Capote, Truman 1924–1984
An American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, Capote came to literary fame as a young man, and he has remained a literary celebrity ever since. His early writings focused on the Deep South, where he was born, but his later works have varied tremendously in locale and style. His best known work, In Cold Blood, was in the vanguard of the formation of a new genre, the nonfiction novel. Capote is currently at work on Answered Prayers, portions of which have appeared in Esquire. The thinly veiled portraits of many of Capote's friends that appeared in these excerpts created a minor sensation in literary and social circles and have made the book notorious even before its publication. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Truman Capote has been the most talented and enduring of our writers of precocious sensibility. He is a master stylist and craftsman; he writes the prose sentence at least as well as any of his contemporaries. His first and best novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), published at twenty-three, is a brilliant and original work. Yet when one looks behind the flashing soft-colored lights of the prose, what is the novel really about? Its ageless child-hero's loss of innocence? The boy's search for a father? His initiation into homosexuality? The narrative deals with these concerns, and to that extent they are what the novel is about. But Capote's magical stagelike world, in which Joel performs his nightmarish rite of passage, is not to be believed. It is the stuff that literary children's dreams are made of. Despite its waxwork of horrors—the paralyzed father, the girl whose throat has been cut, the lovesick dwarf, the female men, and the masculine women—there is no evil in Capote's bittersweet paradise; there is wickedness, or rather naughtiness, but that is another matter—or no matter at all. Can a novel be about anything when there is nothing real at stake? Joel doesn't fall; he is prefallen. In accepting Cousin Randolph as his father-mother-lover, he is merely fulfilling the predefined pattern of his fantasies. By the same token, the corrupt Randolph is also innocent, as are all the perversities of Capote's inverted Eden. Decadence is innocence. All is innocence. No one in the novel is held responsible for his acts, and by and large each act is as good, indifferent, and inevitable as another. The problem is not that Capote's world is immoral but that among innocents morality is beside the point. Without morality, however, the rest, the titillating horrors of sensibility, are beside the point. (pp. 7-8)
Jonathan Baumbach, in his introduction to The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1965 by New York University), New York University Press, 1965, pp. 7-8.
[The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places], containing most of [Capote's] non-fiction work apart from In Cold Blood, is unlikely to add much to his artistic reputation, and some younger readers unacquainted with his fiction might wonder what all the fuss has been about. Without doubt the two best pieces here are the best-known: The Muses Are Heard and the Marlon Brando interview, The Duke in His Domain (1956). They were both written for the New Yorker, and embarked upon as stylistic exercises to warm up for the full-scale 'non-fiction novel' In Cold Blood, his bid for glory. They are good precisely because they got Capote out of himself, providing him in each case with substantial subject matter at a time when his material was getting perilously thin. There is a firm narrative line in Muses, and Capote's real strength lies in his story-telling ability rather than in analysis, speculation or argument. In the classic Brando piece he has worked within the standard New Yorker profile formula—the detached superior author, the sporadic injection of facts and other people's opinions, the subject drawn out by bland civility, and so on—to produce a portrait that is not only more revealing than the sitter supposes but more complex than the artist intends….
Little of the rest is particularly memorable, and some is hardly worth collecting. The early travel pieces, composed between 1944 and 1950 and published in a private edition as Local Color, are thin and over-written, rhetorical in the sense that Yeats meant when he said that 'rhetoric is the will trying to do the work of the imagination'…. [There is] a bitchy, camp, affected style and tone of voice by no means confined to the juvenilia but return whenever Capote doesn't have much to focus on outside himself.
Except when he slips in the occasional good anecdote, his later vignettes of people are not much more engaging than those of places, less thumb-nail portraits than palm-tickled miniatures. In them he puffs his friends, drops names, and invites us to accept him as the Boswell of the jet set.
Philip French, "Watch It, Jockey!" in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 28, 1974, p. 929.
The world of Truman Capote has always seemed oddly independent of Time. A frozen interior … like the decorative heart of one of Colette's French crystal paperweights.
In fact, it is just over a quarter of a century now since this vaguely malevolent, gnomish sprite, Will-o'-the-wisp with sting, springing from the swamps, decaying mansions and decadent families of the Deep South, flitted across the best-seller horizon with his Gothic dream sequence. Other Voices, Other Rooms, and before you could say freak, or fluke, had consolidated his fey, fairy-tale success with The Grass Harp.
Recovering their breath, blinking a little, the bandwagoneers, the serious critics too, promptly set to on their feverish analyses, yielding naïvely to the easy temptation of the penny-plain label. Clearly influenced by Faulkner. Indisputably, the Welty-McCullers neo-Faulknerian School. More waspishly: one of the Effete Dandies or Homosexual Decadents derived, of course, from Faulkner.
Shrill squeak of protest. No, says Capote, no. Understandable but untrue. The real progenitor was none other than 'my difficult subterranean self'.
The Faulkner-Welty-McCullers resemblance apparently derives from geographical accident. (pp. 84-5)
Hanging up his Southern harp, Truman Streckfus Persons—to accord him his baptismal identity—embarked upon the first of his continuing literary metamorphoses….
Capote (no stick in the mud, he, writing the same book over and over again) has been applying the needle point of his pen—or should it be obsessively sharpened pencil?—to descriptive journalism. Finely-wrought miniatures of private places and public faces. [The Dogs Bark] contains many splendid examples of these new direction pieces.
Verbal petit point, worked into the prettiest pictures, silken threads deep-dipped in vividest local colour. Exterior monologues.
Then … the capsule bursts. The greatest change of all. Chameleon Capote capers off to the Kansas Badlands. Prospecting reality—for real. The Gothic dream becomes a Gothic nightmare. Close focus on a multi-murder in cold blood.
In Cold Blood, 1966. A new literary form trumpeted the advance publicists. The 'non-fiction novel'. The pre-publication claims were, like the orgasms of overpraise with which publication was in due season ecstatically greeted, grossly exaggerated. Poe, and many another, had done it all before. The book was competent (let us not be niggardly, highly competent) journalism. Most admirably suited to its original milieu—The New Yorker. There was the blood reek of reality in its pages … and yet … practised artist that he is, Capote could not resist retouching reality. The old ingrained narcissism would not be denied. Capote thought himself so deeply into the characters of the killers, evilly retarded children, that he, and we, the readers, end up in the unreal world of their dreams. After the great flirtation with reality we find ourselves back in the glass bed.
Of course, it may turn out that those paperweights are neither glass nor isinglass, but simply simulacra fashioned of translucent ice. There is a coldness in Capote's blood. A little warmth could melt out those isolate interior worlds.
Perhaps, even now, he is planning to write in lukewarm blood.
There are signs, hopeful signs, and echoes above the barking of the dogs…. (p. 85)
Richard Whittington-Egan, "Needle-Pointed Penman," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Richard Whittington-Egan 1974; reprinted with permission), August, 1974, pp. 84-5.
"Whoever gossips to you will gossip of you," goes the old Spanish proverb, and this one came home to roost for the International Set's crème de la crème with the publication in the November Esquire of Capote's "La Còte Basque 1965"—the "tail" of the long-awaited "kite" called Answered Prayers that is the writer's next major work of fiction. (p. 44)
"La Còte Basque 1965" is a 13,000-word story about a luncheon between "Lady Ina Coolbirth," a fortyish multiple divorcee on the rebound from an affair with a Rothschild, and the innocent narrator, "Jonesy," at Henri Soulé's exclusive Manhattan restaurant. While drinking champagne and eating a soufflé Furstenberg, "Lady Ina" gossips about the International Set, telling one "no-no" after another on one and all, including herself. Capote has peopled his story with real persons, using their real names, as well as with a number of other real persons, using fake names. (p. 45)
For years Capote has been society's adored and adorable resident intellect and court jester. In a world where parties are still often "given against someone" … where bitchery, snobbery, and hauteur are still prized right along with poise, manners, and money … where the merits of plastic surgeons are argued in the same way the religious used to argue theology—gossip has always been the great staple, the glue holding beleaguered life-styles and sinking social values together. But it's one thing to tell the nastiest story in the world to all your 50 best friends; it's another to see it set down in cold Century Expanded type. (p. 49)
Dotson Rader [said of this story]: "Marvelous, beautiful writing. It's unimportant whether it's true or not, since it is presented as fiction. Truman was always treated by these people as a kind of curiosity, expected to do his act. That was humiliation coming from people who had no qualifications other than being rich and social. Everybody in the world has been telling Truman their deepest confidences for years and he never said he wouldn't use them."… Geraldine Stutz, a woman of fastidious opinions: "It's only a scandal to a small insular world; most people won't know, and couldn't care less about who might be who. What counts is that it is a wonderful piece of writing and an extraordinary re-creation of the tone and texture of those days in that world."… [Joel Schumacher said]: … This same world thinks it supports art and artists, but never under-stands that all a writer has is his experience…." (pp. 50, 52)
[Capote told Liz Smith:] "Why did I do it? Why? I have lived a life of observation. I've been working on this book for years, collecting. Anybody who mixes with a certain kind of writer ought to realize they're in danger. [Chuckle.] I don't feel I betrayed anybody. This is a mere nothing, a drop in the bucket. To think what I could have done in that chapter. My whole point was to prove gossip can be literature. I've been seriously writing this for three and a half years. I told everybody what I was doing. I discussed it on TV. Why has it come as such a great big surprise?"… "Look, I'm not using Proust as a model because what I'm doing is in the latter half of the twentieth century as an American. But if someone like Proust were here now and an American, he'd be writing about this world. People say the language is filthy. I think that's the way people talk and think now—exactly. I think it's beautifully written…." (pp. 52, 55)
He turns serious: "Look, my life has been dominated by my own levels of taste in art, especially the art of narrative prose writing, wherein my particular art lies. I have never compromised that…." (p. 56)
Liz Smith, "Truman Capote in Hot Water," in New York Magazine (© 1976 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Liz Smith), February 9, 1976, pp. 44-56.