Capote, Truman 1924–1984
An American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, Capote achieved literary fame as a young man, and has remained a literary celebrity ever since. His early writings focus 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, contributed to the formation of a new genre, the nonfiction novel. Capote is currently at work on Answered Prayers. The volume contains thinly veiled portraits of many of Capote's friends, and several have appeared as excerpts in periodicals, creating a minor sensation in literary and social circles and making the book notorious even before its publication. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Other Voices, Other Rooms is a very good novel, with an extremely simple scheme and plot which the author slowly loads with baroque and decorative details, yet without complicating it. (p. 478)
Mention has been made of Poe in connection with this book of Capote's. It seems to me, however, that the points of resemblance are purely casual and are due to a similarity of subject matter rather than to conscious derivation. In certain of Poe's tales, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Gold-Bug and others, set in the American provinces, in decaying houses full of memories, it is easy to discern the forebears of the country house in Truman Capote. But there is a difference between Poe's and Capote's approach to reality. Poe, even at his most fantastic and unreal, is always extremely literal, accurate, and realistic in his aims and intentions…. [Poe] really believed in the existence of a reality outside of himself. And it matters little whether this reality was moral and psychological or … erotic and sexual.
For Truman Capote, instead, this process worked in reverse. The motive which encouraged Capote to accumulate details which build up a fantastic atmosphere, page after page, in a rich and crowded design, was instead a longing to evade reality by means of an impressionistic and imprecise transcription of actions, suspicions, tastes and feelings which are purely subjective. Capote, in particular, has a...
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It is one of my intentions in this study to show that the changes in Capote's career have not been casual but are the result of a strong and highly conscious effort at growth. From the start he wrote stories which were among the best of their narrow kind, but even then he was trying to make his fiction both a source and an expression of deeper understanding, broader sympathy, greater fidelity to the reality outside his private childhood world. So far has he moved in twenty-three years of publishing that one is tempted to identify at least two distinct Truman Capotes. There is, of course, only one: In Cold Blood retains deep traces of the earliest stories, and the intellectual toughness so evident in the nonfiction novel was really there all the time. (p. 11)
Some knowledge of Capote's early life is essential to an understanding of his work, for that work, even through In Cold Blood, bears the clear marks of his childhood. It was, Capote has said, "the most insecure childhood I know of," and his early stories are psychological records of it. (pp. 11-12)
The early fiction of Truman Capote is dominated by fear. It descends into a subconscious ruled by the darker archetypes, a childhood haunted by bogeymen, a world of blurred realities whose inhabitants are trapped in unendurable isolation. The stories set in this dark world include "A Tree of Night" (1943), "Miriam" (1944), "The Headless Hawk" (1946), "Shut a Final Door" (1947), and "Master Misery" (1948)…. Deep below the surface they are really one story, and they have one protagonist. This story will be continued, and its hero will achieve a peculiar liberation in Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). The fear and sense of captivity that overshadow these stories result from the individual's inability to accept and respond properly to reality. On the social level this means inability to love other persons. More essentially, it means refusal to accept mysterious and frightening elements within the self, for the persons encountered by the protagonist are most properly viewed as projections of inner personae. One indication of the climate of the protagonist's inner world is the fact that nearly all of these persons are grotesques.
The stories are fundamentally psychic in orientation. In at least two cases—"Miriam" and "Shut a Final Door"—the line between realism and fantasy is definitely crossed: things happen that are literally impossible. Usually, however, the settings seem realistic; we are kept in a world that is conceivably real, though strange, and the effects are wrought through manipulations of the protagonist's consciousness. The characteristic style of the early work is intensely poetic, and the meaning of the stories rests heavily on intricate patterns of symbolism. The most prominent stylistic and symbolic motif in the fiction up to and including Other Voices, Other Rooms is that of descent into a state of intensified and distorted consciousness. This happens in each story, the differences being mostly in what might be termed focal length. Sometimes the setting remains normal and the character simply becomes sleepy or drunk, or has a dream. At other times the entire setting takes on dreamlike characteristics, often through weather imagery such as darkness or snow. In the most extreme cases the reader is pulled completely into the illusion by means of apparitions or mysterious voices presented as real. This scale of reader involvement is one of several ways of looking at the stories and not, incidentally, a simple measure of their total effectiveness: Capote handles his various effects always with considerable skill.
Perhaps the most obvious thing to be noted about Capote's early work is its highly personal quality. The stories take place in an inner world almost entirely devoid of social or political concern. Because of this subjective orientation, even the treatment of human relations has about it an air of isolation, of constriction. With this qualification in mind, one may go on to observe that love and the failure of love are of central concern in Capote's fiction. The meaning of love, as it emerges in the early work, would seem to be uncritical acceptance. In each story the protagonist is given an opportunity to accept someone and something strange and disturbing, to push back the frontier of darkness both in the surrounding world and in the soul. Not until Joel works his way through Other Voices, Other Rooms does one of them manage to do so. Their characteristic kind of failure appears in simplest form in the tendency to dismiss any challenging new presence as "crazy." Capote's impulse, from "A Tree of Night" to In Cold Blood, is to accept and understand the "abnormal" person; it has been, indeed, one of the main purposes of his writing to safeguard the unique individual's freedom from such slighting classifications as "abnormal." (pp. 16-17)
In the closing line of Other Voices, Other Rooms, its young hero turns to look back, symbolically, "at the boy he had left behind."… The novel is an account of Joel's growth from childhood to maturity. He achieves this growth by learning, with the help of a series of lessons and ordeals, to accept wholeheartedly—that is, to love—the life that awaits him, however disappointing and mysterious it may seem. He finds and accepts "his proper place" and in so doing gains the freedom that goes with the achievement of a sense of identity.
Described in these general terms, the novel might seem to depict the initiation of any young man into full stature in his society, but it does not. It might be better described as an initiation out of society; for in Other Voices, Other Rooms, as in the stories that preceded it, the world the hero is asked to accept is a world whose norm is abnormality. It is a world that begins where daylight merges into shadow—a refuge from society for the maimed in body and spirit. Though unconventional in this sense, it is nevertheless a place of trial where one achieves freedom by understanding and acceptance. Joel does what his older counterparts failed to do: he outfaces the monsters of his childhood, sees them in truer perspective and with proper detachment, and exposes them for what they are. (p. 41)
Other Voices, Other Rooms is an almost unbelievably intricate novel—a fact not surprising if one has read the earlier stories, particularly "The Headless Hawk" and "Master Misery." In all of them, the symbolic patterns lead toward an ultimate complex oneness, an overlapping and merging of symbols. Other Voices, Other Rooms in particular might be compared to a closed sphere of interwoven endless circles, or even of one endless strand. The novel's question is: Who is Joel? His answer—"I am me…. I am Joel, we are the same people"—completes a circle. Furthermore, his "we" includes almost everyone and everything in the book. His identity is his father, whom he came to find, but also Randolph, whom he found. His father is the sun, and also Little Sunshine, who is also the Cloud Hotel and Drownin Pond and the sinking Landing. The Landing is Skully's, or death's, and so is the snake, which is also Mr. Sansom, as well as Idabel's father and Zoo's grandfather and all fathers. And so on. It is a remarkable achievement, if somewhat like a maze with no exit. This maze entangles the reader in a poetic experience which has the irrational power of childhood itself: it must be grown out of, but, like childhood, it continues to haunt the memory. Capote was completely right when he remarked of the book, eight years after finishing it, "Despite awkwardness, it has an amazing intensity, a real voltage."
Viewed as a liberation, the story is markedly ambivalent. Its explicit meaning is that Joel has broken out of his childhood prison and achieved maturity, yet the way in which he does it, and the symbolic pattern surrounding the action, suggest a narcissistic confinement. This contradiction is presumably intended to function as a vital paradox; still, one feels uneasily that Joel and Capote have not made quite as clean a break with childhood as they think, though they are moving in the right direction. (pp. 63-4)
The year 1948 saw the publication not only of "Master Misery" and Other Voices, Other Rooms, but also of a story which seems at first glance to have little in common with them—"Children on Their Birthdays." If Capote's early stories are about captivity and Other Voices, Other Rooms is about liberation, the later stories—though some of their characters are quite literally imprisoned—have about them an air of limitless vistas. Among the other works of this later period are "A Diamond Guitar" (1950), "House of Flowers" (1951), "A Christmas Memory" (1956), and "Among the Paths to Eden" (1960)….
The typical protagonist of these stories—as of the two longer works written during the same years, The Grass Harp and Breakfast at Tiffany's—is an unattached, unconventional wanderer, usually a girl or a childlike woman, whose life is a pursuit of some ideal of happiness. (p. 65)
[The] Capote heroine first assumes her definitive shape and central position in Miss Bobbit [of "Children on Their Birthdays"]. The significance she has for Billy Bob gives a clue to her significance for Capote. She is the dreamer in him, the child, the delicate spirit wandering in search of ideal happiness. She is "the queer things in him," and also, perhaps, the things he has been too wise an artist to show anyone else. One of the most important results of the liberation he achieved at the time of Other Voices, Other Rooms was the ability to place his alter ego in perspective by somehow managing to find it embodied in real persons he has known, thus freeing himself from it while at the same time continuing to possess it lovingly. Though still narcissistic in its deeper levels, his later fiction has a new air of turning outward, of freshness and sunlight. There is a new sadness in it, too, for the break with childhood is not made without pain. Miss Bobbit and her later counterparts exist finally not as real persons but as bittersweet memories.
One sign of new vigor in Capote's grasp of reality, and evidence of the tougher side of his nature, is the very real strength these heroines possess during their brief hour. Their confident pursuit of an ideal gives them the power to beat society at its own game and to compel its grudging admiration. Like Capote himself, they know how to get what they want. This was not the case with their predecessors, all of whom were directionless and fated to destruction. (pp. 70-1)
In "House of Flowers" Capote moved in a very different direction. The romantic, tropical world … becomes the actual setting of this story, a product of Capote's 1948–49 vacation in Haiti. He published the story in 1951 and three years later collaborated with Harold Arlen in its production as a musical play. Unlike any of his other stories, it was apparently written as a preparatory exercise for a stage version. As this would suggest, it is the most exotic of all Capote's stories, told in a whimsical, playful tone that seems to place it even further from his personal world of experience and imagination than "A Diamond Guitar." It was, in fact, based on stories he heard, as Capote himself has explained…. Though remote from his other work in many ways, it is still about a girl who is a prisoner and a dreamer. This time, however, he decided to let the dream come true. (pp. 75-6)
In finding her dream come true, Ottilie moves into a world of romance in which nothing, not even death, need be taken seriously. Capote has sometimes been called a fantasist and has indignantly denied it. Taken as a charge of irresponsibility, the designation would be better applied to "House of Flowers" than to the earlier, more apparently fantastic, stories, which, as Capote insists, are serious examinations of real states of mind. The story of Ottilie has a fundamental unseriousness which Capote has, fortunately, seldom put into his fiction. And, where it deviates from romantic cliché, the story has something rather chilling about it. Though Old Bonaparte somewhat resembles the archetypal bogeys of the dark fiction, the atmosphere of the story does not sustain that kind of reading, and Ottilie's murderous innocence seems an extreme case of the chill exclusiveness that tends to mar Capote's dreamers.
"A Christmas Memory" is Truman Capote's nonfiction short story. (p. 78)
[It is] a frank memoir which, while generally accepted as one of his finest and most charming short stories, has become his own avowed favorite among his shorter works because it is "true."…
The story is his idealized recollection of his relationship with [the elderly cousin with whom he spent much of his childhood]. As such it has a unique importance among his works, for it embodies the archetype of an emotional pattern which underlies all his later fiction and even exerts a subtle influence on In Cold Blood. Asexual admiration of a childlike dreamer-heroine is the usual attitude of the Capote narrator. The pastness of the experience is also essential; Capote's is a fiction of nostalgia. "A Christmas Memory" is one of his best and most satisfying works because it places the feelings he can dramatize most powerfully in the setting which is best suited to them—which, as Henry James would say, artistically does most for them. (p. 79)
"Among the Paths to Eden," published at about the time Capote began his Kansas research for In Cold Blood, shows signs of the new strength and freedom he feels he derived from his work on the nonfiction novel. One of his principal aims in that project was to enlarge the range of characters he could portray sympathetically. In this story he does precisely that.
"Among the Paths to Eden" resembles earlier works in depicting a non-sexual encounter between a male observer and a wistful dreamer-heroine, but its spirit is new. The story is told in the third person in a playful comic tone that places the author at a slight, good-natured distance from the hero, Mr. Ivor Belli—who in turn views his brief acquaintance, Miss Mary O'Meaghan, in much the same way. The setting is a very real, undreamlike New York, and the time—virtually the first instance of it in Capote's fiction—is the present. (pp. 83-4)
Three years after Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote published his next major work, the short novel The Grass Harp (1951). The story opens on a note of reminiscence: "When was it that first I heard of the grass harp? Long before the autumn we lived in the china tree; an earlier autumn, then; and of course it was Dolly who told me, no one else would have known to call it that, a grass harp."…
[The opening lines] establish much of the story's basic pattern: the first-person narrator recalls a past episode and a heroine who had a special meaning for him. (p. 88)
The grass harp is a field of Indian grass between River Woods and the hilltop cemetery outside a small Southern town. In autumn the wind turns it into a "harp of voices" that tells the story of all the people buried on the hill, "of all the people who ever lived."… Dolly Talbo, who explains this to Joel, is his father's cousin. Since the age of eleven, when his mother died, he has lived with her and her sister Verena, both of them unmarried. (pp. 88-9)
The line of alienation separating Capote's chosen few from the rest of the world—a line first drawn in "Master Misery" and taken for granted in Other Voices, Other Rooms—is, in The Grass Harp, drawn more distinctly than ever. It is, in fact, the backbone of the story's plot.
Life in the Talbo house has some of the bizarre qualities that it had at Skully's Landing, but its isolation from the outer world is less complete. (p. 90)
The Grass Harp contains Capote's fullest expression of antagonism between his chosen dreamers and the rest of society. The Capote characters we have met don't fit in, and, since Joel Knox, they don't seem to want to. They are innocent pilgrims wandering in search of some better place. Society for its part considers them "crazy" and tries to put them into its prisons and its starchy straitjackets. But, as Miss Bobbit divined, beneath its hostility lies envy. On the present occasion the representatives of society stand below Dolly and her crew "like dogs gathered around a tree of trapped possums." (pp. 93-4)
Judge Cool embodies another kind of progression in the development of Capote's themes. Though his dreamers may easily be dismissed by society as of no value, the same cannot be said of Dolly's new recruit. In him, society is condemned by someone right out of its highest ranks, a man whose profession gives him a special claim to wisdom. A broadening of the social base has already been evident, of course, in the selection of Capote code heroes. (p. 94)
The judge announces that they must be prepared, and begins a systematic statement of their "position" that is more philosophical than military….
But here we are, identified: five fools in a tree. A great piece of luck provided we know how to use it; no longer any need to worry about the picture we present—free to find out who we truly are. If we know that no one can dislodge us; it's the uncertainty concerning themselves that makes our friends conspire to deny the differences….
Capote has made Judge Cool his foremost spokesman, and this passage is the author's fullest statement of the values that underlie his fiction and perhaps all his writing. The judge is describing the Capote hero, the dreamer-victim. Everyone we have met in his stories is included here. Here are the early sufferers, prisoners even in their hearts because even in their hearts they were afraid to accept the differences, to recognize the bogeymen who were part of themselves.
The fiction turned from dark to light when, in Joel Knox, they jumped to inner freedom by accepting their identity. Joel found his "one person in the world" in Randolph, and with...
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Called "daylight gothic" by Mark Shorer [in his introduction to Capote's Selected Writings, "Children on Their Birthdays"] contains none of the dark gothic paraphernalia of such stories as "The Headless Hawk" or "Shut a Final Door."… Shorer describes the mood of the story as "buoyant summer rain shot through with sun," but quotes out of context: "Since Monday it has been raining buoyant summer rain shot through with sun, but dark at night and full of sound, full of dripping leaves, watery chimneys, sleepless scuttlings."… The mood of the story is a balance between sun and darkness, buoyant summer rain and sleepless scuttlings. It is gothic in the sense that Lolita is gothic; both have that delicate...
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