Carson McCullers’ Short Story, “The Sojourner”

Background: When a college kid, I remember taking a handful of yellow Vivarin caffeine pills on a rainy Thursday and staying up for two-and-a-half days on a brown cloth sofa with collapsed cushions and reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers’ breakthrough enduring heartrending novel. I read it as an eighteen-year-old and have reread it since then, along with her other works.

McCullers has a gift for characterization. If you are a caring reader, you come to care deeply for her characters. You know of John Singer and Mick, e.g. in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. They live in your thinking, in your imagination, in your heart. They are in fact quite real to you, even though you know that they don’t have a SSN or driver’s license.

If you’re of a literary bent, this will be self-evident. Twain’s Huck and Jim are as real to you–perhaps more real–than any so-called news of the day. (If you trust TV entertainers/pontiffs, this explains a lot.) Hamlet is as real to me as anyone. Why? Because, among other things, he (and the play bearing his name) speaks to the human condition, to what we creatures are like, to what it means to draw breath and to live, laugh, grow up, grow old (at least sometimes), and to grow towards our ends, to decline.

Recently I was in Pennsylvania and read my some of my favorite short stories, one of which was McCullers’ “The Sojourner.” In the edition of short stories I was reading from, “The Sojourner” was one of Elbert Erskine’s (the famous editor) favorites, too. He, of course, worked with and edited the writing of Faulkner, John O’Hara, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, among others. Those names merit taking heed.

A line that grabbed me: The story is about what it means to journey–to sojourn–in imagination when one’s ‘reality’ is sadly much less than one’s ambitious inner promptings/imagined life. Another way of expressing the idea is to say that one’s outer visible life is often sadly less than the life one imagined for oneself.

I was reading from one of my shelves of collections of short stories.

Then this line: “There’s nothing that makes you so aware of the improvisation of human existence as a song unfinished. Or an old address book” (Carson McCullers, “The Sojourner,” New York: Dell Publishing, 1982), 329-330.

The main character, John Ferris, continues to journey, to sojourn, to live (where exactly?). That’s the key question.

McCullers, when she is on point, tears your heart out.

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