Monday, March 11, 2013


CARSON MCCULLERS WROTE ABOUT CHILDHOOD. Her two most famous works, the novels The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Member of the Wedding (later adapted for the stage) both have as central protagonists young girls trying to navigate the borders between girlhood and adulthood. They are haunting and insightful portraits, but writing insightfully about childhood is not the same as understanding children, as McCullers revealed in her one publication intended for children, the book of poems Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig.

Written towards the end of her life, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig was in many ways an exercise that allowed McCullers to write something, anything. Plagued with ill health all her life, writing became progressively harder in her later years, as pain and fatigue made prolonged writing sessions difficult. Light children's verse was a way to practice her vocation, and the idea that the poems might entertain the children of her friends only added to the pleasure. Published almost by chance, when the editor Joyce Hartman happened upon several of the poems and asked to see more, McCullers dedicated the book to Emily and Dara Altman, the children of her lawyer, and Tony Lantz, the son of her agent.

The book was not well received, and it's not hard to see why. The poems alternate between light nonsense verse in the vein of Mother Goose, and free verse observations and reminiscences tinged with melancholy.

It's hard to imagine what child would be drawn to such disparate work, especially since the poems are neither funny nor particularly rhythmic.

The crude illustrations were provided by Rolf Gérard, a painter and longtime set designer for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The book is a footnote to an illustrious career that leaves readers wishing McCullers's ability to evoke dreamlike realities had carried over to her work for children.

WHAT LITTLE INFORMATION I could find came predominantly from The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers by Virginia Spencer Carr. I also consulted Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau. To see Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig in its entirety, go to my Flikr set here.

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