Carson McCullers was born Carson Smith in 1917, in Columbia, Georgia. She studied at Columbia and New York universities and at the Julliard school in the late 1930s before marrying James Reeves McCullers in 1938, who was a corporal in the U.S. Army. They would soon divorce, only to reconcile and remarry in 1955.
In 1940, when she was twenty-three years old, she published her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which caused a sensation and assured her status as one of the nation's premier prose artists. The book told the sad tale of the desperately lonely people living in a small Southern town during the Depression. Her next novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) proved ahead of its time for its frank exploration of the tribulations of a latently homosexual army captain. Next came The Member of the Wedding (1946), which she adapted for the stage in 1950 and which won the New York Critics Award. Other works include her collection of short fiction, The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951); a play, The Square Root of Wonderful; another novel, Clock Without Hands (1961); and a collection of articles, stories and poems in The Mortgaged Heart.
Her work shares much in common with another Southern writer, Truman Capote, who wrote Other Voices, Other rooms and In Cold Blood, among others. They both write with a deceptively simple style that relies more on the resonance of its imagery and the richness of its characters than the use of any definite mode of writing, such as that of the Modernists. Capote and McCullers lived together at one time in the prestigious writers colony, Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York. Though the two started out as friends and she helped him find and agent and an editor, she eventually grew to resent his fame and became a vitriolic enemy. Her work has also been compared to Eudora Welty, another fellow Southern writer of the mid-twentieth century.
Most of McCullers's writing focuses on lonely, disconnected people who seek escape from their stifling, small town existences. Almost all of her work is set in the South, though a few of the short stories from The Ballad of the Sad Café are set in New York City. Her writing is simple in its structure and style, but rich in its empathy for the human plight and its ability to weave a complicated tapestry with vivid imagery.
Much of McCullers's ability to describe poignant sadness and discontent probably derived from her own life suffering and unhappiness. She was a fragile person and began to suffer from strokes as a young adult. By the time she was thirty- one, the left side of her body had been paralyzed. There was even a period during which she could only use one finger to type. After their second marriage, her husband killed himself. During the last years of her life, she was unable to even sit at a desk to work. She died in 1967, at the age of fifty.
The Member of the Wedding is set in August 1944, toward the end of World War II, which would finally come to a close the following summer. The war, which began in 1939, had dramatically changed the landscape of the United States during this time, sending American men overseas in the war effort while demanding for the first time in the country's history that women join the work force en masse. The book only deals with the subject of war peripherally, as news reports stream in over the radio. However, the young protagonist, Frankie's, growing awareness of its existence serves as a significant marker for her personal growth.