Spotting the Jewish in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter


Tomorrow night at 7pm we’ll be screening (for free) the film version of Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunteras part of DC’s Big Read. There are many differences between the film and the novel: the period is changed, the ending completely re-written and as expected, many liberties are taken with the plot and timeframe. But one of the biggest changes for me from the book to the film are the removal of a few key references to Jewish characters and Jewish characteristics.

112214__lonely_lIt’s not that The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is what you could call a Jewish book. But Carson McCulllers clearly had a thing for Jews, or if not actual Jews, what Jews represented to her — a combination in different parts of wisdom, suffering and quintessential outsider status. In fact, in its early drafts, the central character of The Heart Is… was explicitly Jewish, Harry Minowitz. As McCullers later wrote:

Suddenly, as I walked across a road, it occurred me that Harry Minowitz, the character all the other characters were talking to, was a different man, a deaf mute, and immediately the name was changed to John Singer. The whole focus of the novel was fixed and I was for the first time committed with my whole soul to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

In the finished novel, Harry Minowitz does appear as Mick Kelly’s anti-Fascist Jewish neighbor and her first sexual experience. But that does not mean all of the Jew has been taken out of John Singer. Because he is a mute, he is a bit of a cypher for the characters that surround him, each able to project onto him the characteristics that each needs to be reassured. For Doctor Copeland, that image of Singer reflects his own self-perception: that of a philosopher misunderstood by his own people.  When Singer shows up at his Christmas party, Dr. Copeland observes, “The mute stood by himself. His face resembled somewhat a picture of Spinoza. A Jewish face. It was good to see him.”

Dr. Eliza McGraw, author of Two Covenants: Representations Of Southern Jewishness will be giving a short introduction at the screening that is sure to touch on these and other issues related to the novel, the movie (whose sole Jewish characteristic that I could discern was the casting of Alan Arkin as John Singer) and the role of Jews in Southern culture and imagination.

Despite its significant differences from the novel, the movie does stand on its own — and if you haven’t read the book, it will definitely inspire you to do so. And you should be reading the book as part of DC’s Big Read. So get crackin’.

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