In this article, I situate the life and work of Carson McCullers within the larger disability studies debate over the problem of speaking for others. The essay makes two arguments that build on one another. The first is for including McCullers more fully in the disabled community as an important historical figure and in studies of literary disability, despite her having expressed a small number of ableist comments. The article suggests that McCullers's experience as a queer disabled woman became a key lens that animated much of her writing. The essay then turns to its second and larger goal, which is to consider how the complicated case of McCullers can help the field distinguish allyship from appropriation and unethical identification. Turning to feminist theorists of communicative ethics Iris Marion Young and Linda Alcoff, as well as Deaf and disability scholars like Rebecca Sanchez, the article ultimately argues that McCullers's "use" of deafness in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, though undeniably flawed, is not an act of appropriation but an early historical attempt at allyship from a differently disabled perspective. Her commitment to deafness is driven by a sustained critique informed by the shared afflictions of injustice, but one that also overall refuses to dissolve human difference or speak for deafness.


The problem of speaking for others is nothing new in disability studies. At least as early as 1981, the well-known motto within the field "Nothing about us without us" had already started to stick when the Disabled Peoples' International first adopted the phrase. The rallying cry of this spirited motto continues to capture the need for the informed social, cultural, and political representation of people with disabilities, a need which was only further hailed by James Charlton's 1998 landmark publication of the same name. 1 As the field has grown, so too has its investment in interdisciplinary and intersectional approaches, methods which encourage overlapping—and sometimes competing—views from outside its boundaries. The addition of so many new voices in disability studies (DS) has partially contributed to the pressure, whether implicitly or explicitly voiced, to disclose one's personal reasons for engaging in discussions of disability in the first place. Don Kulick, a nondisabled DS scholar, has convincingly argued that this is partially because "disability isn't just a demand for information: it is a demand for accountability and responsibility" (Kulick 20). The familiar performance of such disclosure in scholarship and at academic gatherings intends to immediately identify the dis/abilities of those who wish to speak and by so doing add their voice to the polyvocal chorus to which much of the field aspires. Failure to disclose one's ability status, on the other hand, risks being interpreted as "evasion, or concealment" (Kulick 20).

The problem of speaking for others informs this pressure to disclose. A healthy and understandable amount of skepticism and suspicion sometimes follow when a disclosure reveals that a scholar is able-bodied. Without lived experience or a valid (or validated) claim to authenticity, how could such speakers add to the dialogue in a meaningful, accurate way—or, more unnerving still, how would such an act not end up replicating the same appropriative impulse that the field actively seeks to resist and dismantle? In an important 1997 study on what she called "asymmetrical reciprocity" (Young 341) feminist political philosopher Iris Marion Young flagged the problems with imagining oneself in another's shoes by turning, surprisingly, to an example that will be familiar to many scholars of disability:

Generally speaking, able-bodied people simply fail to understand the lives and issues of people with disabilities. When asked to put themselves in the position of a person in a wheelchair, they do not imagine the point of view of others; rather, they project onto those others their own fears and fantasies of themselves. Thus more often than not, well-meaning, able-bodied people seeking to understand and communicate with a disabled person express the patronizing attitudes of pity that so enrage many people with disabilities. (Young 344)

The problem of speaking for others involves more than just nondisabled scholars engaging in the field. As Young explains, these scholars often misunderstand disability, leading them to a failed empathy that ultimately does more harm than good. 2 In the humanities these concerns include not only the uncertain status of able-bodied scholars but able-bodied literary artists and writers who may misrepresent cultural notions of disability. As is well-known, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder influentially term these moments in which the narrative representation of disabled characters represents a problematic othering "narrative prosthesis." Often, authors and scholars alike have been criticized for seeking to empathize with the disabled Other in ways that prove no more than narrative prosthesis, thus justifying Young's fears. What do these familiar discussions look like, however, if instead of thinking across the dis/ability "divide," the question is phrased across different disabilities? How might the literary outputs of differently disabled writers complicate these familiar concerns over appropriation, allyship, and the problem of speaking for others, and of ongoing debates over ethical representation? How, for example, might the problem of speaking for others be affected by a person with a vision impairment writing about the experience of wearing a prosthesis, or by someone with paraplegia writing about deafness? What further challenges might such endeavors raise to these existing debates?

Consider the curious and complicated case of Carson McCullers. As this article will detail, McCullers continues to be a vexed figure in disability studies, despite being not only multiply disabled, but a queer southern woman whose fiction focused on candid portrayals of dwarfism, gigantism, cognitive impairments, and paraplegia. Like the work of her contemporary and fellow Georgian Flannery O'Connor, who was also disabled nearly her entire life due to complications from lupus, McCullers's southern gothic fiction presents many formidable challenges to disability studies due especially to her fiction's formal interest in literary grotesques. 3 Nowhere has McCullers's reputation been further scrutinized (or lauded) than in her classic modernist novel, 1940's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. 4 McCullers's choice to feature a deaf protagonist though she never experienced deafness herself has proven understandably divisive within the field. 5 The novel places at its center John Singer, a deaf, middle-aged man struggling to find community after his only deaf friend and possible former partner, a Greek immigrant named Antonapoulos, is committed to an insane asylum following a sudden melodramatic (and problematic) shift in his cognition. 6 The town's inhabitants, including the four other main characters, are mysteriously drawn to Singer as a confidant and something of a secularized confessional priest, and each mistakenly believes Singer understands their "real, authentic" inner self without his needing to hear or understand what they say. In one of the text's many deep ironies, in his own confessional note Singer eventually reveals the opposite to be true: though he comprehends what his visitors say (thanks to his troubled oralist education from childhood, which has left him with a nearly flawless, if at times unbelievable, ability to read lips), he cannot understand why his deafness seems to encourage hearing people to treat him as they do. In one telling example, he writes to Antonapoulos that Jake Blount, one of his regular visitors, "thinks he and I have a secret together but I do not know what it is" (The Heart 215). And of his encounters with Mick Kelly, a sensitive young girl with dreams of becoming a concert pianist, he pointedly notes that "She knows I am deaf but she thinks I know about music" (The Heart 215).

From the perspective of many Deaf and disability studies critics, McCullers errs specifically in how her presentation of Singer abstracts deafness away from his body by using it as a stereotypical metaphor in service of The Heart's principal theme of alienation (hence the "loneliness" of its title). 7 Maren Tova Linett, for example, has argued that "Singer is a mysterious cipher to whom" McCullers ensures "'nobody' has access," linking his lack of speech in the novel to what she calls an "inhuman separateness" (Linett 102). As DS scholars including Linett and others have critiqued, those drawn to Singer treat his deafness allegorically, symbolically, or metaphorically; it serves as a semiotic puzzle to be solved in a dehumanizing quest to find its supposedly real meaning outside the body. 8 It seems Singer's deafness must mean something beyond, or at least in addition to, a hearing impairment. Indeed, such self-centered mistreatment—the dehumanizing enforcement of his silence and the compulsion to speak for him—over time contributes to his eventual shocking turn to suicide near the story's conclusion. Though he usually stuffs them in his pockets to avoid the temptation to Sign with a community that Others him, Singer's hands eventually begin revolting against being unjustly spoken for as the novel progresses. In a rare moment nearly taking Singer's perspective, the narrator writes: "At first he had not understood the four people at all. They talked and talked—and as the months went on they talked more and more. He became so used to their lips that he understood each word they said. And then after a while he knew what each one of them would say before he began, because the meaning was always the same" (The Heart 205-06). Following a paragraph break, as though drawing a silent relation between being talked at and the human need to express oneself, the narrator reveals that Singer's "hands were a torment to him. They would not rest. They twitched in his sleep, and sometimes he awoke to find them shaping the words in his dreams before his face…. Then when he realized he was like a man caught talking aloud to himself, it was almost as though he had done some moral wrong. The shame and the sorrow mixed together and he doubled his hands and put them behind him. But they would not let him rest" (The Heart 206).

With the problem of speaking for others in mind, this article reconsiders the life and work of Carson McCullers to build two related arguments. The first is to stake a claim for including McCullers more fully not only in the disabled community as an important historical figure, but in studies of literary disability more generally, despite, as will be discussed, her having expressed a small number of ableist comments. One easily forgets that The Heart was written nearly a century ago and thus inevitably brings with it some problems and differences that fail to align fully with the demands of the present moment. In looking partially to her autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, and her only sustained publication on the art of fiction, "The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing," the first section details how McCullers's experience as a queer disabled woman became a key lens that animated much of her writing. I then question how her experience with multiple disabilities might affect her contentious decision to engage with literary deafness. More broadly, her decision to dwell with deafness in literature helps reframe the ongoing negotiations in DS about who may or may not write about disability, especially in the case of historical figures.

By placing her more fully within a context of lived disability, one that informed her literary craft, the essay then turns to its second and larger goal, which is to consider how the complicated case of McCullers can help distinguish allyship from appropriation and unethical identification within the problem of speaking for others. Disentangling these three terms, as will be detailed, is surprisingly difficult, and keeping their meanings distinct often depends on some assumed degree of good faith—or, conversely, of skepticism. What follows, though, is not a disability studies close reading of The Heart, which I have already written on elsewhere. 9 Though the novel informs each section to some extent, the arguments made here go beyond a local claim about a literary text to think instead about the important cultural and theoretical issues figures like McCullers help raise for the field over the larger problem of speaking for others. Turning to feminist theorists of communicative ethics Young and Linda Alcoff, as well as Deaf and disability scholars like Rebecca Sanchez, I ultimately argue that McCullers's "use" of deafness in The Heart, though undeniably flawed, is not an act of appropriation but an early, if historically flawed, attempt at allyship from a differently disabled perspective, one driven by a sustained critique informed by the shared afflictions of injustice. Crucially, this allyship also refuses to dissolve human difference or speak for deafness. The article concludes by reflecting on the concerns raised by writers like McCullers who attempt to think through differently disabled perspectives, and how quickly this balancing act can sway from justice to injustice, help to harm, and from commitment to carelessness, thereby turning an ally into a harmful obstacle.

The Disabled Hunter

Though the term did not yet exist in her time, Carson McCullers was part of the disabled community. From a young age until her early death, hardly a year of her life passed without a major illness, disorder, operation, or recovery. She suffered from repeated attacks of anemia and pleurisy, and an improperly diagnosed case of rheumatic fever as a child set the stage for her many disabilities later in life (Carr, Understanding 9). As she describes in her incomplete autobiography, unpublished at the time of her death: "Late that summer I developed a low-grade fever, and the [doctor] suspected Tuberculosis, so I was kept at home. It turned out to be a childhood attack of Rheumatic fever, but was never properly diagnosed" (Illumination 17). She adds in her understated style: "[T]oo much running around put a strain on my heart so that it caused embolisms" (Illumination 44). At only twenty-four years old, McCullers suffered her first stroke, affecting her eyesight (McDowell 25). As she began composing The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in her early twenties, a major respiratory infection kept her bedridden throughout the winter, and while drafting her novel-in-progress under the original title The Mute, McCullers wrote with silent trepidation about "the sinister illness that haunted my life all during my youth…. I live[] in a constant fear of strokes" (Illumination 32). Before her thirtieth birthday, her fears came true as another stroke partially paralyzed the left half of her body, resulting in her needing a wheelchair. She recounted this incident with terrifying precision:

[W]hile there, alone in the house, this final stroke happened. I was just going to the bathroom when I fell on the floor. At first it seemed to me that the left side of my body was dead. I could feel the skin clammy and cold with my right hand. I screamed, but no one answered, no one was there. I lay on the floor, helpless, from about eight in the evening all through the night until dawn, when finally my screams were heard. (Illumination 43)

Following this incident in Paris, the muscles in her leg, arm, hand, and wrist eventually atrophied, leading to a series of operations to replace her fractured hip and elbow. Four heart operations sought unsuccessfully to offer her a permanent end to her strokes. Beyond these illnesses, McCullers also had a mastectomy, and temporarily went blind in one eye: "[O]ne day I noticed that my lateral vision was affected. Immediately I sensed what it was, a second of those terrifying strokes…. [The doctors] said it was a very peculiar case, because they never heard of a person having strokes at my age. The vision was never restored" (Illumination 40-43). Near the end of her life she had imminent plans to amputate her atrophied left leg: "The doctors have decided that my crippled leg must be amputated…. They are going to chop off the leg so I can have more mobility and can get from the bed to the wheel-chair more easily" (Illumination 38-39). As she neared her premature death, McCullers began dictating to her caregivers a series of reflections on fellow artists who also experienced physical disabilities. She could no longer write because of her atrophied hand and wrist, and she planned to conclude her autobiography with these short reflections on fellow members of the disabled community, including one on Sarah Bernhardt, Cole Porter, and James Joyce. She also outlined her intention to write another on Helen Keller but could not complete it in time. A final stroke left her in a forty-seven-day coma, and McCullers died on 29 September 1967. She was only fifty years old.

Many scholars fixate on McCullers's disabilities, as with her most famous protagonist, John Singer, when explaining how her significance and work have been received. 10 Famous playwright Tennessee Williams, a long-time close friend of McCullers, recognized this tendency from the start. His forward to Virginia Carr's definitive biography of McCullers, 1975's The Lonely Hunter, describes hesitating to speak with Carr after reading an early scholarly book "which had placed its main emphasis on the physical illnesses which had beset her" (Carr, Lonely xi). He claimed these made "of their circumstance a base for attack on her stature as an artist" (Carr, Lonely xi). Rather than a base for attack, her disabilities are now usually understood outside of DS in a commonplace ableist rhetoric that views her "endurance" as somehow inspiring and brave, shot through with a patronizing pity all too familiar to those within the disabled community, like that previously mentioned by Young. McCullers undeniably suffered because of the experiential pains of her body, a stark fact that ought not to be ignored. Yet the objectionable issue arises when attempting to cross the great theoretical divide between the inside and outside of a literary text, equating the "grotesque, the freakish, [and] the incongruous" elements of her body of fiction with her actual body (Hassan 207). Doing so risks reiterating on a smaller scale the same logic which perpetually replaces lived embodiment with a set of symbolic or literary figures that supposedly give disabilities their "real meaning."

Many of those dedicated to understanding what literary critics often upsettingly call the "freaks" of McCullers's fiction do so by conflating them with her actual disabilities, as though into each character she transparently wrote only herself. To make matters worse, this substitution for non-disability scholars has traditionally gone a step further by immediately discarding the body's supposed lacks for those the mind supposedly gains: "Adolescents and freaks are her rueful heroes…but in both[,] physical incompleteness is the source of a qualitative, a spiritual difference" (Hassan 208). For too many readers, McCullers shared with her literary creations "a fear of the freakish (self) and a fear of the social structures created to suppress and deny it" (Downey 366). As such, she is often assumed to have portrayed her characters as "terrorised simultaneously by their own abnormality and by the looming social threat of judgement and ostracism, creating an inescapable atmosphere" (Downey 366). If this imposing and "terroris[ing]" atmosphere around disabled bodies supposedly cannot be escaped within her fiction, it seems few nondisabled critical perspectives can avoid it in their engagements with the facts of McCullers's own disabled embodiment either.

Placing McCullers within a disabled context and reading her from within disability studies, however, does not come without concerns. At five-foot-nine, she of course cannot be claimed as a dwarf, or a giant, though she wrote about both. While two of her strokes severely affected her eyesight, she was never legally blind. Her work instead tends to think about blindness, like so many other writers and thinkers, metaphorically as epistemological knowledge "in ways that are dislodged from the subjective experience of disability" (Russell 64). And while a person with paraplegia herself, none of her main characters shared her disability. 11 Most important in relation to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, she always remained a hearing person, despite her engagement with deafness. She comes so close to what looks like appropriation at times as to be inexcusable at first glance. In "The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing," first published in Esquire magazine, she revealed in her approach to characters what certainly sounds like appropriation: "I become the characters I write about. I am so immersed in them that their motives are my own…. [W]hen I write about a deaf mute, I become dumb [meaning, at the time, without speech] during the time of the story" (McCullers, "Flowering" 163). Having never experienced a hearing impairment, how then could she rightfully write: "I've never known [a deaf person], but I know Mr. Singer"? (Carr, Understanding 16).

In answering whether McCullers inexcusably appropriates deafness, one should consider first how the applications of Deaf studies have expanded in recent years. Rebecca Sanchez has significantly widened both how and where the tools of Deaf studies might open new ways of thinking about deafness. Sanchez's work on "deafening modernism" has argued, audaciously, against the need to examine deaf characters at all, insisting that "Deaf insight," as she calls it, can be found even in—and sometimes especially in—texts written by hearing writers (Sanchez 3). 12 A few key theoretical moves make this possible. For one, Sanchez models "a Deaf theory that engages with but is not restricted to identity-based understandings of deafness" (Sanchez 2), drawing in part on Lennard Davis's influential work in Enforcing Normalcy. Though she does not quote the following passage from Davis directly, it helps situate Sanchez's model: "By using the concept of the disabled moment, I want to defamiliarize disability, denarrativize it, and in a sense debourgeoisify it. Of course, I do not intend permanently to divorce disability from people, but such a move might be necessary as an initial tactic" (Davis 4). Similar in some regards to Davis's suggestion, Sanchez pushes against needing deaf characters or deaf authors to deploy Deaf theory by reminding us of the term's capaciousness as a verb: "To deafen is to 'deprive of the power of hearing, to stun with noise,' a definition that is itself revealing of some of the valuable critical work such a concept might perform" (Sanchez 2). She further posits that deafness "can also function as a lens through which we gain new appreciation of issues such as silence and voice that are central to literary works" (Sanchez 2).

Sanchez's goal of locating Deaf insights that exist in unexpected or counterintuitive places in many ways also shares Davis's view of the act of reading as being the most crucial deafening moment. As he put it a decade earlier: "As an example of the act of defamiliarization I am discussing, consider that everyone who reads this book is deaf. You are in a deafened modality or moment. All readers are deaf because they are defined by a process that does not require hearing or speaking" (Davis 4). Sanchez, though, goes further to delineate how "deafening" modernist texts (as a verb, not an adjective) helps bring literary works like those of McCullers "into dialogue with the culture and history of the Deaf" (Sanchez 3):

Deafening modernism, then, involves both cultural and historical recovery— situating literary modernism in the context of the history of a frequently ignored minority—and the development of a critical lens, which I will variously term Deaf insight or Deaf epistemology. This process will also help reveal some of the elements of modernist language to which we have been deafened by the incredibly powerful and institutionalized accounts of the period that have tended to exclude the deaf. (Sanchez 3)

To prove the utility of her approach, Sanchez reads modernist works neither about nor by deaf individuals, emphasizing the insights Deaf studies make possible even with "no obvious or literal connection to deafness" (Sanchez 3-4). Such a method explores instead how deafness and literary modernism can reconfigure themselves when they are mutually detached from concerns over valid representations and sanctioned deaf perspectives viewed from the inside.

As her explicitly non-identity-based approach announces, her work, in short, seeks literary moments of Deaf insight beyond or outside of the lived experience of deafness, including those offered by hearing authors like McCullers. While such a counterintuitive approach may produce anxiety or disbelief, insisting that Deaf insight can only emerge from deaf individuals "unfortunately contributes to the mistaken belief that disability insight is only applicable in such contexts" (Sanchez 4). As though anticipating resistance from fellow Deaf and disability scholars, she flags the double-standard naysayers would have to maintain to discount her approach. It would be absurd, she says, "to argue that critical discussions of race should be limited to texts that prominently feature bodies of color or that queer theory provides valuable perspectives only when the characters or authors being considered belong to a sexual minority" (Sanchez 4). Many scholars would be unlikely to reject outright when Zora Neale Hurston or James Baldwin, for example, write a novel from a white perspective, or, to a lesser extent, when William Maxwell writes from a queer perspective as a heterosexual. 13 And while some gender reversals between writer and character produce sexist narratives, plenty more offer keen insights. As Sanchez helps prime, the question, then, becomes: what makes disability different, particularly in the contentious case of McCullers?

The uncertainty and disquiet of some critics over such difficult assessments in part has to do with the paradoxical situation in which disability theory has found itself. For one, the embodied experience of dis/ability—unlike race, gender, or, to a lesser extent, sexuality—changes over time. Bodies are in a state of constant flux, bringing with them shifts in dis/abilities as well. Sharing some overlaps with Kafka's famous "Metamorphosis," people do not awaken, as the familiar analogy goes, to find themselves suddenly a member of a different race or with a different set of genitalia (at least not without capital and considerable forethought). Some of course find that their sexuality morphs or evolves. Practically everyone, however, if they live long enough, will become disabled to some degree during their life. Furthermore, while disability offers to some theorists the ultimate postmodern identity, one which always seems to elide categorization and escape the scholastic desire to fix it in place, others understandably react by policing its boundaries, determining with more reserve and conservatism who can and cannot be considered truly disabled. Helpfully, Sanchez tightly captures the paradox at the heart of this problem in an aphorism, reminding us that "If all bodies are disabled, then none are" (Sanchez 7). Indeed, such sentiments as Sanchez's are often central to the problem of speaking for others, as in the case at hand of McCullers.

While Deaf theorists like Sanchez have opened many critical doors that make it possible to find Deaf insight even in the work of hearing authors, "deafening" or reading a modernist like McCullers against the grain remains mired in perplexity and discomfort. The debate around such difficult determinations results in part from an uncertainty over how and where one ought to "place" her context, intentions, and engagement, and it also raises unsettling questions over whether such determinations must assume some unavoidable degree of good faith when it comes to approaching disability from an able-bodied or differently disabled perspective. These dense and difficult questions also lead to an even bigger quandary: if some degree of good faith cannot be avoided in one's assessment of nondisabled or differently disabled interlocutors—especially when it comes to allyship—how does the field best make such a shaky judgment or determination?

Here, too, the contextual case of McCullers proves a thorny, but important, problem to face. Despite being multiply disabled, McCullers retains at times a remarkably pernicious ambiguity in her writing about disability in general and deafness in particular. Good faith skeptics will have no trouble finding a small number of ambivalent and even blatantly offensive statements regarding her interest in deafness for the purposes of her work. The most damning and difficult of these to rationalize concerns her declined opportunity to attend a "deaf-and-mute convention" near her hometown in Georgia in the 1930s. Seeing his wife labor tirelessly to understand John Singer and his role at the center of her flourishing manuscript, Reeves McCullers heard about the convention and told Carson they should go together as a learning experience:

When I was nearly finished with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, my husband mentioned that there was a convention of deaf mutes in a town near-by and he assumed that I would want to go and observe them. I told him that it was the last thing I wanted to do because I already had made my conception of deaf mutes and didn't want it to be disturbed. ("Flowering" 162)

As though this were not bad enough, at another point she called Singer "a symbol of infirmity" ("Flowering" 163). Even those dedicated to good faith arguments about ethical able-bodied or differently disabled engagements in the field must question whether McCullers read Singer as anything more than a convenient narrative prosthesis in such comments. At times, McCullers deliberately seems to leave her "conception" of deafness undisturbed precisely because she found in it the same symbolic richness and metaphorical excess that DS needs to continue resisting. The sign language convention would have offered McCullers an actual lived context against which her literary conception could have been balanced. In this moment, at least, she instead entrenched a hard line between herself and, as she indelicately put it, "them."

Yet, squaring McCullers's troubling statements alongside her own lived experience with multiple disabilities becomes frustratingly difficult when offset by the basic fact that she had written, in 1940 at least, arguably the most visible deaf protagonist in the mainstream literature of her time. 14 No amount of disquietude or offense can fully deny the historical significance of The Heart, no matter how well intended. Debates around McCullers's disposition toward deafness must carefully consider the overall extent to which her good faith investment in disability ultimately rings true or false.

Relatedly, if McCullers causes discomfort over what occasionally can sound like an inappropriate—if not outright ableist—tone toward deafness marked by a stylized pathetic irony, she paradoxically coupled this with what close friend Richard Wright famously declared to be her "astonishing humanity" ("Review" 195) toward many different marginalized communities. Part of the good faith element of McCullers's engagement with deafness emerges from her unbridled compassion across differences in race, gender, sexuality, and disability throughout her writing. It is no accident that, as a queer disabled woman living in an overwhelmingly patriarchal southern culture, her fiction repeatedly turns to issues of injustice around racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism, many of which she experienced. 15 One ought not to overlook how McCullers's fiction reveals disability as yet another facet of social and political alterity, an insight inescapably indebted to her own embodiment and lived experience. In Wright's 1940 review of The Heart, the same year he published Native Son, he wrote of her compassion across human difference in terms of race, claiming it "seems to stem from [her] attitude toward life" ("Review" 195). This attitude, he determined, "enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness" ("Review" 195). Wright recognized from the first the interplay of her contradictory style, and the affective and effective fruits it bears: "[T]he value of such writing lies not so much in what is said as in the angle of vision from which life is seen…. [T]his is not so much a novel as a projected mood, a state of mind poetically objectified in words, an attitude externalized in naturalistic detail" ("Review" 195). Her commitment to "know[ing] Mr. Singer," as she put it, admittedly had less to do with the minute-by-minute lived realities of deafness, as Linett has critiqued, then with tracing Singer's variegated humanity, critiquing in the process an ableist American culture which would deny him this, and exploring with him the same complex contradictory drives, wants, feelings, thoughts, hopes, and fears as his nondisabled literary counterparts. McCullers insisted she sought to find in the space of fiction the means to dwell with deafness, "commit[ing]," as she said, "my whole soul to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" ("Flowering" 162). Her flawed commitment, no doubt informed by her own lived experience of multiple disabilities, deserves to be considered more robustly within disability studies.


The Problem of Speaking for Others: Disentangling Allyship from Appropriation and Unethical Identification

Does one's experience with a particular disability necessarily exempt one from the same scrutiny regarding the ethics of engagement when that person studies or represents a different disability? Perhaps more complex still, do able-bodied and differently disabled engagements with disability, when they are explicitly, deliberately, and carefully approached from a perspective of difference, alter the "rules" of engagement and its fears of speaking for disability? While some scholars may wish to dismiss McCullers on the grounds of a bad faith "commitment" akin to an able-bodied person's "speaking for" disability, she also opens important critical and theoretical avenues of discussion. She might, in short, help the field question how it approaches able-bodied or differently disabled persons who seek to ethically engage with the study of disability—not to speak for an embodiment other than their own, but instead from an able-bodied or differently disabled perspective, and thus with or alongside as an ally. What might this approach offer, what problems might it pose, and how, if at all, might it generate new critical encounters in disability studies? Does rejecting able-bodied engagements with disability studies out of hand as necessarily appropriative further calcify compulsive able-bodiedness as "normative" embodiment? Does it engender, in other words, the uncritical disengagement from the contingent meaning of bodies that privilege affords the able-bodied? And can (temporarily) able-bodied or differently disabled people ethically engage with DS in ways that are generative, critically unexpected, and perhaps even valuable in furthering the insights of the field, like those Sanchez has identified?

A major sticking point regarding the problem of speaking for others often comes down to the fear or conviction that an able-bodied or differently disabled person's engagement with disability without lived experience, however well-intended, is always at risk of stealing the voice of the disenfranchised or marginalized once again. Such acts have deep roots in imperialism and the privileges it affords some individuals. 16 The difficulty McCullers poses over the question of appropriation would ostensibly be simpler had she been an able-bodied individual, rather than a queer disabled woman. Disentangling the semantic differences that distinguish allyship from appropriation and unethical identification, however, aids one in better judging McCullers's self-proclaimed commitment to and flawed engagement with deafness.

A core assumption at the heart of both appropriation and identification is that an individual, especially one in a position of privilege, can understand, appreciate, or vicariously experience that which belongs to someone else as though it were one's own, or one's own life. The common humanistic adage of empathy to imagine oneself in another's shoes captures the essence of such thinking. Young has critiqued this under the term "symmetrical reciprocity" (346). The emphasis of this adage falls on an assumed reversing of positions almost like a mirroring effect in which an individual finds common ground precisely by imagining that someone else has shared the same lived experience—or that someone else's experience may be reduced such that it aligns with one's own. Young outlines the issues and limitations of this line of reasoning by articulating how "identifying moral respect and reciprocity with symmetry and reversibility of perspectives tends to close off the differentiation among subjects" (Young 343). Seeking to understand someone other than oneself through an assumed shared experience brings with it, for her, three problems, each of which contribute to erasing human difference and which risk dissolving moral respect and ethical communication, rather than ensuring it.

The first problem Young identifies is that assuming one can understand the experience of another as being the same as one's own obscures or erases important differences. Like the example of the able-bodied believing they can imagine the experience of a person with a wheelchair, "the result of the effort to see others as symmetrical with [one]self may sometimes be that [one] project[s] onto them a perspective that complements [one's] own" (Young 347). What goes under the guise of empathy and care can quickly turn into a projection or fantasy that imposes the self onto the other, in effect largely erasing key particularities. Were McCullers to assume that her experiences with many disabilities granted her access to deafness through an equivalence, then embodied differences would be dissolved into the broader shared category of disability, losing much particularity of experience in the process. The Heart, however, keeps the experience of deafness at a notable distance, and McCullers withholds herself and readers from the same intimate access to Singer's interiority that she grants to her hearing characters. While her outline to The Heart, for instance, speaks to how the subjective voices of her hearing characters impact their individual narrative sections, she also suggests that the narrator deliberately presents Singer in a somewhat detached, matter-of-fact manner, noting that his narration takes the "tone of a legend," as she called it, "written in the simple style of a parable," and which she puts to devastatingly critical ends (Carson 487). In denying a false equivalence and refusing to narrate the subjective experience of deafness, McCullers avoids Young's first problem.

Secondly, Young reminds that symmetrical reciprocity further erases difference in the false assumption that individuals can detach themselves from the fundamental fact that their relation to others depends on others' relation to them. 17 As such, "characteriz[ing] our mediated perspectival encounter as each of us reversing positions with the other…neglects to conceptualize the relation between us" (Young 349). McCullers viewed The Heart, however, as being about the relations among people—especially about the space between them—and emphasized from various vantages the struggle to adequately "express the self at all costs," as she put it (qtd. in McDowell 31). "On the whole," she wrote in her outline, "the interrelations between the people of this book can be described as being like the spokes of a wheel—with Singer representing the center point. This situation, with its attendant irony, expresses the most important theme of the book" (Carson 504, emphasis added). McCullers's distance from the subjectivity of her differently abled character places new emphasis on how we understand the importance of the "interrelations between" subjectivities.

Failing to acknowledge the distance between people, such as that of two differently-abled subjects, leads Young to her third and final issue: the political stakes of privileged individuals insisting on empathizing with and speaking for others. Too often able-bodied subjects "put themselves, with their own particular experiences and privileges, in the positions they see the others being in," and thus "the assumptions derived from their privilege often allow them unknowingly to misrepresent the other's situation" (Young 349, emphasis in original). If McCullers keeps the difference between herself, her hearing characters, and Singer's deafness open and distinct, specifically in her decision to deny access to his interiority, she seems to avoid here as well the concerns over grossly misrepresenting a situation to which she has no valid claim.

Because symmetrical reciprocity's problems of erasure can be consistently described through inaccurate images of mirrors and reversals, it makes sense that Young argues for a communicative ethics between people being defined instead by "asymmetry," one which protects, rather than stamps out, embodied difference. Her model of "asymmetrical reciprocity" helps avoid some of the problems of speaking for others. She insists on keeping two central needs in mind when engaging with or imagining across human difference, each of which helps avoid some of the problems of speaking for others: temporality and position. With regards to temporality, ethical attempts to think across difference require foregrounding a self-awareness that every person has their own history which is singular to them and informs how they relate to others, including their personal "experiences, assumptions, meanings, symbolic associations, and so on" (Young 352). Each instance of an individual's history, however, is "inexhaustible," as she puts it, and irreducible to that of others (Young 352). Thus, "one person cannot adopt another person's perspective because he cannot live another person's history. To the extent that groups define an identity through constructing a history, the same is true of relations among groups" (Young 352). Secondly, "each social position is structured by the configuration of relationships among positions" (Young 353). Building from the basic assumption that one's sense of self is always defined in its relation to others, if "we recognize that subject positions and perspectives are multiply structured in relation to many other positions," then "the specificity and irreversibility of each location is more obvious" (Young 353). In other words, ethically trying to understand the experiences of someone else comes from an open and humble awareness—a protection, even—of difference, rather than an exchange or reversal based on a presumed sameness brought about through the erasure of such crucial lived distinctions. Intrinsically motivated, selfish, and even narcissistic imagining across human difference drives at the heart of appropriation and unethical (mis)identification. 18

One can better witness such understandings of alterity by untangling the meaning of appropriation and unethical identification. Better defining each also helps shed light on the extent to which McCullers should or should not be considered an ally, however flawed and historically contingent. Much like Young's issue with symmetrical reciprocity, the act of appropriation is thoroughly inculcated in notions of possession, whether literal or symbolic. To appropriate, it is worth recalling, involves taking possession of, or making another's property one's own, as its more precise definition clarifies: "the making of a thing, private property, whether another's or (as now commonly) one's own," or "taking possession of" ("appropriation"). It not only takes "as one's own" but can also then be put "to one's own use," or to one's own purposes ("appropriation"). Such an act aligns with familiar notions of narrative prosthesis precisely in the abusive, if literary or figurative, "use" of a damaging disability metaphor, especially when deployed by a nondisabled writer, such as that with which Linett has charged McCullers. Indeed, if one reads Singer's deafness as operating purely as a metaphor in service of the novel's theme of language's failure to deliver people from their essential alienation, then McCullers undoubtedly appropriates something to which she has no right, and ought to be critiqued as such.

Of course, to put this notion within the narrative context of The Heart, it remains remarkably difficult to rationalize how anyone, fictional character or otherwise, intends to kill themselves metaphorically. Such a suggestion risks an unethical, oppressive denial of lived pain in response to ill-treatment and injustice. As Singer's confessional note reveals to Antonapoulos:

You remember the four people I told you about… They are all very busy people… They come up to my room and talk to me until I do not understand how a person can open and shut his or her mouth so much without being weary… The one with the mustache I think is crazy… He thinks he and I have a secret together but I do not know what it is… [The girl] knows I am deaf but she thinks I know about music… [Y]ou know how I have always said that to be rude and not attend to the feelings of others is wrong… The only thing I can imagine is when I will be with you again. If I cannot come to you soon I do not know what. (The Heart 214-16).

Undermining any reading that would reduce him to nothing more than narrative prosthesis, Singer vicariously vocalizes to readers the damage that the townspeople's abusive, dehumanizing treatment of his deafness has had on him in enforcing his "silence" and in distancing him from any meaningful human community. It is no far stretch to read this lamentation as extending to our cultural treatment of disabled figures in McCullers's time, and today.

Relatedly, the quandary of suggesting, for example, that since McCullers was disabled, she unjustly granted herself license to access deafness depends on how one defines identification and determines at what point it turns from being ethical to unethical. Particularly in one's relation to the Other, the meaning of identification oscillates uneasily between appropriation and allyship. On the one hand, "identification" presents itself alongside the problems of erasure that Young helps capture within false equivalences of reciprocity. To recall the familiar definition, identification specifically refers to the "action or process of regarding or treating one thing as identical with another, or two or more things as identical with one another" ("identification," emphasis in original). Given the proximity of appropriation to privilege or imperialist exploitation, this understanding of identification makes it difficult to imagine, for example, how the act of identifying with disability for those without the same impairment could ever not be unethical. And yet, identification, to complicate matters on the other hand, also has a less absolute meaning that places it surprisingly close to allyship: "the state of being or feeling oneself to be closely associated with a person, group, etc., in emotions, interests, or actions; the process of becoming associated in this way" ("identification," emphasis added). Here, the issues of erasing human difference fall away into something emphasizing close association, one suggestive of McCullers's own lived experience of injustice as a queer disabled woman being in some sense importantly aligned with—but not equivalent or reducible to—the historical mistreatment of the American Deaf community.

What, then, is an ally, and how might McCullers be viewed as a proto, if flawed, ally of the Deaf community? Like the second definition of identification as a close association with shared interests or actions, the meaning of allyship also comes down to retaining or protecting difference rather than conflating or erasing it, while simultaneously recognizing a mutual or shared investment of some kind. In its precise meaning, allyship is the specific "state or condition of being a person who supports the rights of a minority or marginalized group without being a member of it" ("allyship"). Allyship must balance difference with sameness, something far easier in theory than practice, while absolutely avoiding the urge to speak for others. Rather, allies must learn to speak with or alongside.

Important to note, then, with allies in mind is that The Heart asks hearing readers to consider seriously deaf embodiment while crucially denying their access to that bodily space. With the exception of Singer's few written letters near the conclusion, McCullers disallows focalizing from Singer's perspective by insisting on an unbreachable, detached narrative distance set in distinction to the free indirect discourse she deploys for her hearing characters. 19 Part of the wisdom of this choice in retrospect comes from her self-awareness that her commitment to "becoming deaf" necessarily needed to be strictly bound, kept in check, and drawn from as much a perspective of a hearing person as possible, all while seeking ethical understanding. Some critics see her distance from Singer's interiority as further evidence that McCullers only wanted him as a narrative prosthesis; that she never had any true commitment to exploring an isolated deaf individual in earnest. For example, in her critique of how McCullers "uses" Singer, as Linett writes, "McCullers artificially isolates Singer in service to [oralist] ideology" (Linett 99), and, for McCullers, Singer therefore either "has no 'psychic rhythms,'" or else "they are inaccessible even to his own creator" (Linett 98). While Linett offers many valuable cautions for approaching The Heart that ought to be taken seriously, any dialogue with disability from an able-bodied or differently disabled perspective must respect and recognize the same critical impasse that McCullers sets for herself. Failure to do so would almost certainly constitute an appropriative, unethical act. I would add that the failings of McCullers to imagine deafness in fiction as a hearing person which Linett warns against would be far greater were she to presume she could access and accurately portray this internal space, implicitly suggesting her hearing readers follow suit.

Most important, though she keeps it at a perhaps uncomfortable distance, McCullers does not erase, conflate, or speak for deafness in The Heart. Her novel asks instead that readers—especially hearing readers—commit to entering an intimate dialogue with deafness and with Singer from a fixed position of embodied difference, and it also comes to refute the easy and violent tendency to metaphorize disability away as merely rhetorical, metaphorical, or "literary." This offering ought to be considered seriously by disability studies, imperfect though it may be. Singer's eventual suicide at a basic plot level speaks to the consequences of ableist engagements with disability, and it can be read against the grain not to suggest McCullers's turn to a troubling narrative prosthesis, but in fact her active deconstruction of it. Over time, each of Singer's visitors comes to enforce his silence, rather than engage with him in any meaningful way. They do so even despite his letting people know he can read lips and read and write notes with his pocketbook, and they miss his many attempts to reciprocate communication more gesturally. 20 Within the narrative, none of the main hearing characters who think they befriend Singer resist their temptations to transform his deafness into their own symbolic systems. After the local café owner Biff Brannon begins to worry that "[t]here was something wrong" with how others relate to Singer, he eventually comes to realize that the town had "made of [Singer] a kind of home-made God. Owing to the fact he was a mute they were able to give him all the qualities they wanted him to have. Yes. But how could such a strange thing come about? And why?" (The Heart 134; 232). McCullers's narrative adds to this a third question concerning Singer: with what consequences? The Heart slowly reveals the townspeople's acts as being deeply selfish and harmful, each furthering Singer's "feeling of estrangement" (The Heart 30), to borrow from the narrator, both from community and eventually, as I have argued elsewhere, his own sense of self and internalized alterity (Steele 71). I want to suggest this is precisely part of McCullers's anti-ableist critique, and it also helps further witness her striving toward an important, worthy attempt, though historically flawed, at allyship.

Ultimately, as a deconstructive and deeply ironic text, McCullers arguably places a lure in The Heart for hearing readers, especially, to invest in the same quest as her hearing characters. By the conclusion, she effectively opens a critical distance between how The Heart's hearing characters "use" Singer for their own purposes and how readers may come to understand the violence done in partaking in a similar act. It is as though McCullers entices hearing readers, in short, to also abstract Singer's deafness away from his body as a thematic metaphor only to then call into question the consequences of this act as a latent concern. After finally allowing Singer to voice how this act of othering has affected him, and revealing how isolated from community he has become in the process, McCullers then shows in slow motion how one may be positioned to realize the harmful hearing impulse to speak for deafness, much like Singer's interlocutors. With his unexpected suicide—the reasons for which, ironically and damningly, many of the hearing characters say they cannot understand—the text makes real the violence done by using Singer and his deafness, in the appropriative sense, as a literary means to a metaphorical end, rather than considering how utterly he has been dissevered from all communities, or striving to understand his actual lived experience of deafness. 21 This is the core of McCullers's flawed historical contribution as a differently disabled ally in The Heart. Crucially, such a contribution does not emerge through, nor is it dependent on, speaking for deafness. Rather, in speaking with and alongside the differently disabled as an ally, she speaks to hearing individuals to reveal how easily and unwittingly ableism can thrive in highly damaging ways. She critiques, rather than indulges in, the violence that hearing persons perpetuate in silencing the full range of Deaf expression, and in treating hearing impairments as a purely metaphorical or disembodied curiosity, mystery, or puzzle to be solved. An early ally in the making, McCullers committed herself to deafness, but she did not speak for it.

The Curious Case of Carson McCullers: Reflections in Conclusion

In her watershed publication simply titled "The Problem of Speaking for Others," Linda Alcoff once asked: "is it ever valid to speak for others who are unlike me or who are less privileged than me?" (Alcoff 7). "[If] I don't speak for those less privileged than me," she wondered, "am I abandoning my political responsibility to speak out against oppression, a responsibility incurred by the very fact of my privilege?" (Alcoff 8). Alcoff came to determine that, while dangerous and concerning, at a certain point the need to shift rhetorical registers from "I" to "we" is necessary for "political effectivity," a term that returns us to the concept of allyship: "Both collective action and coalitions," she posits, "would seem to require the possibility of speaking for" (Alcoff 11, emphasis added). More suggestive still, the familiar declaration that "I can only speak for myself," something that Alcoff labels a misguided "retreat" from the problem of speaking for others, smuggles within it "the sole effect of allowing me to avoid responsibility and accountability for my effect on others" (Alcoff 20). "There is," she powerfully says, "no neutral place to stand free and clear in which one's words do not prescriptively affect or mediate the experience of others, nor is there a way to decisively demarcate a boundary between one's location and all others. Even a complete retreat from speech," she avers, "is of course not neutral since it allows the continued dominance of current discourses and acts of omission to reinforce their dominance" (Alcoff 20). Be this as it may, Alcoff concludes that "[w]e should strive to create wherever possible the conditions for dialogue and the practice of speaking with and to rather than speaking for others" (Alcoff 23).

In thinking through the curious, complicated case of Carson McCullers, I have tried to recognize and reappraise her commitment to speaking, like Alcoff, with and alongside, rather than for, a disability which she never had. To stake a clearer claim for including her as an important historical figure in the disabled community and more robustly in disability studies, I emphasized that her lived experience as a queer disabled woman became a key lens through which she both identified and put to work in her fiction, including her many portraits of impairment. In thinking across embodied difference without erasing it, McCullers helps the field reconsider what distinguishes allyship from appropriation and unethical identification, even as she reveals the difficulty in making such judgments without some degree of trust and good faith earned through critical skepticism.

The problem of speaking for others continues to disrupt and cause spirited debate in disability studies, and for good reason. It informs the performance of disclosure, as I first mentioned, as well as the extent to which able-bodied and differently disabled people may or may not be justified in writing about embodiments other than their own. How one ought to judge or determine the status, role, and effect of the engagements of allies, whether able-bodied or differently disabled, remains an open question, and one that seems to have shifted to some extent alongside recent so-called post-theory movements within humanistic disciplines. The humanities in recent years have seen a general move away from highly theoretical views of embodiment that are informed by discursive and performative senses of identity. Some scholars have turned—or perhaps returned—instead to authenticity (linked, more implicitly, to essentialist notions of being), a trend which has likewise informed the established problem of speaking for others and will likely continue to do so.

It also seems that the meaning of allyship and the related fears of speaking for others will continue to be bound together with the evolving aims and understandings of interdisciplinarity and intersectionality. A related philosophical and ethical question to those McCullers has raised: is intersectionality, especially when viewed as multiple marginalized identities, best understood as being founded on an assumed human difference, sameness, or both? While it attempts, crucially, to preserve difference, such as Young, Alcoff, and Sanchez have helped identify, it also draws connections (those akin to notions of sameness) between groups to help understand and dismantle injustice. This, too, helps identify McCullers as a proto-ally in its historical becoming, hailing a shared critique of injustice such as that she experienced in her own life. McCullers's varied, intersecting critiques of injustice—not just of racism, sexism, and homophobia, but ableism as well—meet alongside, but are not equivalent or reducible to, that experienced by the American Deaf community. Whether her commitment to deafness can accurately be judged as in good faith and with an appreciably positive impact in the messy archives of history is a determination that each in the field must make for themselves. Nonetheless, I have tried to defend her commitment not as indulging in appropriation, but in witnessing her as a worthy, if flawed, ally of deafness and disability before the term as we know it existed.

DS may, indeed, grow stronger and its knowledge greater by taking risks like those operative within the case of McCullers. As Kulick has finely put it, such a risk regularly rests in understanding "a fundamental sameness, but also, just as importantly, [in] respond[ing] to a crucial, irreducible difference. The space between that familiar sameness and the in many ways unknowable difference is the space of ethics" (Kulick 28). And yet, as with perhaps all discussions of ethics, reasons for concern, anxiety, and trepidation remain. How quickly the actions of allies, especially when it comes to the problem of speaking for others, can seek purportedly ethical ends through a reinforcement of grossly unethical means. A remarkable precarity and fraught difficulty attaches to those like McCullers who attempt to think through differently disabled perspectives, in imagining across difference and in giving voice to this process. Like Alcoff's apprehension over stealing the voices of the disempowered and disenfranchised, coalition building often brings with it the swift replacement of "I" with "we," thereby necessarily speaking, to some extent, for the other. As with the razor thin line between the true meaning of appropriation and allyship, and between ethical and unethical identification, the difference between justice and injustice, help and harm, and even commitment and carelessness can be so slight in such matters as to be reversed or erased all together. When, then, does an ally become a harmful obstacle? An answer: when the effects of their engagement fail to "enable the empowerment of oppressed peoples" (Alcoff 29). Late in her career, Carson McCullers asked:

How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being? He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love? ("Flowering" 163)

Though her question, implicated in the power of literary encounters at their best, has yet to be answered, the benefit of McCullers's commitment to do just this outweighs the risks and shortcomings of her pursuit.


I would like to thank Greg Deinert and my two anonymous peer reviewers at DSQ, whose time, feedback, and invaluable suggestions were instrumental in the development of this essay.

Works Cited

  • Alcoff, Linda. "The Problem of Speaking for Others." Cultural Critique, no. 20, Winter 1991-92, pp. 5-32. https://doi.org/10.2307/1354221
  • "allyship, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/90469118. Accessed 20 June 2021.
  • "appropriation, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/9877. Accessed 20 June 2021.
  • Baldick, Chris. "free indirect style." The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford University Press, July 2021, https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/acref/9780198715443.001.0001/acref-9780198715443-e-483?rskey=I09D5G&result=489. Accessed 18 July 2021.
  • Berger, James. The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity. New York University Press, 2014.
  • Branfield, Fran. "The Disability Movement: A Movement of Disabled People—A Response to Paul S. Duckett." Disability & Society, vol. 14, no. 3, 1999, pp. 399-403. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599926226
  • Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. "The Tango; or, What Deaf Studies and Disability Studies Do-Do," in Deaf and Disability Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Susan Burch and Alison Kafer, Gallaudet University Press, 2010, pp. 245-265. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv2rr3dgr.22
  • Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers. University of Georgia Press, 2003.
  • ———. Understanding Carson McCullers. University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
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  • Deinert, Greg. "Indigenous Silence, White Universality, and the Question of Appropriation in Mason & Dixon." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 62, no. 1, 2021, pp. 84-96. https://doi.org/10.1080/00111619.2020.1772713
  • Downey, Dara. "The Gothic and the Grotesque in the Novels of Carson McCullers," in The Palgrave Handbook of the Southern Gothic, edited by Susan Castillo Street and Charles L. Crow, Palgrave, 2016, pp. 365-377. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-47774-3_28
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  • ———. Illumination & Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers, edited by Carlos L. Dews, University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.
  • ———. "The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing." Esquire, LII (Dec. 1959).
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  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Can the Subaltern Speak?", in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, Macmillan, 1988, pp. 271-318.
  • ———. "Three Feminist Readings: McCullers, Drabble, Habermas." Union Seminary Quarterly Review, vol. 35, no. 1-2, 1979-80, pp. 15-24.
  • Steele, Alexander. "Estrangement and the Consequences of Metaphorical Deafness: Reconsidering The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 2021, pp. 57-73. https://doi.org/10.3828/jlcds.2021.4
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  • Young, Iris Marion. "Asymmetrical Reciprocity: On Moral Respect, Wonder, and Enlarged Thought." Constellations, vol. 3, no. 3, 1997, pp. 340-63. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8675.1997.tb00064.x


  1. See Charlton, James I. Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment. University of California Press, 1998.
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  2. Fran Branfield's "The Disability Movement: A Movement of Disabled People—A Response to Paul S. Duckett" certainly comes to mind as assenting to this assertion.
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  3. Formally, the emphasis of this term is not on the adjectival sense of the grotesque as provoking disgust, but as a sustained interest in the ability of nonnormative bodies to facilitate a disruption to existing social norms of being, wholeness, and beauty, among others. See, for example, Rune Graulund's entry for "Grotesque" in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature for a clearer outline of this sense of the term, as well as its notorious resistance to complete definition.
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  4. Its cultural endurance was also aided, no doubt, by being contentiously ranked number 17 on the Modern Library's (in)famous 1998 publication of the "100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century."
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  5. This has been especially true for Maren Tova Linett, who devotes extensive space to this problem in her Bodies of Modernism: Physical Disability in Transatlantic Modernism (U. Michigan Press, 2017).
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  6. See Gayatri Spivak for the most famous queer reading of The Heart ("Three Feminist Readings"). See Heidi Krumland for a critique of the eugenic implications in McCullers's one-dimensional treatment of Antonapoulos ("'The Big Deaf-Mute Moron'").
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  7. I am well-aware of and respect the differences between Deaf and disability studies. I proceed with caution by following Brenda Jo Brueggemann's lead in observing what she calls the "dance" between the two fields to seek mutual illumination between them (Brueggemann 248).
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  8. For disability studies readings of The Heart, see especially James Berger, Heidi Krumland, Linett, and Emily Russell.
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  9. Please see Steele, Alexander. "Estrangement and the Consequences of Metaphorical Deafness: Reconsidering The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 2021, pp. 57-73.
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  10. Benjamin Saxton: "Like McCullers herself, Myshkin [from Dostoevsky's Idiot] and Singer are compelling because they struggle with questions about faith and religion that are linked to tremendous confusion about their bodies and their sexuality" (Saxton 104). Emily Russell: "Disability, in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, serves as a necessary supplement for the creation of local community as McCullers imagines physical difference as an antidote to the alienating modern world" (Russell 62). Melissa Free: "McCullers's 'plethora of grotesque images,' particularly in relation to gender and sexuality and to distorted, painful bodies, marks 'a disruption—not of the sexually aberrant body, but of the social body that silences and condemns deviance'" (Free 429).
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  11. Though a minor character in The Heart, Dr. Copeland's son Willie does become tragically paralyzed by the Georgia prison institution following a work-gang debacle with his friend, Buster.
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  12. In this way Sanchez shares some key overlaps with Christopher Krentz in his work on the "hearing line," in which a hearing author explores literary deafness in ways that have "shape[d] the meaning of deafness [and] deaf people" (Krentz 428).
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  13. Meaning, respectively: Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), Giovanni's Room (1956), and The Folded Leaf (1945). It does seem worth mentioning as a brief aside that Baldwin did initially endure his own small share of pushback from some Black Americans upon the release of Giovanni's Room as functionally not being sufficiently committed to racial justice, and as irresponsibly squandering Baldwin's influence as a Black writer by focusing on a white perspective when those of people of color remain underrepresented.
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  14. This is not to suggest that work by Deaf authors did not exist, nor that they should not be studied and considered alongside—or in opposition to—texts like The Heart. See especially, for example, Christopher Krentz's important multi-volume and ongoing edited anthology, A Mighty Change: An Anthology of Deaf American Writing (Gallaudet UP, 2000). My thanks to an anonymous peer reviewer at DSQ for this important comparison.
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  15. Melissa Free has thoroughly examined queerness in McCullers's fiction, as well as the author's densely complicated relationship to her own sexuality. "McCullers," she concludes, "leaves behind a record of and a protest against the violence that is queer-phobia, social and internalized. Unspeakable but present, the queer makes itself known in visible susurrations, grotesque articulations of the heavy cost of relegating queer identification and desire to silence" (443).
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  16. The most influential account of this, especially within the problem of speaking for others, is almost certainly Gayatri Spivak's postcolonial and anti-imperialist critique, "Can the Subaltern Speak?", first published in the 1988 edited collection, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture.
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  17. In short—and to avoid getting overly theoretical—this is why Young establishes her point about the indissoluble relations between people from the perspective of Hegelian philosophy, underscoring that an individual or self is always dialectically defined by the other, or others, and that there can be no "outside" to this fact of perspective.
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  18. The question of appropriation and the problem of speaking for others has also recently been reconsidered outside of disability studies. For a deft look at the problem of speaking for Indigenous Americans in settler colonial historical narratives, for instance, see Greg Deinert's "Indigenous Silence, White Universality, and the Question of Appropriation in Mason & Dixon."
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  19. For those unfamiliar with this literary term, free indirect discourse is a "manner of presenting the thoughts or utterances of a fictional character [despite being written in the third person] as if from that character's point of view by combining grammatical and other features of the character's 'direct speech' with features of the narrator's 'indirect' report" (Baldick). Though beyond our disability studies purview here, it is worth considering the ethics of McCullers's comfort with, and decision to, inhabit a Black, masculine perspective with Doctor Copeland, as well as a male queer perspective with Biff Brannon. Like that of deafness, these portrayals may also constitute, for some, another unethical transgression.
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  20. For textual examples of each of these in The Heart, see, respectively (among other places): p. 55, p. 12, and p. 28.
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  21. Much of the short, concluding "Part Three" of The Heart shows the other main characters trying to answer for themselves why Singer ended his life, some expressing their feelings that in doing so Singer somehow selfishly abandoned them. Ironically, this of course only underscores the role their own dehumanizing mistreatment had on Singer. The narrator writes that Jake Blount, for example, "remembered all the innermost thoughts that he had told to Singer, and with his death it seems to him that they were lost… He had given Singer everything and then the man had killed himself" (The Heart 341; 345). Biff, however, does conclude by determining that "[t]here was something not natural" about what had happened to his deaf patron (The Heart 358).
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