Skip to content

Reflections of a working writer and reader



The Mortgaged Heart by Carson McCullers

The following is extracted from an untitled piece:

That year he often went out roaming through the town. Not only did he get to know all the streets in the suburb where he lived, and those of the main blocks downtown, and the Negro sections – but he began to be familiar, also, with that part of town called South Highlands. This was the place where the most important business of the town, the three cotton factories, was situated. For a mile up the river there was nothing but these mills and the glutted little streets of shacks where the workers lived. This huge section seemed almost entirely separate from the rest of the town and when Andrew first began to go there he felt almost as though he were a hundred miles from home. Some afternoons he would walk up and down the steep foul side streets for hours. He just walked without speaking to anybody with his hands in his pockets and the more he saw the more there was this feeling that he would have to keep walking on and on through those streets until his mind was settled. He saw things there that scared him in an entirely new way – new, because it was not for himself he was afraid and he couldn’t even put the reason into thought. But the fear kept on in him and sometimes it seemed it would almost choke him. Always people sitting on their front steps or standing in doorways would stare at him – and most of the faces were a pale yellow and had no expression except that of watching without any special interest. The streets were always full of kids in overalls. Once he saw a boy as old as he was piss on his own front steps when there were girls around. Another time a half grown fellow tried to trip him up and they had to fight. He had never been much of a fighter but in a scrap he always used his fists and butted with his head. But this boy was different. He fought like a cat and scratched and bit and kept snarling under his breath. The funny thing was that the fight was almost over and he felt himself on the ground and being choked when the fellow suddenly got limp like an old sack and in a minute more he gave up. Then when they were on their feet and just looking at each other he, the boy, did a crazy thing. He spat at him and slunk down to the ground and lay there on his back. The spit landed on his shoe and was thick like he had been saving it up a long time. But he looked down at him lying there on the ground and he felt sick and didn’t even think about making him fight again. It was a cold day but the boy didn’t have on anything but a pair of overalls and his chest was nothing but bones and his stomach stuck way out. He felt sick like he had hit a baby or a girl or somebody that should have been fighting on his side. The hoarse wailing whistles that marked the change in mill shifts called out to him.

But there is a real mixture collected in this volume. Short stories, several from her very early years, essays and articles on the war years and on Christmas. There is a section devoted to writers and writing, and even some poetry.

Much of this is previously unpublished and should be wider known. Here’s a brief but delightful extract from Brooklyn Is My Neighbourhood:

These Sand Street bars have their own curious traditions also. Some of the women you find there are vivid old dowagers of the street who have such names as The Dutchess or Submarine Mary. Every tooth in Submarine Mary’s head is made of solid gold – and her smile is rich-looking and satisfied. She and the rest of these old habitués are greatly respected. They have a stable list of sailor pals and are known from Buenos Aires to Zanzibar. They are conscious of their fame and don’t bother to dance or flirt like the younger girls, but sit comfortably in the centre of the room with their knitting, keeping a sharp eye on all that goes on. There is a little hunchback who struts in proudly every evening and is petted by everyone, given free drinks, and treated as a sort of mascot by the proprietor. There is a saying among sailors that when they die they want to go to Sand Street.

5 Responses to “The Mortgaged Heart by Carson McCullers”

  1. Dick says:

    I got into Carson McCullers at school after seeing an extraordinarily haunting photograph of the author by Cecil Beaton. A true original.

    jb says: Hi Dick. I’d like to see the photograph now.

  2. Thomas says:

    I haven’t read anything by McCullers. Maybe I’ll take a look at her soon. Thanks for the extracts.

    jb says: You won’t be disappointed. Start with Ballad of the Sad Cafe.

  3. kids wall art says:

    Wow…I really like her style of writing. It is so rich and full of great descriptions. I’ll have to read more of her work as well.
    Thanks for the piece.

  4. I stumbled into Southern Gothic literature in a backward way. I started with contemporary TN native William Gay, then to Ron Rash, back to Flannery O’Connor, and now I am reading the short works of McCullers.

    McCullers has a big following, but I must admit, I am not enjoying her writing. I can’t put my finger on why. Maybe it has something to do with her (too) straightforward earnestness, as if walking around with doe eyes is enough. I find her work trying to hard, in comparison to the balanced flow of O’Connnor’s craft. If I had to distill it into a single notion it is this: O’Connor tells a good joke. McCullers tells the joke, but only so she can follow it up with a full explanation of the joke and why it should be funny.

    I look forward to reading more by her to see if my current opinion is supported or tossed out the window.


  5. john baker says:

    Thanks for the comment, Michael. But do give McCullers another chance. Oh, and yes, I do love Flannery O’Conner, too.