By Marina Catullo
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers: A Memoir by Jenn Shapland (Tin House) is the 2021 recipient of the Christian Gauss Award. The award was established by the Phi Beta Kappa Senate in 1954 to honor superlative books in the field of literary scholarship or criticism. It also pays tribute to the late Christian Gauss, a distinguished Princeton University scholar, teacher, and dean who also served as president of the national organization of Phi Beta Kappa.
Shapland is a writer whose essays have been published in the New York Times, New England Review, Tin House, Outside, and Guernica. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently working as an archivist for a visual artist. Shapland’s second book, a collection of essays titled Thin Skin, is forthcoming from Pantheon Books.
As an intern working in the archives at the Harry Ransom Center, Shapland discovered love letters written to the late American writer Carson McCullers from Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, the Swiss heiress with whom McCullers had an affair. In these letters, intimate and brazen in the articulation of emotion, Shapland discovered herself and her own identity as a queer woman. What Shapland does not find is the McCullers that has been portrayed by history. In My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Shapland weaves her own story with McCullers’, and the result is an exploration of identity, queerness, memory, obsession, and love.
As Harper’s BAZAAR puts it, Shapland’s work is “two books in one: an examination of a famous author whose narrative has been posthumously taken away from her, but also a vital memoir of Shapland’s own experience as a queer woman looking for stories about people like her.”
In addition to the Christian Gauss Award, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers has won the Publishing Triangle Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction and a Lambda Literary Award. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award and longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.
What inspired the style of this book, part biography, part autobiography? And how do you think it helped convey your message?
SHAPLAND: When I learned that Carson McCullers had wanted to write an autobiography but never finished it, I decided I would try to recover her story as she saw it. In the process, I came up against gaps in the narrative, biases from other people’s takes on her, and significant erasures and revisions that didn’t correspond to what I found in Carson’s own firsthand writing, therapy session transcripts, and correspondence. To fill in some of those blanks, especially those about her life as a queer woman and her life with chronic illness, I drew on my own experiences. What started as an attempt to recover someone else’s autobiography began to merge with my own.
You say a writer must in some sense “inhabit” their character. Throughout this book you inhabit some of the places that McCullers lived and worked. How did living in her house and touching her things bring her to life for you?
SHAPLAND: Because there were so many gaps in Carson’s story, the physical objects and spaces that she engaged with during her life took on more significance for me and for the project. In Carson’s neighborhood, in her house, I was able to access details that weren’t captured in other records: the quality of the light, the heavy humid air, the pollen dusting everything in early spring. These created a richer picture of what Carson came home to in Columbus, Georgia, and helped me imagine what she might have felt while she was there.
You describe physical objects, like McCullers’ letters or nightgowns, as portals that connect you both through time. What is it about these objects holds that power, and what does it say about the importance of record keeping, preservation, and archival processes?
SHAPLAND: Carson’s clothing, which I catalogued while interning at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, provided some clues about how she presented herself and the importance of style to her own self-image. The letters and other records at the Ransom Center, at Columbus State University’s archives, and at other institutions shed light on McCullers’ relationships and her personal life, especially her emotional life. In Columbus, I read the transcripts of Carson’s therapy sessions with Dr. Mary Mercer, which she had envisioned as a first draft of her autobiography. Without these objects, we’d have only other people’s recollections of her to go on. By reading them closely, we can access new revelations about Carson’s life, her loves, and her own feelings.
While writing this book, you choose not to interview anyone who knew McCullers. How did this along with your time spent in her house and with her possessions allow you to write a different history of Carson McCullers, one that has not been told before?
SHAPLAND: The biographies of Carson McCullers rely heavily on the testimony of other people to create an image of Carson’s life. But Carson’s relationships with many of these people were fraught. For example, Truman Capote had a lot to say about her, but while she was alive, they were rivals. Why should he have the final word? In Columbus, Carson was largely rejected by her neighbors and community, or viewed with great suspicion due the subjects her work addressed: race relations, white supremacy in the South, queer identity and relationships. To understand how Carson saw herself, I felt that I needed to clear some space around her story, to let the voices of others have less of a shaping effect on the narrative.
What does it mean to you and to your work to have My Autobiography of Carson McCullers selected for the Christian Gauss Award?
SHAPLAND: I’m honored that my book was selected by the committee for the Christian Gauss Award. I didn’t expect My Autobiography of Carson McCullers to be chosen for a category defined by literary scholarship and criticism because of its hybrid form and because it is not an academic book. To be placed alongside so many impressive works of scholarship by writers I deeply admire, like Ruth Franklin, Imani Perry, and Leah Price, is wonderfully humbling.
Marina Catullo is a graduate of the University of South Carolina where she studied political science and English. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa there in April 2021. The University of South Carolina is home to the Alpha of South Carolina chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
Photo by Chelsea Weathers 2021.