I recently read Carson McCullers’ The Heart is A Lonely Hunter for the first time, the same week that literary icon Harper Lee, of To Kill A Mocking Bird, fame, died. The signature works of these two Southern authors invite comparison. To Kill A Mocking Bird debuted in 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. President John Kennedy and his stylish wife Jackie had just arrived in the White House. The escalating violence by white Southerners on blacks engaged in the new civil rights movement was appearing on national television alongside recurring reports fixated on the glamour of the new Presidential family.
Mocking Bird, like Lonely Hunter, is set in a small town in the South during the Great Depression. Harper Lee’s classic centers on the deep divide between black and white citizens in one small town, mirroring the conditions throughout the former Confederate states. Mocking Bird’s story is told by an adult woman looking back on her life as a young, brassy girl named Scout at the age of eight. The lead protagonist in Mocking Bird, of course, is Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, a stalwart defender of justice and righteousness. It is readily acknowledged today that Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning role as Atticus in the film version propelled Mocking Bird to greater heights than the book would have achieved alone, resulting in Harper Lee becoming a reluctant pillar of 20th century American literature. To Kill a Mockingbird resonated with readers around the world because it told the unvarnished truth about a post-war America--though the book's setting was in fact the 1930's--that had just sacrificed thousands of her sons on the altar of justice and freedom for the world, simultaneously denying these same basic freedoms to her own non-white citizens. Jim Crow would simply not die.
Carson McCuthers’ first book, The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, was written in 1941 when she was only 23 years old. Understandably, much of the provincial nuances of the small-town South captured by McCuthers was echoed 20 years later in Harper Lee’s book. Both stories focus on similar settings inhabited by similar characters. The narrative technique in Lonely Hunter is noticeably different than the one found in Mocking Bird. Unlike the adult Scout looking back at a defining point in her young life in Mocking Bird, the third-person narrator of Lonely Hunter is less reflective, more direct than Mocking Bird. Lonely Hunter is not an intimate book, although readers quickly feel compassion for its characters. To her own consternation, McCuthers never gained the level of popularity achieved by Harper Lee. Still, McCuthers exhibits a profound understanding of the human condition, her characters experiencing deaths and a host of other troubles normally encountered in life. We feel empathy for McCuthers’ characters. We easily identify with their trials. A lead character in Lonely Hunter is a black medical doctor who is militantly angry about the plight of his people. His self-acknowledged failure as a father heightens his misery. In a number of ways the doctor’s demons transcend race. We identify with the doctor’s loneliness, anger, and frustration. At the same time, white audiences cannot fully grasp the depth of the doctor’s despair about prejudice.
There are three primary themes in To Kill A Mockingbird, the first being the story of a pugnacious little girl who adores her father she oddly calls “Atticus,” not, “Daddy.” The second thread in Mocking Bird is a portrait of childhood revealed through the experiences of Scout, Jem, and Dill’s and the mysterious, foreboding adult recluse, Boo Radley. The only tangible connection between Boo and the children through most of the book are the odd gifts he leaves for them in a hollowed-out tree. Boo is finally redeemed at the very end of Mocking Bird; he “comes out,” in the words of Scout. The third element in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic is our confrontation with evil incarnate, in the form of the white trash character of Bob Ewell. Ewell’s character is revealed by Atticus Finch in his riveting courtroom speech in front of the entire town, all to no avail as the innocent black man Finch is defending dies anyway. Ewell later dies during his unsuccessful attempt at killing Jem and Scout Finch.
From the first page to the last, Lonely Hunter’s characters struggle with (among other things) drunkenness, hints of homosexuality, and the isolation of disabled people, embedded within the grinding ugliness of Jim Crow. Author McCuthers’ characters are imperfect, lonely creatures living broken lives. Yet, strangely, Lonely Hunter presents a much more empathetic, “deeper dig” into the lonely contradictions of human life, than what is offered by Mocking Bird. Lonely Hunter tells us that loneliness afflicts all people, it is an unhappy part of being human. Mocking Bird is a depiction of an ugly side of American life that white America has ignored for much too long. Mocking Bird is more of a moral lesson requiring our attention and correction, than statements of fact offered by Lonely Hunter, though both books are grounded in reality.
Lonely Hunter is, again, a more believable slice of life than Mocking Bird, which concludes with Scout nestled safely in the arms of the saintly Atticus, who is too perfect to be believed as portrayed by a trusting, idealistic child. Twenty years later, readers meet an altogether different Atticus through Scout who is now a fully grown adult In Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman. (Lee actually wrote Watchman first but did not publish it until very recently.) Scout recognizes her idealizing Atticus as a child, with Atticus conceding as much to his disillusioned daughter. Similar to the conclusion of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Scout’s feelings of betrayal and confusion are not resolved by the end of Watchman. The resigned uncertainty of life dominates the conclusion of both of these two books. The paradox of searching for truth inside our own separate, limited realities reigns supreme in the end.