It’s not that The Mortgaged Heart (1972) took me a year to read, but I did notice that it sat on my bedside table for 13 months.  It’s true that if you are going to get into Carson McCullers, this isn’t the place to start, but that’s only because it’s a rather vague collection, out together after her death by her younger sister Margarita Smith (‘Rita’), who argues in the introduction that these shorter pieces of McCullers’ writing are more like writing exercises rather than fully formed stories.

Even if this is true, Sucker must be one of the best loved Carson McCulllers stories out there, and among her admirers, it often comes up in conversation. 

Neither do the essays in The Mortgaged Heart seem to be incomplete sketches, or youthful experiments.  I consider the tone of a piece like Brooklyn is My Neighbourhood to be as strong an object lesson in generosity of spirit as could be found; it’s a delightful essay and won’t take minutes to read, and as a plain entertainment or lesson in journalism it can’t be beat.  Perhaps the sudden changes in time and style make The Mortgaged Heart one for the collector, and it could easily have spent more than 13 months on the bedside, as it’s a flexible companion if you know her work, and a good introduction if you don’t.

In The Mortgaged Heart you’ll learn that Anne frank’s father asked Mrs McCullers to dramatise the Anne Frank Diaries, but that McCullers found the book too upsetting to approach.  Also if you enjoy looking into the writing process, it includes Carson McCuller’s outline work for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

The title of The Mortgaged Heart comes from one the poems contained within:

The dead demand a double vision. A furthered zone,  / Ghostly decision of apportionment. For the dead can claim / The lover's senses, the mortgaged heart.

Mrs McCullers didn’t write much poetry, and like a lot of writers came to it late, starting as she did with plays and attempts at a novel.  There are a mere five poems included in The Mortgage Heart (a small percentage given its 300 page weight) and I don’t believe they did that much for me, though I didn’t try reading them aloud as she would have liked.  It matters not that I didn’t quite get the verse; the adoration that Carson McCullers prompted in her lifetime must have at least afforded her some satisfaction, particularly from younger writers.

Carson McCullers (1917 – 1967) published her first work at the age of 16 or 17, with her first full length novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter appearing in 1940 when she was 23.  Although she started life wishing to go into music, she did little else but write, especially after the success of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which was seen as an anti-fascist novel at the time.  I definitely did not get the sense that I was there to criticise this book, but rather to enjoy it.  Up in the higher echelons of literature, critics start to pass of cruelty as fact such as David Madden, who ungraciously described this collection in The Southern Literary Journal Vol. 5, No. 1 (Fall 1972) as ‘a long look at the mediocre side’ of Carson McCullers.

All I can say is that at time, academia, like literary journalism, eventually takes its toll on you, and becomes not an appreciation of the work of others, but a battle against your own failings; something Mrs McCullers would have definitely recognised.