his death to have been the pen name of the Scottish writer William Sharp:

Green branches, green branches, I see you
beckon; I follow!
Sweet is the place you guard, there in the
rowan-tree hollow.
There he lies in the darkness, under the frail
white flowers,
Heedless at last, in the silence, of these sweet
midsummer hours.

But sweeter, it may be, the moss whereon he
is sleeping now,
And sweeter the fragrant flowers that may
crown his moon-white brow:
And sweeter the shady place deep in an Eden
hollow
Wherein he dreams I am with him—and,
dreaming, whispers, “Follow!”

Green wind from the green-gold branches,
what is the song you bring?
What are all songs for me, now, who no more
care to sing?
Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to
me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on
a lonely hill.

Green is that hill and lonely, set far in a
shadowy place;
White is the hunter’s quarry, a lost-loved hu-
man face:
O hunting heart, shall you find it, with arrow
of failing breath,
Led o’er a green hill lonely by the shadowy
hound of Death?

Green branches, green branches, you sing of
a sorrow olden,
But now it is midsummer weather, earth-
young, sunripe, golden:
Here I stand and I wait, here in the rowan-
tree hollow,
But never a green leaf whispers, “Follow, oh,
Follow, Follow!”

O never a green leaf whispers, where the
green-gold branches swing:
O never a song I hear now, where one was
wont to sing
Here in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to
me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on
a lonely hill.

That poem is heartbreaking, as is the novel, which I came to with zero advance knowledge: I’d never heard of it or any of its characters. But it is a wonderful dark thing with remarkable insights into the human condition. Consider these two sentences:

The people dreamed and fought and slept as much as ever. And by habit they shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.

28701A passage when a black doctor receives terrible news from his daughter also resonated with me. Have you experienced this?

   Portia spoke in a low voice, and she neither paused between words nor did the grief in her face soften. It was like a low song. She spoke and he could not understand. The sounds were distinct in his ear but they had no shape or meaning. It was as though his head were the prow of a boat and the sounds were water that broke on him and then flowed past. He felt he had to look behind to find the words already said.

And then, when the terrible tragic news finally strikes him:

   He waited for the black, terrible anger as though for some beast out of the night. But it did not come to him. His bowels seemed weighted with lead, and he walked slowly and lingered against fences and the cold, wet walls of buildings by the way. Descent into the depths until at last there was no further chasm below. He touched the solid bottom of despair and there took ease.

In this he knew a certain strong and holy gladness. The persecuted laugh, and the black slave sings to his outraged soul beneath the whip. A song was in him now—although it was not music but only the feeling of a song. And the sodden heaviness of peace weighted down his limbs so that it was only with the strong, true purpose that he moved. Why did he go onward? Why did he not rest here upon the bottom of utmost humiliation and for a while take his content? But he went onward.

As you can guess, the novel’s ending is rather bleak, but one character does have a brief moment of insight into the human condition:

   The silence in the room was deep as the night itself. Biff stood transfixed, lost in his meditations. Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended. He saw that he was looking at his own face in the counter glass before him. Sweat glistened on his temples and his face was contorted. One eye was opened wider than the other. The left eye delved narrowly into the past while the right gazed wide and affrighted into a future of blackness, error, and ruin. And he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith. Sharply he turned away.

What brings meaning to life? Labor…and love. That is a more satisfying, if less funny, answer than 42. Thank you, Lula Carson Smith.

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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1 Response to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

  1. Christine says:

    I just read this book, too, and your review showed up in the “More on WordPress” section of my screen. I also fell hard for the book, the characters, especially Mick, and the fundamental truths expressed so beautifully by Carson McCullers. Great post and I’m glad I found it!

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