Capote, Truman 1924–1984
An American stylist and literary celebrity, Capote refuses to be typed as a Southern novelist. Capote is the author of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and the "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood. He is an authority on American prisons. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Rereading all of Truman Capote's writing, we are perhaps surprised by the range of his volatile gift, thinking of him still, as most readers do, as the strangely precocious youth from New Orleans, author of Other Voices, Other Rooms. His is, in fact, a various prose, equally at ease—to name the extremes—in situations of dark and frightful nightmare, and of extravagant comedy. Perhaps the single constant in his prose is style, and the emphasis that he himself places upon the importance of style. By style one means, of course, not only the language as such but the observed physical detail and the varieties of the precisely overheard human voices. (… Capote, one feels, does not let any character talk unless he knows precisely how he talks, the very individual and individuating accents.) Capote's style changes, of course, with his changing moods and modes, so that the variety is multiplied.
His earliest stories, the products of the motherless boy not yet out of his teens and then hardly out of them, were written in what is frequently called the "Gothic" tradition or in the tradition of what Hawthorne meant by the word "romance" ("Hawthorne got us off to a fine start," Capote has said of style in the American short story), a tradition in which the subject matter is freed from the limits of recognizable social experience, is free to shift continually and without bridge sign or traffic signal from fact into fantasy, from the real into the surreal, from the daily into the dream, from the natural into the supernatural.
Over and over in these stories the central thematic concern shows itself to be with the idea of the Doppelgänger, the alter ego, and the supernatural is, in fact, symbolic of the psychic world in which that other self, which we never meet in our active, diligent, and brightly lit social lives, has its being. In general, these are stories about people who are alone and without love, who are alone because they are without love, and who, in their isolate, alienated condition, come upon sinister, usually grotesque, often disgusting creatures with whom they are imprisoned and whom they are unable and usually disinclined to elude: these creatures are their primary selves, discovered at last, and therefore their destiny, which, once they have recognized it, they are necessarily committed to. And then, perhaps, they are free to love….
Capote's experience and discipline as a writer of fiction help, of course, to make him the superb reporter that he is; one wonders now how his reporting will in turn modify his fiction when he takes that up again. Until then, we must rest with the observation of the way in which, beginning as an extreme example of the novelist of isolated sensibility, he has set that sensibility to work in the objective if offbeat, of course, materials of social actuality.
Mark Schorer, "McCullers and Capote: Basic Patterns," in The Creative Present: Notes on Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons (© 1963 by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1963, pp. 83-107.
[If Truman Capote's] In Cold Blood is ever accepted as a new form of novel I suspect it will be because the material itself seems to come straight out of the world of contemporary fiction. It presents, in fact, the identical situation depicted by Flannery O'Connor a decade ago in her remarkable story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Like Miss O'Connor, Capote dramatizes the confrontation between ordinary people and extreme experience. The victims are a God-fearing family which epitomizes the best in the conventional ideals of middle class, Middle Western America; the criminals, representing all that is brilliantly, poisonously sick in contemporary culture, come as black angelic avengers to violate the insularity of this comfortably old-fashioned world. The situation is a paradigm for contemporary literature, from Bellow's The Victim through Genet's The Balcony to the avant garde clashes between hip and square…. Though some may see in Capote's work more intimations of the death of the novel, it seems to me rather to confirm and affirm the accuracy of the modern fictive vision. In his best moments, Capote manages to liberate his images from the events which created them and in those moments In Cold Blood seems literally too good to be true.
Paul Levine, "Reality and Fiction," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1966 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XIX, No. 1, Spring, 1966, pp. 135-38.
The Selected Writings makes it clear that Capote has a real talent, however flawed and limited it may be. Over the years his work has changed markedly. Such early stories as "A Tree of Night" (1943) and "Miriam" (1944) are in the tradition of Djuna Barnes' short fiction: bizarre, gothic, and nightmarish. Such recent fiction as "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1958) and "Among the Paths to Eden" (1960) is more like the work of Christopher Isherwood: wryly comic, perceptive, and oddly impersonal. This is not improvement—the early stories are as effective in their own terms as the late ones—so much as a psychological transformation of the author, a shift from a preoccupation with an inner world to a concern with the outer world, sometimes almost sociological….
When Capote tries fancy writing, the results are sometimes catastrophic. At one point he challenges comparison with James Joyce by rewriting the famous ending of "The Dead." Capote writes: "A snowstorm moving across Colorado, across the West, falling upon all the small towns, yellowing every light, filling every footfall, falling now and here: but how quickly it had come, the snowstorm: the roofs, the vacant lot, the distance deep in white and deepening, like sleep." But the comparison is fatal to Capote, and when last seen he was blowing across Colorado.
Bad prose is not Capote's only defect. Leaden whimsy weighs down a good half of his stories, and at least once, in the case of "Children on Their Birthdays," the story sinks under the weight and drowns. Some of the reporting is smothered in chic….
Capote has no subject to write about and no interest in ideas. The best example of this is "Master Misery." It is about a Mr. A. F. Revercomb, who buys people's dreams, generally at the rate of five dollars a dream; when he has acquired all their dreams, he has stolen their souls. Unless this is a satire on psychoanalysis, which seems highly unlikely, it is not about anything; it is a free-floating image of deprivation, with no reference. It does not specifically symbolize any malaise of the modern world, or any special condition of life, or even any universal human condition. It is just a pointless fable in which dreams are imagined as commodities.
It is, I think, Capote's recognition that he has a creative imagination, but no subject on which to exercise it, that has increasingly turned him toward reporting. But here too the lack of interest in ideas, along with the tin ear, handicaps him. The best-known of Capote's pieces, "The Muses Are Heard," tells us everything about the Soviet Union except what we want to know: what Russian life was like for Russians in 1956….
The novella, "Breakfast at Tiffany's," although it is not free of Capote's faults, seems to me the best thing that he has yet done. The plot is wildly improbable. It is absurd that Holly Golightly should be arrested for transmitting coded messages that enable a convict named Sally Tomato to control his worldwide drug syndicate. It is absurd that the narrator's horse should run away with him up Fifth Avenue. But these two absurdities are necessary contrivances for one beautiful and touching scene. Holly is arrested in the narrator's bathroom, waiting for the bruised narrator to finish a bath so that she may rub him with liniment; the liniment bottle is broken in the scuffle; when the narrator jumps out of the tub he cuts his feet; "Nude and bleeding a path of bloody footprints," he follows Holly and the detectives helplessly to the door.
The comedy in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is always slightly tinged with melancholy. Holly herself is a reincarnation of Isherwood's Sally Bowles, and an improvement on her. Holly is done in wonderful brush strokes….
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Fruitcake at Tiffany's," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 148-52.
In Cold Blood … seems a substitute for the novelist's concerns. In attempting to stick so literally to the story and in placing his authorial stance so completely within his characters, Capote evades the responsibility of an author to understand and comment upon his characters through some kind of complex perspective that is not necessarily theirs. The apparent objectivity is really an immersion in the characters, unalleviated and untransformed by any attributes of mind, which ultimately produces the effect of relishing the characters, revelling in all the details of their inhumanity and perversion. History is an escape, an evasion for the author, a chance to write from a stance entirely severed from his conscious self. Capote's book is simplified and distorted by the elaborately careful removal of the author as conscious self, producing the feeling that he has not really dealt with the implications of his material and has used history or nonfiction as a convenient and comforting substitute.
James Gindin, in his Harvest of a Quiet Eye: The Novel of Compassion, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 352-53.
Though large and covering a long period of time, [Public People and Private Places] is innocent of political or social opinions of any sort; if Capote has any, he has always kept them out of his writing; and there is a certain shallowness to the collection because of it. It bulges, however, with sharp, subtle observations of people, fascinating reminiscences and travel jottings, wonderful sketches, anecdotes and yarns, and, among other things, the most frightening horror story you've ever heard. Not a deep plate of soup, perhaps, but a marvelously tasty one.
Capote is an incomparable stylist and entertainer; and, except for a worshipful essay on his friend Cecil Beaton and an irritatingly arch interview with himself, this is an almost impossible book to put down once you've started it….
Capote's fiction is sometimes infected with a kind of tinkering preciousness, but his nonfiction has always been extraordinarily straightforward, clean and cool. Two favorite characters reappear through the years: the outré eccentric and your average nice guy next door (or the romanticized psychotic and idealized wage-earner). But except for this predilection for the plain or fancy and a loathing of the in-between ("I never said I wasn't a snob. I only said I wasn't afraid to be poor"), Capote keeps his prejudices up his sleeve and lets the facts speak for themselves. Even his early "Local Color" portraits—of a New Orleans spinster whose face is like "a heart of wrinkled silk," or a mellow Bourbon Street cafe, or a half-feared, half-admired, "unscrupulous, unclean, and crooked" one-man band named Mr. Buddy—have the clear shine of a well-polished mirror….
In "The Muses Are Heard," one of Capote's best pieces of journalism, his wickedness is at its most playful. Not only are his descriptive powers shown to best advantage (twitchy Broadway jive talk set against the lumbering Russian cultural bureaucracy and frozen Russian landscapes) but it is here that he demonstrates his superb, near-perfect pitch with dialogue….
What makes Capote unique as a journalist and what probably qualifies him for the role of The Great Pacifier in the war between the new and old journalism are his patience for fact-collecting, his faithfulness to the true nature of his subject and his consummate gift as a storyteller.
Lis Harris, "The Dogs Bark," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 28, 1973, pp. 35-6.