Book #05

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland

While working as an intern in the archives at the Harry Ransom Center, Jenn Shapland encounters the love letters of Carson and a woman named Annemarie―letters are that are tender, intimate, and unabashed in their feelings. Shapland recognizes herself in the letters’ language―but does not see Carson as history has portrayed her.

And so, Shapland is compelled to undertake a recovery of the full narrative and language of Carson's life: She wades through the therapy transcripts; she stays at Carson’s childhood home, where she lounges in her bathtub and eats delivery pizza; she relives Carson’s days at her beloved Yaddo. As Shapland reckons with the expanding and collapsing distance between her and Carson, she see the way Carson’s story has become a way to articulate something about herself. The results articulate something entirely new not only about this one remarkable, walleyed life, but about the way we tell queer love stories. In genre-defying vignettes, Jenn Shapland interweaves her own story with Carson McCullers’s to create a vital new portrait of one of America’s most beloved writers, and shows us how the writers we love and the stories we tell about ourselves make us who we are.

This was an utterly gorgeous account of the life of Carson McCullers.

Written in short vignettes, Shapland explores Carson’s ambivalences, her peculiarities, and her quirks. Shapland finds letters, therapy transcripts, and even clothes in archives, allowing her to understand more deeply this icon of Southern literature. More importantly, we begin to understand quite quickly that these quirks of Carson’s translate quite cleanly, thanks to our modern understanding of the world, into an abundantly clear expression of Carson’s identity and sexuality.

The structure here is a masterstroke. With differing chapter lengths, Shapland does an excellent job of drawing our attention, and making her points stick. Some chapters were one paragraph long, some only a sentence. And this felt important.

One of the most heartbreaking, yet oddly fascinating, discoveries of Shapland’s were the indications of previous biographers, friends, and scholars, who were keen to disguise Carson’s relationships with women as friendships. Shapland explores the idea that homosexuality always has to be proven, rather than (as we see with hetereosexuality) presumed. She lays out all the ‘proof’ she can find - letters, gifts, conversations - and asks us, if this isn’t love, then what is?

Alongside her analysis of Carson, Shapland takes her biographical duty further, and explores her own life in comparison. It’s warmly illuminating, and sometimes frighteningly similar. Shapland receiving an invitation to Yaddo on the anniversary of Caron’s death was something in particular which seemed to jolt straight into my ribs. I saw it as a sign, as permission.

We also see Shapland’s progress with her research, combing through archives, digging deeply into letters and transcripts, even spending a month living in Carson’s childhood home. We see her become immersed in this revered author’s life, to the point of feeling incredibly close to her, to the point of feeling possessive. Note my use of Carson’s first name in this review - I feel closer to her just having read this, and calling her McCullers feels wrong, so I can completely understand these feelings of Shapland’s would be like mine, just multiplied by thousands.

A truly astounding work of passion and assiduous commitment. Shapland has taken her Carson and shared her with the world, in a work which I like to believe she’d be delighted with.