No Lonelier Place on Earth
As perhaps the most pitifully lonely and isolated character in Carson McCullers’ 1940 novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the socialist-revolutionary-turned-carnival-worker Jake Blount’s most notable acts are ranting and raving for workers’ rights, often when he is drunk, sometimes violently. His ongoing frustration that working people will not look at their socio-economic situation and make moves to change it drives him to behave in ways that are unacceptable anywhere, relegating him even further to margins of society. Standing in the midst of Southern culture, perceiving the inherent and obvious inequalities, Blount is the reformer no one will listen to— at least in part because he seems like a total nut. And it drives him into madness and despair.
A native of Columbus, Georgia, Carson McCullers set her Depression-era novel in a fictional Southern town very similar to the one she knew well. A local outsider herself, McCullers’ works often show us Southern characters who don’t fit in. Among the misfits and outsiders featured in this novel – a tomboy with a love for music, an African-American doctor desperate for racial justice, a gluttonous deaf-mute who dies in an asylum, another deaf-mute who sensitively “listens” to people gush their feelings and ideas then commits suicide, and a lonely cafe owner whose wife dies after a prolonged illness – Jake Blount is another lost soul.
In his 1972 book, The Escape Motif in the American Novel: Mark Twain to Richard Wright, literary critic Sam Bluefarb devotes an entire chapter to “Jake Blount: Escape as Dead End,” which begins with much the same assessments that I had reached already:
Jake Blount, the radical agitator in Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), seems to be the most outlandish and the most alienated from his fellow men. In this respect, he differs little from so many of the other characters in Mrs. McCullers’s first novel. (115)
Bluefarb explains that Blount resembles a historically accurate itinerant “radical” of the period, many of whom had no affiliation with an established organization, but who wandered from town to town proclaiming their own versions of the great causes of liberty and equality. Sadly, many of them ranged from troubled to demented, loose cannons and lone wolves who were devoid of family or any other support.
Like Dr. Copeland, to whom some scholars compare him, Jake wants Southern culture to change fundamentally through the direct social and political action by a group on the bottom of the hierarchy. Blount describes his markedly communist ideals:
“But say a man does know. He sees the world as it is and he looks back thousands of years to see how it all come about. He watches the slow agglutination of capital and power and he sees its pinnacle today. He sees America as a crazy house . . . He sees a whole damn army of unemployed and billions of dollars and thousands of miles of land wasted . . . He sees how when people suffer just so much they get mean and ugly and something dies in them. But the main thing he sees is that the whole system of the world is built on a lie. And although it’s as plain as the shining sun— the don’t-knows have lived with that lie so long they just can’t see it.”
There may be no lonelier place on Earth than being a Southerner who wants the South to change in ways that will improve life for the overworked, underpaid working-poor. Though I don’t share Jake Blount’s faith in communism, he makes good points: many Southerners having been living with the way it is for so long that they can’t fathom that it can be any other way. The possible injection of outside ideas and methods is quickly met time and again with stalwart xenophobic opposition against the “outside agitators”— Don’t be coming down here trying to change us! Even though, as Jake Blount knows and says, some things about Southern culture need changing.
Jake Blount is also correct about how people can get “mean and ugly and something dies in them” if their lives are marked by unending cyclical poverty and inequality. People who are strapped by this perpetually ongoing force will eventually become distortions themselves, victims of the systematically dehumanizing folkways that govern their lives. Further, those people who perpetrate the systematic dehumanization become equally grotesque through their constant efforts to scaffold something that obviously shouldn’t exist, justifying their actions with twisted logic that hides perplexity and shame of their actions. The South’s historical legacy is stained with the horrors of slavery, inhumane working conditions in mills and mines, Jim Crow segregation, and convict lease systems . . . Those realities not only affected real people, they were perpetrated by real people who lived their lives in support of it, real people whose mortgages and grocery bills were paid with money that came from their support of it, real people whose high social status was often defined by it. And that fact has not changed in the more than seventy years since this novel was published.
Jake Blount’s diatribes have also invited comparisons, in Faulkner’s God & Other Perspectives, to historian WJ Cash, whose The Mind of the South came out in 1941, the year after McCullers’ novel. The writer supports those comparisons with these passages spoken by Blount:
. . . if you was to ask me to point out the most uncivilized area on the face of the globe I would point here…. Here. These thirteen states…. In my life I seen things that would make a man go crazy. At least one third of all Southerners live and die no better off than the lowest peasant in any European Fascist state. The average wage of a worker on a tenant farm is only seventy-three dollars per year. And mind you, that’s the average!
just about ten cents for a full day’s work. Everywhere there’s pellagra and hookworm and anaemia. And just plain, pure starvation….
. . . Absentee ownership. In the village is one huge brick mill and maybe four or five hundred shanties. The houses aren’t fit for human beings to live in…. Built with far less attention to needs than sties for pigs…. A young linthead begins working … at such times as he can get himself employed. He marries. After the first child the woman must work in the mill also …. They buy food and clothes at a company-owned or dominated store …. With three or four younguns they are held down the same as if they had on chains. That is the whole principle of serfdom. Yet here in America we call ourselves free. (115-116)
While the tone and rhetoric of these monologues is Marxist in nature, the portrayal of early 20th-century Southern life, especially around mill towns, is basically accurate. We see in these passages and the one above it that Jake Blount may be an irritating drunkard, but he has a pretty solid grasp of the situation that he is trying to change and why it needs changing.
The last time we hear from him in the novel, Jake Blount is heading out of town, destination unknown. He has burned all bridges by that point, his final violent outburst has been wilder than all the rest, and only the equally lonely Biff Brannon shows him any real kindness. We don’t know what will happen to him after he shuffles off into the darkness to catch a train to who-knows-where, but in a way we do know—in the next town, he will do the same things and receive the same response.
Though many readers of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter focus on John Singer or Mick Kelly as the protagonists, I have always been partial to Biff Brannon and Jake Blount. I have always liked Biff, because he reminds me of myself: standing back and watching life like some kind of two-bit grassroots philosopher, trying to figure it all out while still dutifully going about the daily grind. And Jake Blount’s self-inflicted mania draws sympathy from me; I dislike a loud, obnoxious drunk as much as anyone, but Jake has the same quality that makes Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield a modern-classic character: a deep-rooted dissatisfaction that causes him to lash out in unpredictable and unseemly ways. If we would only take the time to look beyond the offensive façade and understand him . . .
I also share Jake Blount’s wounded lack of clarity about social justice issues, after speaking out myself and finding basically that people down here don’t want to hear it. Instead of accosting and harassing patrons at a café or a carnival, I have worked for social justice causes in calmer and hopefully more respectable ways, creating educational resources and organizing events, only to find that the South’s status quo continues on, like a massive boulder rolling downhill, crushing whoever gets in its way. And now I am at a point in my life where Jake’s actions at the end are particularly meaningful, as I too find myself shuffling away quietly in the darkness with no real idea as to what I will do next, knowing that I too released my most furious efforts at changing the South, only to put a tiny dent in its tarnished and battle-hardened outer shell. There may truly be no lonelier place on Earth.