“My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” by Jean Shapland— Re-seeing Carson McCullers

Shapland, Jenn. “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers”, Tin House, 2020.

Re-seeing Carson McCullers

Amos Lassen

I love the writing of Carson McCuller’s even though the person behind the writing has always been enigmatic. I have always felt that was something missing from her biographies and now Jenn Shapland might have found just what that is. While working as an intern in the archives at the Harry Ransom Center, Jenn Shapland found the love letters of Carson McCullers and a woman named Annemarie. These letters are tender, intimate, and unabashed in their feelings. Shapland recognizes herself in the letters’ language giving us a new look at McCullers.

Shapland felt compelled to undertake a recovery of McCullers’s life and she went through the therapy transcripts and even stayed at McCullers’s childhood home reliving McCullers’s days at her beloved Yaddo. Shapland  realizes  that there is a nearness between her and McCullers, she sees how McCullers’s story is a way to say something about herself. What we get here is something new about life and how we tell queer love stories.

Through vignettes, Shapland brings her own story together with Carson McCullers’s giving was a new look of one of America’s most beloved writers and “how the writers we love and the stories we tell about ourselves make us who we are.”

Shapland first learned that Carson McCullers was queer while she was interning at the Harry Ransom Center, an archive of many famous writers’ and artists’ papers and books at the Austin campus of the University of Texas .  Her job was to take inquiries from researchers. She had never read a McCullers book but then she received an inquiry about correspondence between McCullers and Swiss writer and another woman: photographer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach.

Shapland admits that she never really broke-up with her first love after six closeted years together. She was in the second year of a six-year PhD program, and bored with academia. She knew that being an be an archivist was not for her. As she read the letters between McCullers and Annemarie. She felt that she was part of a mystery.  From there, Shapland is able to form a biography/autobiography/queer theory hybrid using her own story as a woman coming to terms with her sexuality, with being a writer, and with the chronic illness she was dealing with. Interesting enough, McCullers dealt with the same three issues.

Shapland writes about what archives are, who gets to have them, and whose stories (and what parts) are told.  She explores archives and the nature of archives. The relationship of McCullers and Clarac-Schwarzenbach  correspondence is central to the book. McCullers was white, a successful writer, and seemed to always be with the well-to-do people of the time. We are reminded of her tempestuous on-again off-again relationship with husband Reeves McCullers, her best friend Tennessee Williams, the many artists and writers who came to Yaddo. Because of this, McCullers was able to produce and accumulate archives and this was something that many queer, trans, people of color, and disabled people were not able to do.

It is interesting that in the biographies written about McCullers, her sexuality is either not mentioned or disregarded. Shapland is quite naturally surprised when she finds so much clear evidence of McCullers being a lesbian not only  in love letters between McCullers and other women, but in therapy transcripts in which we can see that she struggles with her identity and emotions (she also had an intimate relationship with her therapist, Dr. Mary Mercer). Shapland found photographs of McCullers wearing masculine clothing and there is evidence of her sexuality in her novels. Shapland becomes familiar with, the evidence she finds from both the queer aspects and the life McCullers led. We should not be surprised when we do the same with characters in literature that we identify with.

There is so much to be taken from this book especially about how we find ourselves in the books we read and the research we do. “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” is a powerful addition to the LGBTQ literary canon and Jenn Shapland is a powerful voice that I hope to hear more from.

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