Virginia Spencer Carr — famed literary biographer and former Armstrong prof — dies at 82

From the obituary in the New York Times:

Virginia Spencer Carr, a literary scholar whose book “The Lonely Hunter” remains the standard biography of Carson McCullers, died on April 10 at her home in Lynn, Mass. She was 82. [. . .]

Ms. Carr also wrote respected lives of two other 20th-century American writers, John Dos Passos and Paul Bowles, but McCullers was her first writerly obsession and the subject that defined her career.

Having written her doctoral dissertation on McCullers’s work, Ms. Carr began “The Lonely Hunter” in the late 1960s after landing a job as an English professor at Columbus College (now Columbus State University) in Columbus, Ga., McCullers’s hometown.

I was lucky enough to meet Ms. Carr back in 2006 at a conference on Flannery O’Connor and other Georgia writers at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. Virginia was one of the keynote speakers, as was my friend Brad Gooch, who was then working on his widely praised Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor.

I remember being impressed with Carr’s wide-ranging, incredibly fast-paced talk. And I remember Carr being quite impressed with Brad’s talk, which dealt with O’Connor’s reading of long-dead European theologians (I think), although she was quick to point out that he shouldn’t take his reading glasses off and on so much while talking.

On a Saturday afternoon, as some of us in town for the conference finished a walking tour of Milledgeville, another woman (whose name I have forgotten) and I decided to go to lunch; Virginia suddenly was hovering about; we asked if she wanted to join us; she said yes with sudden enthusiasm as if we were the most interesting people she had met in a long time.

But, believe me, Virginia met plenty of more interesting people than us. From the NYT:

For “Paul Bowles: A Life,” she had the cooperation of the subject. The book was begun in 1989 when Ms. Carr was at work on a biography of Tennessee Williams and she interviewed Bowles, the Queens-born expatriate author of “The Sheltering Sky,” who was living in Tangier, Morocco.

Gore Vidal, during another interview, urged her to put aside the Williams biography and focus instead on Bowles, and she was taken with the idea of working with a subject who was still alive and talking. Bowles died in 1999 with the book unfinished, but by then the two had grown close, and she had unearthed a trove of information about his early life.

“Paul Bowles hated his father” is the book’s remarkable opening sentence. Nonetheless, critics were divided over whether the author’s friendship with her subject enhanced or detracted from the book. The Williams biography was never completed.

Over lunch in Milledgeville, the moment I mentioned living in Savannah, Virginia started recounting her days here working at Armstrong State College. She had particularly fond memories of John Duncan, a now retired history professor who with his wife Ginger owns V&J Duncan, specializing in antique maps, books, and prints. [Update: At the end of the NYT piece, she’s quoted as first having heard of McCullers from an Armstrong student who asked if he could write a paper about her.]

I just heard of Carr’s death when I saw that obit in the NYT this evening, but the Columbus Ledger-Inquirer published a lengthy obituary a couple of weeks ago, which gives these basic facts:

Born in 1929 in West Palm Beach, Fla., Carr was the daughter of a writer, Wilma Bell Spencer, who for decades was society editor of the Palm Beach Daily News. Her father owned a tire company.

Carr graduated from Florida State University, got a master’s degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then returned to Florida State to get her doctorate. She taught at Armstrong State College in Savannah for six years before coming to Columbus.

Joining the faculty at what’s now Columbus State University from 1969 to 1984, Carr taught Southern literature, the American Novel, 20th Century American literature and biography. In 1980-1981, she was a visiting Fullbright Scholar to Poland, where she taught American literature at the University of Wroclaw’s English Institute.

In 1985 she left Columbus to chair the English department at Georgia State University, where in 1993 she was the John B. and Elena Diaz Verson Amos Distinguished Professor in English Letters. She retired in 2003.

Carr often told interviewers of the enormous workload her research and writing required, at one point crediting her three daughters with doing all the shopping, as she had not seen the inside of a grocery store in years.

Over lunch that day, Carr seemed enthusiastic about her ongoing biography of Tennessee Williams. I would love to know how far along she got with it.

[Update: here’s a video interview with Carr from 2002, in which she recounts first hearing of McCullers from an Armstrong student]