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Carson McCullers was born in 1917. The novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is largely autobiographical. Carson McCullers was raised in a small Southern town much like the one depicted in the novel. She was raised by the family’s African-American housekeeper more than by her father. This housekeeper is depicted with great subtlety in this novel--the character of Portia Copeland-- and in McCullers’ other novel depicting a (her) girlhood, The Member of the Wedding. Her other novels include The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and other Stories and Reflections in a Golden Eye.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was her first novel, written when she was only twenty-three years old. It established her as one of the leading writers of the South. She moved to New York, where she continued writing until her death.
McCullers’ novel came out in 1940, a time when social realism was the dominant mode of literary representation, especially in the novel. Writers like Richard Wright were interested in using the novel to depict the social problems facing U.S. Americans. The novel thus became a sort of experiment in sociology, showing the fractures of the society with the persuasive intent of awakening people to action of some sort. Carson McCullers does not use literary naturalism as Richard Wright did in his Native Son and other fiction, but she does take from him the injunction to use the novel as a sort of consciousness-raising device.