During the first two years of her new marriage, Carson McCullers worked on a manuscript titled The Mute which she then showed to her writing teacher, Sylvia Bates. Bates was impressed enough to strongly urge McCullers to apply for a Houghton Mifflin Fiction Fellowship. On the basis and outline of that manuscript, she was awarded $1500 and contract to publish the novel when complete. The editors at Houghton Mifflin made one truly significant alteration during the their edition process. They changed the title of the manuscript to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
Published in 1940, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter instantly became a critical darling. The attraction of the novel was helped along considerably by their astonishment that a young woman barely into her 20’s had been its creator. Such depth of characterization that revealed a truly complex understanding of human nature and often less than pure and distilled motivations that drive them was not usually the stuff of which first novels are made.
The universal themes of loneliness in a world where communication breaks down and the problems of finding out that the passion of love all too often transforms into the tragedy of frustrated expectations are the stuff of first novels and with her debut novel McCullers set forth a template of giving voice to the alienation of the outsider that would persist in one way or another throughout everything she would subsequently write.
When the Modern Library compiled their list of the 100 greatest novels written during the 20th century, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter ranked at number 17, slotted between An American Tragedy and Slaughterhouse-Five. A 1968 film adaptation earned Oscar nominations for Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke.