On June 4, 1940, Houghton Mifflin published the first novel by the American writer Carson McCullers, a sensitive story about misfits and social outcasts in a Southern mill town titled The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
The success of McCullers’ book made its title a familiar and oft-quoted phrase.
McCullers took the title of her first novel from an old poem by the Scottish poet Fiona Macleod.
This sad, dreamy poem, called “The Lonely Hunter,” is about a girl who mourns her dead lover and thinks about joining him.
It was published in 1896 in the book From the Hills of Dream, a collection of Macleod’s Celtic-flavored poetry.
The line in the poem that inspired McCullers’ book title is the last line in the third verse:
“Green wind from the green-gold branches, what is the song you bring?
What are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?
Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.”
Between 1894 and 1905, many readers in Scotland and Europe loved the romantic poems, novels and stories of Fiona McCleod. She was celebrated as one of the greatest writers associated with the revival of Celtic literature, along with poets like W.B. Yeats.
Oddly, Fiona never made any public appearances. She declined interviews and speaking engagements.
All communications and business with Macleod were conducted through her agent, the Scottish literary critic and biographer William Sharp.
It wasn’t until Sharp died in 1905 that the truth was revealed.
William Sharp was “Fiona Macleod.”
He apparently created his secret identity, in part, to protect the credibility of his more scholarly (and snootier) works — the collections of poems by famous poets that he edited and his series of biographies about poets such as as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Heinrich Heine and Robert Browning.
Sharp’s deception may also reflect the fact he was, in general, a pretty strange dude.
For example, he is said to have been a member of “The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,” a little-known cult whose beliefs combine a belief in the “divine feminine” with elements of magic, astrology, Egyptian mysticism, the Qabalah, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism and other mystic stuff.
When Sharp died, he left behind a letter revealing he wrote the literary works attributed to Fiona MacCleod.
When the letter was made public, it sorely distressed “Fiona’s” fans and damaged the reputation of all of Sharp’s books and poems for a while.
But, starting in the 1920s, poems and novels by “Fiona Macleod” steadily became popular again in the UK. Awareness of them also spread to other countries, where they were read by literature buffs like Carson McCullers.
Today, thanks to McCullers’ use of a line by “Fiona” as a book title, most Americans have heard at least one line of his/her poetry.
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