Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia, as Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, the first born of Lamar and Marguerite Waters Smith. Though she moved from the South in 1934 and only returned for visits, most of her writing was inspired by her southern heritage. Her mother felt she had given birth to a genius from the time Carson was very young and always remained her staunchest supporter and strongest ally. When nine years of age, Lula began studying piano and practiced six to eight hours daily, planning a career as a concert pianist. In 1930 she began using the name Carson and studying piano with Mary Tucker. Carson graduated from Columbus High School in 1933, and after her piano teacher moved away in the spring of 1934, Carson moved to New York City to study at the Juilliard School of Music.
Shortly after her arrival she lost most of the money her parents had given her, and to support herself worked at various jobs and attended night classes in creative writing at Columbia and New York University. She focused on short stories at first, portraying adolescent anguish and unrequited love. Carson returned to Columbus in mid 1935 where she met Reeves McCullers, a soldier, whom she married in 1937. They were divorced in 1941 but remarried in 1945. Shortly after she left him in 1953 he committed suicide.
Carson experienced success early with the publication of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1940 when she was only twenty-three. Its themes foreshadowed nearly everything she wrote thereafter, namely spiritual isolation as the human condition in modern times, and her identification with, and compassion for, the underdogs and outcasts of society. Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) was greeted by mixed reviews and was generally considered not as successful as her first novel. Carson suffered the first of several strokes in 1941, believed to be the result of a misdiagnosed case of rheumatic fever which had damaged her heart when she was fifteen.
After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942 and a $1000 grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1943, McCullers was able to work on her next novel, The Member of the Wedding (1946), which again won high critical acclaim. She adapted the novel for the stage where it became a Broadway hit in 1950, running fourteen and a half months and winning the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Donaldson Award. McCullers was awarded a Gold Medal by the Theatre Club, Inc. as the best playwright of the year. In 1952 the play was turned into a succcessful motion picture. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, often considered her finest work, was published as a novella in 1951. It was adapted by Edward Albee for the Broadway stage in the 1963-1964 season but had only limited success.
Carson's next project, The Square Root of Wonderful, was her first attempt to write a play from its inception. The play went through numerous revisions and finally opened on Broadway on October 30, 1957, but received poor reviews and closed after forty-five performances. The play was published in 1958. Because of her despondency over her paralyzing strokes and the play's failure, McCullers began seeing psychiatrist Dr. Mary Mercer who had a very positive effect on her, inspiring her to continue writing, and who became a lifelong friend. Clock without Hands, her final novel, appeared in 1961. Though it made the best-seller lists for five months, it received mixed reviews in the United States and is the only one of her novels not adapted for the screen.
In addition to her five novels and two plays, McCullers wrote twenty short stories, over two dozen articles and essays, and some poetry and verse. She received numerous awards for her work throughout the years including the Prize of the Younger Generation in 1965, and the Henry Bellamann Award in 1966 in recognition of her outstanding contribution to literature. On August 15, 1967 she suffered a stroke and remained in a coma until her death on September 29.