NEW YORK - Virginia Spencer Carr, a literary scholar whose book “The Lonely Hunter’’ remains the standard biography of Carson McCullers, died April 10 at her home in Lynn, Mass.
The cause was liver disease, her daughter Karen Carr Gale said.
Ms. Carr, 82, also wrote respected lives of two other 20th-century American writers, John Dos Passos and Paul Bowles, but McCullers was her first writerly obsession and the subject who defined her career.
Having written her doctoral dissertation on McCullers’s work, Ms. Carr began “The Lonely Hunter’’ in the late 1960s after landing a job as an English professor at Columbus College (now Columbus State University) in Columbus, Ga., McCullers’s hometown.
Published in 1975, it was the first full-length life of McCullers, the celebrated author of a relatively small but influential body of work that included the novels “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,’’ “Reflections in a Golden Eye,’’ and “Clock Without Hands’’; the novella “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe’’; and short stories.
McCullers also wrote the novel “The Member of the Wedding,’’ which she adapted for the stage; a production starring Julie Harris ran for more than a year on Broadway in 1950 and 1951.
Populated by misfits and unrequited lovers, often freakish or physically (and emotionally) misshapen, the novels and stories by McCullers were harsh, semisurreal depictions of the dark and desperate loneliness she saw at the heart of humanity. Beset by a Job-like parade of health problems, McCullers died after a brain hemorrhage in 1967 at the age of 50.
“Frequently in her writings a misshapen body was but a sign of man’s incapacity to expand, to give of himself completely or to receive love, an impasse fraught with deep anguish,’’ Ms. Carr wrote. “Countless misguided and fragmented people from her imagined world attempted to find meaning and purpose through personal attachments that ran a broad psychological gamut, but the author never thought such behavior abnormal. She saw their world as an inverted one, in which the norms were normlessness, meaninglessness, purposelessness, powerlessness, and alienation.’’
“The Lonely Hunter,’’ like Ms. Carr’s subsequent works, was known less for its depth of literary analysis than its exhaustive research and astuteness in illustrating the sources of the work in the experiences of the life.
It was widely praised - “the kind of biography that leaves the reader replete with the sense of having vicariously experienced a life as it was lived,’’ Richard R. Lingeman wrote in The New York Times - and was an especially admirable achievement because the executor of the McCullers estate refused to cooperate with Ms. Carr and denied permission to quote from her unpublished work.
But her residency in Columbus and her access to those who had known McCullers during her childhood made Ms. Carr’s portrait unusually intimate; after its publication, McCullers’s brother, then a recent widower, asked Carr to marry him. She was touched but declined.
Her other biographies were characterized by the meticulous research and interviews that informed her work on “The Lonely Hunter,’’ but neither achieved the same lasting acclaim.
For “Dos Passos: A Life’’ (1984), deemed “a diligent job of archeological spadework’’ by Herbert Mitgang of The Times, she had the cooperation of the family of the writer, an innovative contemporary of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Dos Passos was known for his “USA’’ trilogy - “The 42nd Parallel,’’ “1919,’’ and “The Big Money’’ - that long before Truman Capote or E.L. Doctorow or the genre known as the nonfiction novel melded imagination and historical fact, real and invented people.
For “Paul Bowles: A Life,’’ she had the cooperation of the subject. The book was begun in 1989 when she was at work on a biography of Tennessee Williams and she interviewed Bowles, the New York City-born expatriate author of “The Sheltering Sky,’’ who was living in Tangier, Morocco.
Gore Vidal, during another interview, urged her to put aside the Williams biography and focus on Bowles, and she was taken with the idea of working with a subject who was still alive and talking. Bowles died in 1999 with the book unfinished, but by then the two had grown close, and she had unearthed a trove of information about his early life.
“Paul Bowles hated his father’’ is the book’s remarkable opening sentence. Nonetheless, critics were divided over whether the author’s friendship with her subject enhanced or detracted from the book. The Williams biography was never completed.
Virginia Claire Spencer was born in West Palm Beach, Fla., where her father, Louis Perry Spencer, owned a tire company and her mother, Wilma Bell Spencer, was a society reporter for The Palm Beach Daily News and later the author of a history of Palm Beach.
She graduated from Florida State University, where she learned, among other things, to be a trapeze aerialist. She received a master’s degree in English from the University of North Carolina and returned to Florida State for her doctorate.
Her marriage in 1951 to Roger Alton Carr, a banker, ended in divorce in 1975. In addition to her daughter Karen, she leaves her partner, Mary E. Robbins; two other daughters, Catherine Carr Lee and Kimberly Carr Morris; and seven grandchildren.
Ms. Carr was the editor of “ ‘Flowering Judas’: Katherine Anne Porter,’’ a book of critical essays, and the author of “Understanding Carson McCullers,’’ an introductory study. For almost two decades, until her retirement in 2003, she was a professor of English at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
In an interview in 2002, she recalled that she was teaching freshman English at Armstrong State College in Savannah (now Armstrong Atlantic State University) in the early 1960s when her life began veering toward its main path. A student asked if he could write a paper on Carson McCullers, a writer Ms. Carr had never heard of.
Since then, she said, “I’ve gone steady with Carson McCullers, her family, and have loved every moment of it.’’