“The We of Me” in a scrapbook: Exploring Carson McCullers’ sexuality through material culture

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“Could you tell me more about this picture?”

The woman’s eyes were bright and curious, as she pointed towards a scrapbook in one of our exhibition cases. I had a good idea of which photo she was talking about, but I stepped closer to be sure. “This one?”

“Yes, the one where they’re holding hands. You talked about how they were together all the time—but they were that open about their relationship? How did other people treat them?”

Photo of Mary Mercer and Carson McCullers in Mercer’s scrapbook, ca. 1963. Photo credit:  Columbus State University Archives

When discussing the life and loves of Southern Gothic author Carson McCullers, questions about her sexuality are never in short supply. Her novels and short stories, richly evocative of life in an early-twentieth-century southern mill town, ring with sharply-realized observations about the social history trifecta of race, class, and gender. Questions of gender roles and gender identity, as well as ideals of masculinity and femininity, figure prominently in works such as The Member of the Wedding, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and The Ballad of the Sad Café. These themes have sparked rich discussion by fans and scholars for decades, but in McCullers’ hometown of Columbus, Georgia, they once provoked only anger and silence. Her willingness to expose the discontent and conflict often experienced by African Americans, women, and working-class mill employees made her a controversial local figure.

As the centennial of McCullers’ 1917 birth neared, several Columbus cultural organizations began planning a city-wide celebration. I had been pondering a McCullers exhibition, but knew that I might face some opposition. This was the town where a museum docent had once told me, in the thickest southern accent imaginable, that Columbus had rejected Carson because of her “degenerate ways” (in other words, her bisexuality and rejection of traditional gender roles) and that we had no business celebrating such an awful person. However, I also knew that recent museum exhibitions focused on queer history have been resoundingly popular in cities as varied as Seattle, New York, and Charlotte. Archival and museum collections of LGBTQ-related artifacts have also been growing across the country in places like Kansas City, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Susan Ferentinos’ award-winning book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites includes case studies of both large-scale exhibitions such as Out in Chicago at the Chicago History Museum and more intimate conversations at the house museums of Historic New England. I had previously visited the Sarah Orne Jewett House in southern Maine, where interpretation includes information about Jewett’s “Boston marriage,” and the discussion of Jewett’s complex emotional, but not necessarily sexual, relationship with a woman proved useful when thinking about McCullers’ relationship with Dr. Mary Mercer.

McCullers’ psychiatrist of a few months and emotional partner of nine years, Mercer maintained a meticulous and expansive archive related to Carson, and she bequeathed the entire collection, as well as McCullers’ home in Nyack, New York, to Columbus State University upon her death in 2013. This exhibition offered the first chance for me to explore the collection, and working with interns Valerie Parker and Robin Price, we all reached the same conclusion: the strongest thematic possibilities lay in spotlighting her relationships, and thirst for deep human connection, with family, friends, and lovers. Using a well-known phrase from The Member of the Wedding, we titled the exhibition The We of Me.

To succinctly tell the story of McCullers’ complex relationships, Parker, Price, and I turned to photographs of the author at various points in her life. Lula Carson Smith married Army soldier Reeves McCullers when she was just twenty years old, and I was thrilled to find two rare photographs of Carson and Reeves at the time of their wedding. Taken at a friend’s wooded property in rural Columbus, the photographs are dreamily romantic, with one showing a young woman accepting the hand of her young beau on the slope of a hill. Viewing this photo now, it’s easy to see a symbolic representation of the conflict that ultimately doomed their relationship; though she seems to be accepting his help, she’s high above him, suggesting the dizzying heights Carson would achieve while Reeves’ struggles with alcoholism and depression thwarted his own literary ambitions.

Reeves and Carson McCullers, 1937. Photo credit: Columbus State University Archives

The traditional femininity of this early portrait, though already unusual for McCullers, disappeared completely after the author met Annemarie Schwarzenbach in New York. The Swiss artist–Schwarzenbach was a photographer and writer—sparked a years-long obsession for Carson, who described their first encounter as seeing “a face that I knew would haunt me to the end of my life.” Though Schwarzenbach did not return McCullers’ feverish affection and often manipulated the younger woman, she could also be quite warm, once writing, “You are the only writer who thinks about the hard task and process of our profession in the same way, as if we were brothers—and we are…” This allusion is not accidental, as McCullers and Schwarzenbach favored similar boyish hairstyles and men’s clothing. Displaying a contact sheet of several solo photographs of Schwarzenbach near a 1950 photograph of Carson made clear the connection between McCullers and her relatively unknown muse, both women gazing at visitors with a direct, challenging stare.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Self-Portrait, 1930s, Wikimedia Commons

 

Portrait of Carson McCullers by Irving Penn, New York, 1950. Collection of the Columbus Museum, Georgia

In 1958, McCullers’ life story became brighter, even as her physical condition deteriorated. Initially searching for a psychiatrist, McCullers found in Dr. Mary Mercer a true partner. Though Mercer zealously guarded McCullers’ patient confidentiality during her life, she left months of notes from their sessions, as well as the Dictaphone machine she bought for transcription. Exhibiting the machine next to original transcripts breathed life into the relationship that transformed McCullers’ final years. Mary Tucker, McCullers’ piano teacher and first female crush, once wrote of Mercer and McCullers’ relationship, “In Carson’s life there has been triumph and tragedy, and now there is surely the most unselfish love she has ever known.”

This love had piqued the interest of the woman now standing in front of me, as she pointed to a picture of McCullers and Mercer sitting outside, smiling broadly with hands clasped. I explained that yes, the two had been practically inseparable before McCullers’ death in 1967 and that this scrapbook from Mercer’s collection contained several images of holidays and trips together.

After the exhibition closed, I was leafing through the visitor comment book when one sentence leapt out at me: “Thank you for sharing the intimacy of her with all of us.” As public historians tackle complex themes of sexuality, we would do well to remember that by thoughtfully and honestly interpreting the intimacy of those in the past, we share their stories with audiences who are, more than ever, longing for authenticity and representation. As Carson McCullers well realized, we are all searching for our own “we of me.”

Rebecca Bush is curator of history and exhibitions manager at the Columbus Museum in Georgia.

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