In her ground-breaking, best-selling book Writing a Woman’s Life (1988), feminist Carolyn G. Heilbrun describes four ways to write a woman’s life: autobiography, fiction, biography, and an unnamed way in which “the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.” Bringing insights from feminist scholarship to the daily lives of women, Heilbrun transforms the genre of biography and autobiography as an attempt “to reinvent the lives their subjects led, discovering from what evidence they could find the processes and decisions, the choices and unique pain, that lay beyond the life stories.” Desiring to break the narratives that constrain women’s lives—accounts of obeisance, servility, and marriage—Heilbrun argues that in the late 1980s the nature of stories about women’s lives was changing and needed even more change so that women could imagine a wide range of possible plots—and by extension a wide range of opportunities for their lives.
Now, more than thirty years later, Heilbrun’s work provides a useful frame to consider Jenn Shapland’s new book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, and to examine strategies for writing a lesbian’s life in both the past and the present. In My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Shapland purposefully combines the genres of autobiography and biography, leading to the extraordinary pun—or perhaps slip of the tongue—in the title. The possessive pronoun combined with the already self-reflexive autobiography tips the author’s investments in telling her own story; in the title, McCullers is the object not of the book, as expected in biography, but of a prepositional phrase. The title intimates the relationship between biographer and subject through the possession of one’s own life story, autobiography, emended prepositionally with a biographical subject.
In the book, Shapland twines the life story of McCullers with her memoir of her own young life; she writes a biography of McCullers as a way to write her own autobiography, or perhaps to write her own way to being a lesbian. Encountering McCullers first through archival objects at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a graduate student, Shapland discovers love letters sent to McCullers by Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach. These letters correspond with Shapland’s own process of naming herself lesbian; her archival discovery of McCullers’s erotic connections with other women is concomitant with the discovery of her own queerness. Thus, the quest of this autobiographical biography is a double helix: uncovering McCullers’s life first through cataloging her personal effects held at the Ransom Center and then in conjunction with Shapland’s journey to an adult life as a queer woman. This helical structure links McCullers—a great American novelist—indelibly with contemporary coming-out narratives.
Utilizing objects, vignettes, and assemblage as indirect, intuitive narrative strategies to shape the book, Shapland first encounters McCullers not through the object of a book but through objects in McCullers’s archive, then through travels to places where McCullers lived and visited. Letters, a white cotton nightgown, a passport—all create physical proximity between Shapland and McCullers in spite of the temporal distance between them. Physical objects become a focus for Shapland’s meditation, reflection, and questions about McCullers’s life and essence. They pull McCullers from the past into a present mediated by Shapland’s storytelling.
Some of Shapland’s best writing focuses on extricating broader meaning from these tangible objects. In a chapter titled “Portals,” she describes clothes that she cataloged as “a kind of hinge or portal to the author’s body, to her self and her self-representation.” This evocative meaning-making is contrasted with the written descriptions: “This straw hat has a black grosgrain ribbon band” and “This pair of socks is cable-knit with cream wool.” The specificity of Shapland’s prose combines with meditations on larger questions. Shapland concludes this chapter with these musings:
The other objects in the collection are a key to parts of her daily life, an inadvertently curated personal history I am left to decipher. What is the relationship between her bank books, her ink refills, and her mother’s passport? Why this silver llama statue, why this handkerchief with a recipe for Irish coffee? As I worked, in my head I wrote questions for the objects I found, musings that kept nagging at me, unanswered.
Her observation about the persistence of unanswered questions illuminates challenges for both biography and autobiography.
Rather than tracing McCullers’s life and recounting her travels for readers, a traditional biographic approach, Shapland retraces McCullers’s movements through vignettes, imagining and restaging McCullers’s life while at a residency at Carson McCullers House in Columbus, Georgia, and a sojourn at Yaddo, where McCullers also spent time. Shapland uncovers vibrant connections between mid-century lesbian writers such as Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles and the other women around them, mapping intimacies and rivalries and bringing to life a powerful imaginary of mid-century queer life. In McCullers’s childhood home, Shapland notes the “floral curtains soaked in dust” and “sun-faded fan-art paintings of Carson’s face” and that she never sat “in Carson’s blue chair.” In one of the rooms of the Stark Avenue house, where McCullers grew up, there are “two pale blue armchairs” that “Carson could sit comfortably in right up to the end.” (McCullers died at the age of fifty.) While the book’s narrative has Shapland “hunting” McCullers and other lesbians, sleeping in all of the places where McCullers slept, her avoidance of sitting in the “pale blue armchair” demonstrates her understanding of both the intimacy and necessary distance between subject and biographer.
Shapland’s method in My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is to assemble material, then explore it and examine it from multiple sides. If collage is a strategy where something new emerges from material gathered, in Shapland’s complex assemblage, readers uncover and intuit their own meanings from the gatherings, clustering, and collecting of material. Shapland combines these medleys with lyrical prose befitting a poet; through evocative lyricism, she resists the impulse of collage, to contain the gatherings into an object that evokes or suggests a third meaning, pressing to explore multiplicities of meanings, including the possibility that meaning cannot be determined. This method and its intellectual maneuvers are not unfamiliar. Susan Howe’s brilliant My Emily Dickinson (1985) and, more recently, Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop (2015) utilize similar strategies. Shapland’s work is distinctive, however, for its helical structure and its object-oriented mode of archival research.
While I ascribe methodological intent to Shapland, another reason she uses these tools is that the archives and McCullers’s executors restrict permissions for direct quotations and thus thwart truthful framing of McCullers as queer. An author’s note at the beginning of the book explains that Shapland was unable to secure permission from McCullers’s estate to quote directly from archival materials. Ironically, this reality ties McCullers and Shapland to a long tradition of struggle to tell truths about women’s lives. Scholars have encountered similar challenges with biographical work about Willa Cather; now multiple scholarly and fan-based explorations of both authors’ work elaborate the richness of their intimate lives, labeling them lesbian, queer, and non-normative.
Heilbrun finds in the biographies and poems of seven American poets (Denise Levertov, Jane Cooper, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath) a break with the narratives that had been controlling women’s lives in which the poets express, “and suffered for expressing, what women had not earlier been allowed to say.” What they had not been allowed to communicate earlier was anger, and these poets did and then endured the “anger in men that their work aroused.” While Heilbrun rightly identifies in 1988 that women’s lives had broken open, the lives of lesbians remained secretive and constrained by what was not allowed to be said. Lesbians, their lives, their sexual intimacies, their affections with other women, have been hidden. Literary establishments often would prefer particular types of privacy—or suppression—for lesbians, keeping sexuality and queerness out of conversations. Heilbrun acknowledges that the story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas is only told because each complies on the surface with stereotypes about husbands and wives, even if their biological sexes do not conform. Shapland explores with extraordinary sensitivity McCullers’s refusal of these gendered plots, even as stewards of her legacy want to make her compliant, gender normative, conforming to an image of the independent woman genius.
Writing biography is inevitably, of course, not only a search for a subject, a named person of the past with sufficient notoriety to warrant a biography, but also a search for self. The practice of biography, sifting through books, papers, letters, other archival materials, and ephemera, is artful assemblage, a careful curation of facts, anecdotes, impressions, disparate stories, and emotions. Successful biographies narrate not only a singular person’s story but also a story resonant for multiple readers. The story that emerges is for all biographers to find a person’s life story, a woman’s life story, a lesbian’s life story, and also search for one’s own life story. Heilbrun reminds us how powerfully the stories of women are written and limited by the narratives available to us, but writers like Shapland continue to challenge those limitations.
Piecing together a lesbian life from disparate fragments and recalcitrant heirs sadly is not a new task. Imani Perry recently performed a similar task with great aplomb in Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (2018), bringing imagination and lyric sensitivity to the absences and silences of archival records. Ultimately, writing a lesbian life is a form of sleuthing or hunting, both metaphors that Shapland employs.
McCullers is slightly older than the writers in Heilbrun’s study. Born in 1917, McCullers was an adult during the second World War, while Levertov, the eldest covered by Heilbrun, was born in 1923, and the youngest, Sylvia Plath, was born in 1932. In the spirit of Heilbrun’s analysis, Shapland demonstrates how McCullers’s life shattered assumptions about women writers—and lesbian writers. McCullers’s queer intimacies opened an entirely new imaginary for lesbian writers, particularly ones in the South. McCullers’s legacy has often been curated to conform with a particular vision of mid-century Southern women’s writing with investments in white, heterosexual femininity, regardless of how the lives of the writers—or their works—challenge that regime. But since Heilbrun’s work in the late 1980s, lesbian writers and their critics have exploded this vision of Southern womanhood. McCullers did not live to witness the flowering of women’s writing during the 1970s or the transformation of the narratives of women’s lives that accompanied these revolutionary literary formations. She died in 1967. While her life anticipated and confirmed the landmark changes that would remake women’s lives as a result of the women’s liberation movement, it is only in recent years that her legacy is receiving its benefits.
Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2020. 288 pp. $22.95, cloth.