Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding is the story of a young girl who suddenly finds herself at sea in the world; she hates being herself, and she can find no words for the new things that burst within her:
It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member … Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around doorways, and she was afraid.
McCullers has a genius for evoking the lives of the lonely and outcast, and for articulating the subtle bonds of affection that develop between apparently disparate people. In The Member of the Wedding the lonely is Frankie Addams, caught between the world of her childhood and the uncharted adult world of love and other mysteries; and the companions to whom she resentfully clings one long hot summer are her six-year-old cousin John Henry, as small and fragile as Frankie is big and gangly, and Berenice, who cooks and cleans for Frankie and her widowed father.
The story is simple and most of the action erupts over one weekend, from Frankie’s brother’s announcement on the last Friday in August that he is getting married that Sunday, to the briefly described wedding and its devastating aftermath. But what McCullers evokes with her lyrical, spare prose and her bare-boned story is one of the most profound portraits in all of literature of the awkward, painful, disorienting metamorphosis from girl-hood into womanhood—a portrait that draws its power from McCullers’s ability to capture Frankie’s mercurial moods and the whirl of talk around the kitchen table between Frankie, John Henry and Berenice, as Berenice gradually realises what is blossoming in the troubled young girl before her: she is falling in love—with a wedding.
Frankie’s urge to belong somewhere suddenly finds an outlet in her brother’s wedding, and all her floating dreams of escape from her dull life in a small Southern town into the big exotic world at war that turns without her are focused with an unrelenting intensity on her brother Jarvis and his fiancee Janice. All at once it occurs to Frankie that when she leaves home for her brother’s wedding in Winter Hill she will never again return to her old life, and so she prepares to leave home forever. And her preparations must be nothing short of a complete transformation. Her new place in the world as a member of the wedding, far from home and alongside her brother and his fiancee, requires a whole new Frankie, starting with a new name—F. Jasmine Addams, to go with the ‘JA names’ Jarvis and Janice—and new hair: ‘For the wedding I ought to have long, bright yellow hair, don’t you think?’
McCullers brilliantly draws the young Frankie in all her seriousness and urgency and sudden need to grow up, crashing against Berenice’s straight-talking worldly realism and John Henry’s childish play, which was so recently part of Frankie’s life. At the game of bridge around the kitchen table, John Henry ‘watched all the cards very carefully because he was in debt; he owed Berenice more than five million dollars’. McCullers can evoke the individual logic of John Henry’s childhood and of Frankie’s adolescence, in all their full illogic, from within their own experience and without ever once patronising them. In the same way, she can convey Berenice’s life, with her dream of a world in which ‘There would be no coloured people and no white people to make the coloured people feel cheap and sorry though all their lives …’ When at last Berenice realises the full depth of F. Jasmine’s need and emotional turmoil, and takes her into her arms, McCullers, with the lightest, most delicate of strokes, draws one of the most beautiful, heart-rending scenes of the novel.
By the time Carson McCullers came to write The Member of the Wedding, she had already published two novels. Her first, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940 when McCullers was only 23 years old; it became a bestseller and McCullers became a literary star. Born Lula Carson Smith in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, McCullers was the eldest child—brilliant and sensitive—of three children. Her father was a watchmaker and jeweller, and her ambitious mother was determined her first-born would be a musical genius. At 15, McCullers had the first of many illnesses that were to ruin her health—rheumatic fever. She was later struck by a series of strokes that left her paralysed down one side by the time she was 30. McCullers became a talented pianist and was sent to New York City aged 17 to study music at the Juilliard. Instead, she enrolled in evening classes in creative writing at Columbia University and her first story, ‘Wunderkind‘, was published in 1936 in Story magazine.
McCullers, passionate, selfish and petulant, met and fell in love with the writer Reeves McCullers, a corporal in the US Army, and they were married in 1937. They moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and became the successful writer Reeves would never become. The tension caused by the inequality of their talents, their tempestuous passions, heavy drinking and homosexual affairs led to a traumatic divorce in 1940 and McCullers moved to New York. Here she lived at the February House which was home to writers and artists including George Davis (the editor of Harper’s Bazaar), Gypsy Rose Lee and W.H. Auden, and became friends with Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Of his first meeting with her, Capote wrote: ‘I remember thinking how beautiful her eyes were: the colour of good clear coffee, or of a dark ale held to the firelight to warm. Her voice had the same quality, the same gentle heat …’ (Anais Nin gave the February House its name after discovering that McCullers, Davis and Auden were all born under the astrological sign of Pisces.)
After the publication in 1941 of her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, McCullers spent over five agonising years trying to write The Member of the Wedding, struggling with chronic physical pain, unable to type properly—for months she could only type with one finger—and emotional torment, having fallen in love with American writer Katherine Anne Porter, who rejected her obsessive attentions. McCullers married Reeves again in 1945 and the following year The Member of the Wedding was published. At the suggestion of Tennessee Williams, McCullers turned her novel into a successful play which was adapted for the cinema in 1952. The film, which has become a classic of American filmmaking, was the director Fred Zinnemann’s favourite of all his films.
McCullers spent the last years of her life before her death aged 50 dictating her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare (published posthumously in 1999), in which she wrote: ‘I yearned for one particular thing; to get away from Columbus and to make my mark in the world.’