John Leonard Nominations

Leonard Prize 2020: My Autobiography of Carson McCullers

By Charles Green

NBCC members: If you’d like to contribute a review of an eligible book for the 2020 Leonard Prize, write to NBCC board member Megan Labrise at Read the rest of the reviews here.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland (Tin House)

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is a joyful combination of biography and memoir, mixing Shapland’s discovery of author Carson McCullers (1917-1967) with her own journey toward embracing her sexuality.

While working at “a small university archive,” Shapland came across an exchange between McCullers and her future husband, in which he asked her “if she was a lesbian.” The account is among the transcripts of a series of therapy sessions McCullers undertook in late life, while attempting to write a memoir. Digging deeper, Shapland discovered what she describes as “love letters” from a woman named Annemarie to McCullers, reminding her of her “own letters from my late teens and early twenties… attempting to articulate a self [I] had not yet fully become.”

These discoveries awaken a generative kinship in Shapland, who writes of “never quite breaking up” with her first girlfriend, with whom she spent “six closeted years together,” and of growing “bored sick of academia” in her PhD program. The research feels personally significant, inspiring her to stay in McCullers’ house in Columbus, Georgia, and learn about McCullers’ friendships with famous lesbians of the time, including Janet Flanner, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Jane Bowles, some of who lived with the author for a time in New York.

To her surprise, Shapland finds in all other biographies of McCullers “that her relationship with Annemarie,” and indeed “all of her profound emotional relationships with women” are “either dismissed or ridiculed.” Shapland takes this “retroactive closeting” personally, asking, “If Carson was not a lesbian, if none of these women were lesbians, according to history, if indeed there hardly is a lesbian history, do I exist?”

With a passionate style, this book is a deeply personal account of the way writers can inspire their readers.