Carson McCullers: “The Member of the Wedding”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

For Suzanne Custer

Here’s a writer whose work has much too unfortunately fallen out of popularity. Carson McCullers made a splash in the literary world in 1940 with her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and her 1951 novella, The Ballad of the Sad Café, has also gotten lots of attention. But my favorite of her books is her 1946 novel, The Member of the Wedding.

F. Jasmine Addams – or Frankie, as she is known by her family – is 12 years old, right on the brink of young adulthood. She is literally poised between childhood and adulthood. During the summer the novel takes place, Frankie is very much in that liminal space. McCullers says, “This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.”

I love the upstart Frankie. She is what my friend Amy would call “fresh.” She is in everybody’s business. She is incessantly worried about where she belongs, ever fretful about being an unjoined person. And she is not afraid to say what she thinks. Frankie has no filters.

The crisis that confronts Frankie at this juncture in her life is her older brother’s impending marriage. She and her brother are close, and Frankie enjoys being the rough-and-tumble kid sister. Lucky for her, she loves her soon-to-be sister-in-law, too.

But what Frankie can’t fathom is that the two of them will marry and create a new life of their own. Such a separation is unthinkable to Frankie, whose frequent refrain throughout the novel is “They are the we of me.” In a letter to playwright Tennessee Williams, McCullers said that as she was writing The Member of the Wedding, she had “a divine spark: Suddenly I said: Frankie is in love with her brother and the bride. . . . The illumination focused the whole book.”

Frankie’s confidante in all things is her family’s black housekeeper, Berenice Sadie Brown. Here, again, we see Frankie straddling childhood and adulthood. White children in the South were often raised by black women. Their relationships were very intimate, yet by the very definition of white-black relationships in the South, such intimacy had to end when a child matured into adolescence and moved into adulthood. Indeed, this is probably the last summer Frankie will spend in Berenice’s kitchen.

Curious to know how everything turns out and how Frankie and her family navigate this emotional transition? You’ll have to read the novel! In addition, McCullers worked with Tennessee Williams on a stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding; it opened on Broadway in 1950 and was a critical and commercial success. It won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play that year. In 1952, a film adaptation was made, with Julie Harris and Ethel Waters reprising their Broadway roles as Frankie and Berenice, respectively. Harris was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her film debut.

Despite the fact that her work is not as popular as it once was, McCullers’s legacy endures. Her childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, is owned by Columbus State University and houses their Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. The home is part of the Southern Literary Trail, and the center offers fellowships for writers and composers who live for periods of time in the Smith-McCullers home in Columbus. In addition, Columbus State University owns McCullers’s house in Nyack, New York, where she lived off and on until she died in 1967. The Center also inherited many artifacts and documents from the last ten years of McCullers’s life.

For an outstanding biography of McCullers, you must read Virginia Spencer Carr’s The Lonely Hunter. It not only brings McCullers to vivid life, but it also sets a standard for literary biography. If you’re looking for something shorter, check out McCullers’s biography on the New Georgia Encyclopedia website. For more on McCullers’s fiction, visit the Carson McCullers Project. You can also get lost in the New York Times collection of articles that mention McCullers.

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Watch:Watch a 3-minute clip from the screen adaptation of The Member of the Wedding. The clip features actress Julie Harris as Frankie Addams as she says of her brother and his bride: “they are the we of me.” In addition, a documentary film about Carson McCullers and her husband, Reeves McCullers, is in progress, and excerpts from the film can be seen on YouTube. The beginning of this clip features Carson McCullers speaking about the initial idea for The Member of the Wedding.


Image Credit: Portrait of Carson McCullers by Carl Van Vechten, July 31, 1959, courtesy of the Library of Congress,