Book Reviews

Jenn Shapland. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. New York, NY: Tin House, 2020. 296p. Paper, $16.95 (ISBN: 978-1-951142-29-2).

Book cover for My Autobiography of Carson McCullers

In my conversations with students interested in librarianship, I have noted a shared awe regarding archival work and assembly. Archives and archivists’ work shimmer with frisson: the tension between the public and the personal, the privilege of accessing someone’s most private selves. And it is through the use of archives that hidden lives are made public, celebrated, or obscured. In the hands of a writer or filmmaker (see Todd Haynes’s new The Velvet Underground or Angelo Madsen Minax’s astonishing North by Current), there’s a collaborative relationship between creator and archivist negotiating with the past to curate and contextualize. There’s a call to create, a response, and a responsibility.

Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is best described as a piece of braided nonfiction. Brief vignettes about Shapland’s life and research are intertwined with descriptions of letters, transcripts, photographs, and novels from the nine archival collections referenced. The narrative traverses time and location, landing the reader in the Ransom Center’s reading room and in the bathtub of McCullers’s childhood home where Shapland spends a residency soaking, reading, and writing. The intimacy Shapland forges with the McCullers of the archives is deep, earnest, and compassionate.

Conversations with librarians are not the focus of Shapland’s project, but archives are everywhere, from her own internship at the Ransom Center to her residency at the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. The initial connection between Shapland and McCullers is sparked in an archive when Shapland uncovers a transcript of a session between McCullers and her therapist and likely lover, Dr. Mary Mercer. In it, McCullers recounted her boyfriend Reeves asking her at nineteen if she was a lesbian. She denied it, but admitted to intense relationships with women. Recognizing in Carson the queerness that shaped her own identity, Shapland set out to uncover as much as she could about McCullers’s love of women. Her McCullers was a lesbian and not, as her biographers have described her, a confused woman in a loving but starcrossed relationship with Reeves, the man she married twice.

Shapland interrogates the erasure of queerness in the archives and in literary biography. Dr. Mercer herself “refused biographers permission to use [McCullers and Mercer’s] letters (those that existed). Her censorship was thorough” (40). Shapland recognizes Dr. Mercer’s erasure as a love letter to McCullers’s privacy, reading between the lines that Mary knew “Carson better than her biographers, better than so many of the people around her” (193). The nature of historical censorship, regardless of intent, is in sharp focus, as are intersecting representations of the writing life, chronic illness, mental health, alcoholism, self-care, and the trauma of being publicly queer when queerness in itself was considered an illness. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is a masterclass in close reading and discovery. Shapland’s experience is so interwoven with her reading of the McCullers archive that it is difficult to read this book as anything other than a mending of the fabric of queer literary heritage.

While I found this book revelatory and intimate as a reader, it holds special significance for knowledge workers who connect to the romantic allure of the role: the keeper of secrets and history, preserving and describing that which cannot be digitized. Archivists will find a deep appreciation for Shapland’s descriptions of archival work. One highlight: as a Ransom Center intern, Shapland catalogued McCullers’s housedresses and intricately embroidered coats. She recounts how intensely she focused on the details of the clothing, lamenting that, “I measured and photographed each piece from several angles, never very satisfied with my ability to recreate the life I saw and felt in the clothes” (100). The descriptions are loving and tender (this book is very much a love letter) and librarians and archivists are likely to appreciate the care with which Shapland consults her sources. Additionally, the book is a reminder to archivists that collecting and preserving artifacts carries a responsibility to be as contextually honest as possible. This book is a must for university collections with an emphasis on Southern literature, literary archives, and queer history.—Ashley Roach-Freiman, University of Memphis

Copyright Ashley Roach-Freiman

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