Capote, Truman 1924–1984
American stylist working in many genres, Capote is the author of Breakfast at Tiffany's and the "nonfiction novel," In Cold Blood. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The mention of [Truman Capote's] name conjures up images of a wispish, effete soul languishing on an ornate couch, emitting an ether of preciousness and very little else. The reaction to the amazing success of his early books, Other Voices, Other Rooms and A Tree of Night, has relegated Capote to the position of a clever, cute, coy, commercial, and definitely minor figure in contemporary literature, whose reputation has been built less on a facility of style than on an excellent advertising campaign. Even an earnest supporter would have to admit that Capote's stories tiptoe the tenuous line between the precious and the serious. Yet the attacks on Capote seem more personal than literary….
While it is true that Capote writes fantastic and grotesque stories, it is not necessarily true that these stories, because of their genre, must be remote from life. In many ways, Capote has chosen the most universal medium in which to present his thematic material, because the genre of the fantasy, evolving from the day dream, the fairy tale, and the tall tale, is among the oldest and most elemental of fictional forms….
The dichotomy of good and evil exists in each Capote character just as the dichotomy of daylight and nighttime exists in the aggregate of his stories. We might almost say that Capote's stories inhabit two worlds—that of the realistic, colloquial, often humorous daytime and that of the dreamlike, detached, and inverted nocturnal world. This double identity must be viewed with a double vision because Capote's stories can be interpreted either psychologically or as an expression of a spiritual or moral problem. In either case, whether the story be realistic or fantastic, the central focus is on the moment of initiation and the central character is either adolescent or innocent.
Paul Levine, "Truman Capote: The Revelation of the Broken Image," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn, 1958, pp. 600-17.
To some, Capote is the sprite with a monstrous imagination, the lonely child…. To others he is simply the ephebic purveyor of gothic extravaganzas, the fashionable opportunist of a mid-century madness. Whatever the faults of Capote may be, it is certain that his work possesses more range and energy than his detractors allow….
Southern he is by accident of birth more than natural affinity…. [Moreover,] his work [cannot] be called gothic in the same sense that makes the idea of spiritual isolation in the novels of Carson McCullers functional and intelligible. Of protest and isolation, as we shall see, Capote has much to say. His broader intentions, however, are more nearly defined by that native tradition of … romance, informed by the modern techniques of dream symbolism and analysis…. We begin to perceive the specific concerns of Capote's fiction when we note the division between his "daylight" and "nocturnal" styles, and when we understand both as developments of a central, unifying, and self-regarding impulse which Narcissus has traditionally embodied. The impulse brings together dread and humor, dream and reality, "in-sight" and "experience."…
The nocturnal style of Truman Capote—and it is the style we are likely to identify with his achievement—makes the greater use of uncanny trappings and surreal decors. The sense of underlying dreadfulness compels the style to discover "the instant of petrified violence," the revelation which only the moment of terror can yield…. [And] in effacing the distinctions between reality and imagination, the nocturnal style not only evokes the shapeless world of our dreams; it evokes, no less, the fabulous world of myth and fairy tale. In our age, alas, dream, myth, and fairy tale are no longer allowed to drowse in their separate corners….
But if the supernatural defines the nocturnal mode of Capote, humor defines his daylight style. The style, evident in "My Side of the Matter," "Jug of Silver," "Children on Their Birthdays," The Grass Harp, and Breakfast at Tiffany's, assumes the chatty, first-person informality of anecdotes. It also specifies character and admits the busyness of social relations more than its darker counterpart. And the scene which it lights upon is usually the small Southern town—not the big city which witnesses in abstract horror the so-called alienation of man from his environment. (The one notable exception, of course, is Breakfast at Tiffany's.) Now it is true that humor, like the supernatural, must finally rise to universal implications. But if one may judge from the differences between Twain and Poe, between the American tall tale and the native ghost story, humor is always more of this earth; it is apt to individualize rather than generalize; and it can rise to universal meanings but gradually. Humor has also a social reference. Humor—which may be called a Catholic if the supernatural can be called a Protestant impulse—binds rather than separates: it is as much a mode of communion as the gothic is a mode of self-isolation….
The bulk of Capote's work persuades us … that both humor and the supernatural are acts of the imagination intended to question our surface evaluations of reality, and indeed to affirm the counterreality of fantasy. The prevalence of dreams, the interest in childhood, the negative conception of adolescent initiation, the concern with self-discovery, the emphasis on homoeroticism, and the general stasis of the mythic world of Truman Capote—all these, though they are often presented in ironic terms, must confirm the central narcissistic impulse of his fiction, an impulse which serves both as a critique and a crooked image of American reality.
Ihab Hassan, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (© 1961 by Princeton University Press; Princeton Paperback, 1971; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 230-35.
Truman Capote's novels may … be called Gothic, but here the Gothic has been turned all to favour and to prettiness. The nightmare has become the fairytale, which could be considered the censored form of nightmare. Any account of Capote's work is bound to appear depreciatory. He is in fact a delightful and highly original artist who does almost perfectly what he sets out to do, and, as one reads, the spell he exercises is irresistible. Admittedly, one's pleasure is in the surface of his exquisitely iridescent prose, in the subtlety and nuances of his rhythms and the wit and humour of his observation of detail. Analysis of content may appear to be as brutal as the bursting of a soap bubble; yet there is a very firm structure to his novels….
For the most part, Capote's fiction presents a self-contained world which refers to nothing outside itself, a world comparable in its magic and the fascination it exercises to those toy globes in which a twist of the hand produces a snowstorm swirling round an Alpine chalet. The comparison indicates the limitations of the novels: it is a toy world that is described; but all the same, the toys have a mysterious appeal to the imagination, and this also Capote's novels reproduce.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, p. 301.