In the preface to the last collection of his work published in his lifetime, the 1980 volume Music for Chameleons, Capote discussed in detail his views about the ordeal of writing as a creative activity and his own lifetime commitment to that pursuit. Writing was an occupation with a great risk to it: One had to take chances or fail. Indeed, Capote compared writing to professional pool playing and to a professional card dealer’s abilities. He also explained that he began writing as a child of eight and was, by his view, an accomplished writer at seventeen. Thus, when Other Voices, Other Rooms appeared in 1948, he viewed it as the end result of fourteen years of writing experience.
The substance of writing—and its accompanying pain of creation—Capote explained with a phrase he borrowed from Henry James; it was the “madness of art.” All imaginative writing was, he explained, the artist employing his creative powers of observation, of description, of telling detail; it was that act that led Capote in his later writing to see the possibilities of journalism (which is factual, detailed observation of truth) as an art form that could be as powerful as fictional writing. So it was that he shifted from fiction to nonfiction in mid-career with works such as The Muses Are Heard and his most famous work, In Cold Blood.
For Capote, the writer is, by nature, an outsider, the observer seeing and hearing that which is about him but comprehending the witnessed events with an artistic sensitivity unknown to others. The outsider’s perspective is—simply because it is detached from the observed society—more comprehensive. As he was an artist “outside,” it was natural that Capote’s works often dealt with the conflict between vulnerable persons similarly outside their more conventional environment. This theme can be seen in a number of his works, such as Other Voices, Other Rooms, and even in the real-life killer of his masterwork, In Cold Blood. Often this theme is played out in his work through a confrontation of an unconventional outsider with the conforming, ordered world.
In Other Voices, Other Rooms, Cousin Randolph, the homosexual older relative, states the outsider’s lament as he attempts to explain the search for love to the youthful Joel, explaining that all men are isolated from one another, that everyone, in the end, is alone:Any love is natural and beautiful that lies within a person’s nature; only hypocrites would hold a man responsible for what he loves, emotional illiterates and those of righteous envy, who, in their agitated concern, mistake so frequently the arrow pointing to heaven for the one that leads to hell.
A similar idea occurs in The Grass Harp when Judge Cool, having joined a rebellious group hiding in a tree house, speaks of those who are pagans or spirits and defines them as accepters of life, because they are those who grant life’s differences.
Some of the more flamboyant examples of the free, nonconforming spirit are seen in Capote’s female characters, specifically Idabel, the tomboy twin of Other Voices, Other Rooms, who outwrestles young Joel in one scene and whose lack of femininity is an obvious counterpoint to Joel’s boyhood homosexual longings. Another such unconventional personality is Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, who has run away from her background of poverty and also from a childhood marriage to seek glamor and to indulge her New York encounters with a series of wealthy men. Holly’s defiance of convention is as meaningful as Joel’s and Idabel’s or, for that matter, the runaways in The Grass Harp, whose tree house retreat is Capote’s symbol for all places of security for those who may be yearning for a place for their differences, their individual spirits, their ideal fantasies to be at home.
Capote frequently said in interviews that he saw in the real-life killers—particularly Perry Smith—of In Cold Blood the man he might have become had his own life taken a different turn. His realization was that the killers were the evil side of the same yearning for love, acceptance, even artistic achievement (especially with Smith) that he had known. That desire is seen in a key scene in Miami after the murders, as Perry realizes that all his hopes and ambitions are a dead end:Anyway, he couldn’t see that he had “a lot to live for.” Hot islands and buried gold, diving deep in fire-blue seas toward sunken treasure—such dreams were gone. Gone, too, was “Perry O’Parsons,” the name invented for the singing sensation of stage and screen that he’d half-seriously hoped some day to be.
In Capote’s musical, House of Flowers, one of the characters sings a song of yearning for escape from the everyday titled “I Never Has Seen Snow,” and snow is a recurring image in many Capote works for the elusive dreams of life. One of the young boyfriends of the Clutter girl recalls becoming lost in a snowstorm in In Cold Blood. The cook, Missouri, hopes to run away north to see snow in Other Voices, Other Rooms. Judge Cool’s distant wife had died in the snows of Switzerland in The Grass Harp. Ultimately, in a world that fails to understand or make room for the sensitive, artistic spirits, the “different,” Capote returns frequently to the idea, stated by Judge Cool, that whatever passions compose them, private worlds are good—that is, unless turned to evil ends by the greater uncomprehending world.
Other Voices, Other Rooms
First published: 1948
Type of work: Novel
A young boy, seeking his lost father, moves into a strange household in Mississippi where he encounters bizarre relatives while trying to find love.
Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote’s first published long work, is a moody and atmospheric tale characterized both by its strange setting—a decaying mansion in rural Mississippi—and by the host of peculiar characters it presents to the reader.
The book details the encounters of thirteen-year-old Joel Knox Sansom, who travels to an old mansion, Skully’s Landing, where he hopes to meet his long-lost father, Edward Sansom. In its emphasis on romantic and ghostly settings and its use of strange, eccentric characters, Other Voices, Other Rooms is typical of what has been termed the southern gothic school of fiction, a style of fiction marked by its use of the grotesque both in locale and in characterization.
This category can be seen in the works of other southern-born fiction writers such as William Faulkner (his short story “A Rose for Emily” and his 1931 novel Sanctuary both offer elements of southern gothic), Tennessee Williams (his 1958 play Suddenly Last Summer deals with incest, homosexuality, insanity, lobotomy, and cannibalism), Carson McCullers (her 1941 novel Reflections in a Golden Eye and her story “Ballad of the Sad Café” both have grotesque situations and characters), and Flannery O’Connor (her 1952 novel Wise Blood deals with religious obsession and madness). In Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote uses this sense of the strange and the mysterious to convey the loneliness, isolation, and naïveté of Joel.
When Joel arrives at Skully’s Landing, he meets a variety of unusual characters: an ancient black man, Jesus Fever; Jesus Fever’s granddaughter, a twenty-one-year-old cook named Missouri (nicknamed “Zoo”); Joel’s father, the bedridden invalid Edward Sansom (who communicates with the rest of the household by rolling red tennis balls down the stairs); his father’s new wife, Miss Amy; and a much-talked-about cousin, Randolph. En route to the Landing, Joel also has met two young girls, the twins Florabel Thompkins and her tomboy twin sister, Idabel. (Many interpreters of Capote’s work see Idabel as Capote’s fictional version of his own childhood friend, Harper Lee.)
While the main plot of the book appears to be dealing with Joel’s attempt to find and, later, to talk with his father, Capote really is presenting the plight of Joel as a lonely, sensitive youth who is, in fact, trying to come to terms with his own identity in an environment where he has no moorings. In one key scene, he tries to pray; he finds it almost impossible to ask God for someone to love him, yet that is really what the boy is seeking.
It is the search for love that defines the lives of many of the characters in Other Voices, Other Rooms: Cousin Randolph, Joel’s homosexual older relative, still laments the loss of his great love, a boxer named Pepe Alvarez, and Miss Amy has married Joel’s father—even though the man is an invalid—to have someone to care for and love. These aspirations to love are reflected in the desperation of other characters: At a carnival, Joel is pursued by the midget woman, Miss Wisteria, who, throughout her tragic life, has never found anyone her own size to love.
Similarly, the cook, Zoo, has suffered from her first experience with love; at age fourteen, she had married a man named Keg Brown who tried to kill her. Zoo seeks a place of beauty and purity, which, in her fantasy, she believes she will find in the North, where she hopes to go to see snow for the first time.
At the end of the novel, Joel, after recuperating from a severe illness during which he was cared for by Cousin Randolph, makes a decision about his life. He realizes that Randolph is, in many ways, a child like himself who has simply sought love in his life. Joel decides that he must abandon his childhood and accept his own sexual nature; at the end of the novel, the mature Joel ascends from the haunted garden at Skully’s Landing to Randolph’s room to embrace Randolph, leaving behind both his youth and his own sexual longing.
The Grass Harp
First published: 1951
Type of work: Novella
In a rigid, small-town, southern setting, an odd assortment of local people attempt to assert control over their lives by their defiance of convention.
The Grass Harp, Capote’s sadly humorous tale about a curious collection of small-town southern eccentrics, continued the romantic and occasionally bizarre mood of his earlier Other Voices, Other Rooms, but his emphasis in this work more often is on the possibilities for humor in such strange behavior rather than on shock value. Capote captured the same tone of southern small-town hilarity that one also finds in many of the short stories of Eudora...
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