An Interview with Carlos Dews
Carlos Dews is the leading authority on the life and work of Carson McCullers. He edited McCullers’s unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1997, and edited the Library of America’s two volume Complete Works of Carson McCullers. He was the founding director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers in Musicians at Columbus State University, in McCullers’s hometown of Columbus, Georgia, and the founding president of the Carson McCullers Society, an organisation of scholars dedicated to research on McCullers’s life and work. He is currently under contract with Houghton Mifflin to edit the selected letters of Carson McCullers. Dews is Professor of English at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy, where he also directs the Institute for Creative Writing and Literary Translation.
We asked Carlos a few questions about his projects and his event, The Life and Work of Carson McCullers, which he will be hosting here at the Centre for Stories on 27 November 2018.
Can you give us a brief summary on the work you do on Carson McCullers?
Having previously edited Carson McCullers's unfinished autobiography, published in 1999, and the two volumes of her complete works, published by the Library of America in 2001 and 2017, I am now collecting and editing both her correspondence and her interviews for two new volumes
Why this particular subject?
Since I was introduced to Carson McCullers's work, when I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s, I have had a passionate interest in both her life and her work. For myriad reasons I have always felt a strong connection both with her inspiring life and frequent struggles, what she called her illuminations and night glare. I hope to unpack these very personal connections with her in my talk at the Centre for Stories, since by telling her story I find that I am often telling my own. I have spent my entire career as an editor and professor working to ensure that her literary legacy is secure and that all her work is accessible to as wide an audience as possible.
Did you intend for it to span so many years?
When I first began serious scholarly work on the life and writing of Carson McCullers, which I did as a graduate student in the early 1990s, I never imagined that I would still be at work on projects related to her today. I have been very lucky that public and scholarly interest in her has increased over the years and that she left a wealth of archival material behind that continues to surprise and interest not only me but all her readers.
What has been the most interesting aspect of the work?
The most interesting aspects of my work on Carson McCullers are the personal relationships I have been fortunate enough to develop with those who were touched by McCullers during her life and the very gratifying detective work with which my research on McCullers provides me. Since beginning my research on McCullers in the late 1980s I have been fortunate enough to meet, and become close to, many of the people who knew McCullers. I was only four years old when McCullers died in 1967 so obviously I never had a chance to meet her. But through her many friends I have been able to know I feel I have a much clearer sense of who she was. As McCullers herself would have been 100 years old last year, almost all the people who knew her well have now died. I feel especially blessed to have known so many of her friends and family and that my research allowed me to meet them. Finally, I simply love in-the-trenches good-old-fashioned archival detective work and my McCullers research provides me with many opportunities to spend time solving mysteries. From my initial discovery of the importance of the manuscript of an autobiography she left unfinished at the time of her death to my more recent worldwide search for all her extant correspondence, I have been able to play the role of the academic sleuth, thanks to McCullers, for almost thirty years.
What has been the most challenging?
The most challenging aspect of my work on McCullers is closely related to one of the most interesting aspects of my work. Convincing those who were closest to her to trust me has been very rewarding but also very challenging. For example, it took me almost nine years to convince McCullers's attorney and agent, two of her literary executors, to allow me to pursue publication of her unfinished autobiography. McCullers was a very vulnerable person and engendered in those close to her a strong protective impulse. Simply put those close to her were always looking out to protect her, given her vulnerability and inability often to protect herself. That need to protect her remained strong among her friends and family even after her death. Although it has at times been difficult to convince her friends and family to trust me, over time I hope I have proven to be worthy of their trust in my own stewardship of her literary reputation.
What was your goal when you started this work?
When I first began my work on McCullers, little more than twenty years after her death, it was clear she needed a literary champion –her work was all still in print but there had been little scholarly interest in her after the publication of Virginia Spencer Carr's monumental biographer of her in the early 1970s. I helped found the Carson McCullers Society to encourage other scholars to pursue research on her life and work and I also began to try to bring to light previously unpublished work, her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, for example. I later was the Founding Director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, located in her childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, that works to preserve her legacy. I now see, perhaps more clearly, that my goal at the beginning was to champion McCullers as one of America's most important writers of the twentieth century and to ensure that her work remained vital in American literary studies.
Any hints on what is to come?
Once I am finished with the two majors projects I am working on at the moment, her correspondence and her interviews, I would like to try my hand at writing a memoir about my relationship with McCullers's life and work. My talk at the Centre for Stories is my first attempt to speak about this relationship in detail and may in fact be the beginning of this new project.
Can you tell us what to expect from your event at the Centre for Stories?
For the event at the Centre for Stories I would like to speak personally and frankly about my relationship with Carson McCullers's life and work then respond to questions from the audience. I often tell my students that I know more about Carson McCullers's life than I know about my own and I look forward to speaking about her with the audience at the Centre for Stories.
Carlos Dews will be speaking about his work on Carson McCuller's life at the Centre for Stories on 27 November 2018. You can buy tickets here.