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The secret Jewish history of Carson McCullers

About one-third of the way through Suzanne Vega’s terrific new one-woman film, “Lover, Beloved,” about the life of great 20th-century American writer Carson McCullers, the folk-pop singer-songwriter – playing McCullers in a tour de force of acting (and singing) – says, as McCullers, “I wanted to write about a Jew. You see, because, we are all concerned about what is going on over there in Europe. There are some terrible things happening.”

Lover Beloved Trailer from Arts+Labor on Vimeo.

The reference is to McCullers’s most famous and successful work, her 1940 debut novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” In early drafts, the author of what is commonly, if perhaps wrongly, termed “Southern Gothic” fiction made the central figure a Jew named Harry Minowitz. In the process of revising her manuscript, McCullers wound up turning Minowitz into a deaf man named John Singer.

A palimpsest of Jewishness remains, however – when Singer attends a Christmas party, a character observes, “His face resembled somewhat a picture of Spinoza. A Jewish face. It was good to see him.” And McCullers did not do away with Minowitz entirely; she kept him in as a minor character with whom Mick Kelly, the female protagonist, has her first sexual experience. (In perhaps a final irony, John Singer was played by Jewish actor Alan Arkin in the 1968 film version; he garnered a Best Actor nomination for the role.)

Carson McCullers

Seeking Solace in Jewish Characters: According to Larry Hershon, “her particular notions of spiritual transcendence are often explored through the figure of the Jew in general and the Jewish musician in particular.” By Getty Images

Harry Minowitz was not McCullers’s first Jewish character. One of her earliest stories, “Wunderkind” — published in Story magazine when she was just 19 — was populated with Jewish characters, including the music teacher, Mr. Lafkowitz, and a violin prodigy, Heime Israelsky, the wunderkind of the title. Having been born and raised in Columbus, Georgia, McCullers had little if any direct experience of Jewish people. Yet she returned to Jews almost as often as she wrote about Black and queer characters; McCullers herself, although married to a man, Reeves McCullers, not once but twice, enjoyed strong emotional and romantic attachments to women throughout her relatively short life. (She died in 1967 at age 50.)

Vega’s film is a quasi-experimental creation that uses the medium to its advantage. While it is divided into two acts, capturing McCullers during two historic public appearances that took place 25 years apart in New York City, the movie maintains a viewer’s interest by moving around, recontextualizing McCullers in various domestic settings – in a kitchen, at a dining table, on a porch outdoors – as well as in more abstract locations, including a nightclub stage, an urban street and on a picnic.

Rather than sticking to the original script of McCullers’s two lectures – the first of which, interestingly enough, took place at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y (aka the 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association) in the wake of her success with “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” – Vega, who fully inhabits the role of McCullers with the skill of a seemingly lifelong, professional actor (you never see “Suzanne Vega” in her performance, only Carson McCullers), tells stories drawn from throughout McCullers’s life, without regard to continuity of time, and delivers songs that are as acutely revealing of the writer and her ideas as are her spoken-word personal narratives.

(The songs are co-written with Duncan Sheik, who won a Tony Award for his score to “Spring Awakening,” but could fit comfortably on almost any Suzanne Vega album. And Vega’s estimable thespian talents have been recognized to such an extent that she was recently seen in the cast of the off-Broadway production of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” where her performance earned praise from the New York Times which called her “brandy-voiced” and a “delightful, smoothly sardonic presence.”)

Suzanne Vega in long leather jacket, jeans, and boots, peers down a New York street.

Far From Tom’s Diner: Long known as a singer-songwriter, Suzanne Vega has recently shown a flair for the theatrical. By George Holz

Vega has been fascinated by McCullers ever since she first read her books at age 15. She premiered her theatrical one-woman show, “Carson McCullers Talks About Love,” in 2011. She followed up with “Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers,” her ninth studio album, in 2016. This new film version, directed by Michael Tully, will undoubtedly attract more attention to Vega’s decades-long obsession, as well as reintroduce McCullers as the pathbreaking literary and queer figure that she was.

When newcomers turn to McCullers, they will find a writer who “specifically and repeatedly addresses the issue of Jewish identity in terms of its being one, if by no means the only, symbol in her work of spiritual wisdom and oppression,” according to Larry Hershon, writing in Southern Literary Journal in 2008. “It is illuminating to consider how Carson McCullers saw the European and American Jew of the 1930s and 1940s, the time during which all her major fiction was conceived and almost all completed. Against a background of rising Fascism and Nazism and the frequently antisemitic literature of her contemporaries (much of which she knew well).

“Her particular notions of spiritual transcendence are often explored through the figure of the Jew in general and the Jewish musician in particular,” Hershon continued. “But searching, for McCullers’ Jewish characters, interrelates with the particular socio-historical circumstances of her time and place — the South and beyond — to create a tension in her writing that reveals her understanding of ‘the Jew’ and Jewishness.”

Or, as Joshua Ford, writing for the blog of the 16th Street J in Washington, D.C., puts it, “Carson McCulllers clearly had a thing for Jews, or if not actual Jews, what Jews represented to her — a combination in different parts of wisdom, suffering and quintessential outsider status.”

Suzanne Vega’s “Lover, Beloved” makes its world premiere at SXSW at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center in Austin, Texas, on Monday, March 14, at noon (CT), with additional screenings at the Paramount Theatre, AFS Cinema and online. Vega will also perform a SXSW showcase at the Central Presbyterian Church in Austin Friday, March 18, at 10 p.m.

Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward.

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