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THESE FADED THINGS: Carson McCullers

southern fashion

Fashion & Fiction in the South:

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

My favorite moment visiting the Smith-McCullers House Museum in Columbus, Georgia, wasn’t hearing Carson McCullers’s deep, rich voice and seeing her move about on film for the first time, although that came in a close second. When we sat down in front of a small television set showing footage from some long ago interview, I was mesmerized by her voice, by her drawn-out vowels spoken in the kind of Southern drawl you have to drive far out into the country to hear these days. I was surprised by her shaky fragility and nervous tics that flickered across the screen in black and white; by the way she could be so strangely elegant at the same time, holding her cigarette in long-fingered hands as beautiful as any film star’s.

No. My favorite moment, the one that really gave me chills, was when we were standing in what had been Carson’s room and the tour guide casually mentioned that a good part of The Member of the Wedding had been written there. She pointed to a corner of the room where a typewriter had once been, and where a huge, enlarged photo now stood, showing McCullers in the exact same spot, with one hand on her typewriter as though she had been caught mid-sentence. She is dressed in a sweater, wool trousers, and dirty oxford shoes—and with her short straight hair and bored expression she appears the way I imagine The Member of the Wedding’s Frankie Addams to look.

carson mccullers

At the beginning of the novel, during that green and crazy summer when she has grown so tall that she feels “almost a big freak,” Frankie is dressed like a boy in track shorts and an undershirt, with close-cropped hair and a bad habit of throwing knives around the house for shock value. She sits listlessly at the kitchen table with her caretaker, Berenice, and her little cousin, John Henry, just as she has done all summer, but suddenly everything changes and nothing makes much sense anymore. Her brother has just stopped by with his bride-to-be, and Frankie is too dazzled by their visit to think straight, too excited about their upcoming wedding to concentrate on anything else.

Up until now she has been only an observer, “an unjoined person who [hangs] around in doorways,” watching from afar as other girls her age play and form clubs that Frankie is never invited to join. “Dressed in her khaki shorts and Mexican hat,” she looks on jealously as soldiers walk the downtown streets with freshly dressed young women. She wants to escape her hometown—she wants to be someone else. So one morning she trades her trousers for a pink organdie dress, baptizes herself with a couple of sprays of Sweet Serenade, and F. Jasmine is born.

But F. Jasmine may be even more misunderstood than Frankie. She goes too heavy with the lipstick and the Sweet Serenade, flounces about in her organdie and sheer stockings, and plays at being grown up, convincing no one but the very last person she ought to convince. The orange satin gown she chooses to wear to the wedding is too old for her (“‘it just don’t do,’” says Berenice), too garish (“‘like a Christmas tree,’” says little John Henry), and on the much-anticipated day of the wedding it fails to bring her the acceptance that she wants more than anything else.

I have a feeling that Carson McCullers often wished she could be someone else, too. Back when she was just Lula Carson Smith of Columbus, she certainly knew what it felt like to be an outsider. In her McCullers biography, The Lonely Hunter, Virginia Spencer Carr writes of a lonely adolescence that sounds too close to Frankie’s to be coincidental. Lula was gangly and nervous, uneasy around the girls her age, even more awkward around the boys. She wore tomboy clothes and “dirty tennis shoes and Girl Scout oxfords when the other girls were wearing hose and shoes with dainty heels.”  She wasn’t a member of any club, either. The girls she wanted to impress not only excluded her from their cliques but would would taunt and throw rocks at her, calling her “‘weird,’ ‘freakish-looking,’ and ‘queer.’”

Soon enough, Lula was to become Carson McCullers, the girl genius, famous at the age of twenty-three for her masterpiece The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. By that point, her tomboy clothes were viewed as just a charming Southern quirk, though word has it that Katherine Anne Porter wasn’t so impressed by the trousers and mens’ shirts when the two writers eventually met. Carson was too confident by then to care, though. She had escaped the South as a literary sensation, the author of a best-selling novel. 

Still, I can’t help but wonder what kind of emotions went through her head when she returned to Columbus to write The Member of the Wedding, when she walked the same neighborhood streets where she had once been taunted and teased. I wonder if, while dusting off her memories to write Frankie’s story, she ever forgot about her new life and literary fame and briefly became Lula once more, slightly freakish looking in her dirty tennis shoes and a member of nothing in the world. Just imagining her in that room where I stood a few weeks ago is making the chills hit me all over again.

 


 

Photos from the Smith-McCullers House Museum in Columbus, Georgia.

carson mccullers

carson mccullers

carson mccullers

carson mccullers

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