Whisky & Culture

Finding fellowship in café society

Jefferson Chase stops for a drink at Carson McCullers' Sad Café
By Jefferson Chase
When Carson McCullers wrote The Ballad of the Sad Café in 1941, she was 24 and had already seen enough of life’s hard knocks to know whereof she wrote.Born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, McCullers had already suffered the first of a series of strokes that would keep her semi-paralysed and in pain for the rest of her days.She was also in the midst of an on-again-off-again marriage that would lead to a failed suicide attempt on her part – and a successful one on her husband’s.A small miracle then that she was able to wring a measure of temporary joy out of her work.Sad Café tells the story of a drinking establishment in a desultory Southern town. The heroine is Amelia Evans, an impecunious, tough-as-nails divorcée, who owns the village general store, serves as a country doctor and – most importantly, runs the local still.Solitary and self-contained, Miss Amelia’s life takes an unexpected turn when a hunchbacked cousin shows up and unlocks the maternal instincts in her heart.That in turn inspires her to bring some cheer to the otherwise drab hamlet.The whiskey they drank that evening (two big bottles of it) is important… Perhaps without it there would never have been a café. For the liquor of Miss Amelia has a special quality of its own. It is clean and sharp on the tongue, but once down a man it glows inside him for a long time afterward. And that is not all. It is known that if a message is written with lemon juice on a clean sheet of paper there will be no sign of it.But if the paper is held for a moment to the fire then the letters turn brown and the meaning becomes clear. Imagine that the whiskey is the fire and that the message is that which is known only in the soul of a man…McCullers could have been describing her own prose: hard, clean and revealing.Graham Greene once compared her to William Faulkner, saying he actually preferred McCullers because she was easier to understand.What’s particularly insightful about this novella is the depiction of the positive effect a bar can have on a community.People improve when they can go out to a place where they feel at home.The atmosphere of a proper café implies these qualities: fellowship, the satisfactions of the belly and a certain gaiety and grace of behaviour. This had never been told to the gathering in Miss Amelia’s store that night. But they knew it of themselves, although never, of course, until that time had there been a café in the town.At the beginning of the story, the town’s inhabitants are depicted as little better than an ill-mannered squabbling rabble.The café gives them that special kind of human dignity which comes only from mutual enjoyment.Anyone who has ever had a favourite bar can relate to this paradigmatic tale.The solace of the communal watering hole is for McCullers the opportunity to take a pause from existential concerns.There, for a few hours at least, the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in this world could be laid low.Yet as anyone who has ever had a favourite close knows, even the best bars are transient phenomena, to be treasured while they exist and mourned once they’re gone. The novella is not called The Ballad of the Sad Café for nothing.When Miss Amelia’s ex-husband arrives in town, the days of joy are numbered, and the town will be left worse off than before.Carson McCullers’ life was a story of struggle. It took her 10 years to get The Ballad of the Sad Café published. Yet this story stands out in particular among her work for its refusal to wallow in hardship and moaning.How refreshing in comparison to all the depictions of bars as hell-holes where the terminally lonely ruin their minds and livers. McCullers who knew infirmity inside and out, also knew that people sometimes reach their best when there’s a bottle of booze around to smooth the journey.Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café is published by Penguin Books.