Capote, Truman (Vol. 19)
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 celebrity ever since. His early writings focus on the Deep South, where he was born, but his later works have varied tremendously in locale as well as style. His best known work, In Cold Blood, contributed to the development of a new genre, the nonfiction novel. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
If the Mad Hatter and the Ugly Duchess had had a child, and the child had almost grown up, ["A Tree of Night and Other Stories"] are almost the kind of short stories he could be expected to write. Reading Truman Capote's first collection is, in fact, a good deal like a trip down the rabbit hole with a metropolitanized Alice, for the fey quality which underlay Mr. Capote's first novel, "Other Voices, Other Rooms," is here fortunately absent.
In all eight stories, Mr. Capote appears to be concerned with what might be called the esthetics of unlikelihood….
Perhaps it is because Mr. Capote's people are so full of eerie compulsions which they make no protracted attempt to resist that the reader's resistance to them is accordingly steeled and hardened. Who wants, really, to crawl back into the twilit cave and roll the papier-mâché stone over the doorway? Who would want to let Alice's wonderland serve as the myth around which he organized his adult life? There are sufficiently enthralling problems on this side of the looking-glass and at this end of the rabbit-hole, and if that remark strikes the reader as rather stuffily moralistic, it might be rejoined that Mr. Capote's refusal to look squarely at the realm of the actual is in itself a form of stuffiness.
With these reservations, however, one must fairly assert for these stories a kind of triple power: a mind at times disciplined toward poetry, with a...
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Leslie A. Fiedler
["A Tree of Night and Other Stories"] contains one extraordinarily good story plus three or four others less good but still memorable that should help redeem Truman Capote, the writer, from that other Capote, the creature of the advertising department and the photographer…. The boy author has been a standard feature of our literature ever since the beginnings of romanticism, and I suppose our generation is entitled to one of its own, but surely Capote deserves better than being fixed in that stereotype.
True, his work shows the occasional overwriting, the twilit Gothic subject matter, and the masochistic uses of horror traditional in the fiction of the boy author …, but Capote has, in addition, an ability to control tone, an honest tenderness toward those of his characters he can understand (children and psychotics), and a splendid sense of humor—seldom remarked upon. In the best of his stories, Children on Their Birthdays, he grasps a situation at once ridiculous and terrible, creating out of the absurdities of love and death among children a rich tension lacking in his other stories, even such successful performances as The Tree of Night and Miriam. On the whole, the level of achievement of these shorter pieces of fiction seems to me a good deal higher than that of Capote's novel, "Other Voices Other Rooms," whose occasional triumphs of style or characterization are more than balanced by poor structure and a general air of...
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[While the stories in A Tree of Night and Other Stories are] extremely well-written they are a slippery witchery collection. The usual theme seems to be pursuit—and escape. People are brought face to face and often overwhelmed by the unacknowledged desire and/or fear. When done well this is always an interesting theme. Capote matches logic with the perversely illogical. But his ideas are enshrined in technical fluency, tricks of impressionism and the like, and this makes it difficult to judge at first whether they are utter nonsense, ash from a psychoanalytic binge, or whether they should be taken seriously. The only argument for the latter it seems to me is that Capote takes his subjects to an undefinable area of the soul where usual standards are hard to apply. If this area exists any author who can exploit it has hit a goldmine where he cannot be assailed.
On the credit side is Truman Capote's feeling and capacity for the art of writing. He can express the inner eye, he can invoke, and his prose is careful and effective. It is also journalistic enough to be very easy and pleasant to follow. But what does he choose to see and to invoke and to select? A personal imagery which lacks meaning when brought out and considered in the light of day. These stories intrigue but do not satisfy.
Virginia Bennett, "Books: 'A Tree of Night and Other Stories'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1949...
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In so far as it is a story of youth and loneliness, Truman Capote's second novel resembles his first, but there are noteworthy differences in quality. "The Grass Harp" is less contrived than "Other Voices, Other Rooms," not so elaborately furnished, not so densely metaphorical. Although much of it is not quite literally credible, it is extravagant, rather than bizarre, and there are no such Gothic touches as the red tennis balls and the hanging mule. More of the writing is colloquial, and fewer of the poetic passages seem forced.
No one, however, need expect out-and-out realism from Capote….
Like "Other Voices, Other Rooms," this is a story of private worlds. The dream world of the tree-house, however, is a world of innocence, not the morbid nightmare of Skully's Landing….
This second novel is not so overwhelming an achievement as "Other Voices" was in its particular way, but it is more satisfying. It is, as Capote's books probably always will be, a book of the grotesque, but the grotesques are created out of love and pity.
Granville Hicks, "A World of Innocence," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1951 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1951, p. 4.
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There is pleasure in reporting how very fine [The Grass Harp] is, how admirably and even brilliantly accomplished—instinct with vitality and humor and a tenderness which never curdles into sentimentality. One's pleasure in this case has little to do with literary actualities: it rises, rather, from satisfaction at the confirmation of a talent….
The Grass Harp represents [Capote's] first serious experiment in major fiction. (p. 73)
Within the slim compass of this work, Truman Capote has achieved a masterpiece of passionate simplicity, of direct, intuitive observation. Without any loss of intensity, he has purified the clotted prose of Other Voices, Other Rooms, producing a luminous reflector for his unique visual sensibility…. But the real wonder of The Grass Harp—the major advance over the earlier novel—is revealed in its awareness of a larger reality. Capote has sunk a shaft more deeply into human experience, and his vision now encompasses greater variety and flexibility.
He still deals in eccentrics but his characters are not wrenched out of their human context; in them, eccentricity becomes an extension, not a distortion, of personality. Compassion, too—that abused quality—takes on a new depth here; it is the authentic coin of the heart and must not be too easily spent. He has constructed a private world, but it is one with roots in the common soil...
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It is true that the arboreal fable of The Grass Harp is meant to symbolize an escape from humdrum reality, that Mr. Capote's real theme is the search for one's real self, and that such a theme is not to be stigmatized as trite merely because it is traditional. It has the effect of triteness in this play because it is in no way rendered active by Mr. Capote's art: when he has finished it still belongs to tradition, he has in no way made it his own. When his people speak we hear only other voices echoing in other rooms….
The triteness is in the conclusions and at the core; in the premises and at the periphery all is ridiculous…. On the level of wise-cracking Broadway farce … Mr. Capote reveals a surprising talent.
If only he would stay on that level! Instead he follows what seems to be the dominant contemporary "school" of theatre in pursuing the ridiculous high into the intense inane. (p. 22)
Mr. Capote has to use words, can't get by with color and form, can't help being involved with life even if he is incapable of shaping it. It is almost as if he started with a realistic play and later tried to transform it into a fantasy. In combination the realistic and fantastic elements became the trite and the ridiculous, respectively. (p. 23)
Eric Bentley, "On Capote's 'Grass Harp'," in The New Republic (© 1952 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 126, No....
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When "The House of Flowers" is trying to be colorful there is a surplus. When it is trying to be funny or touching there is a deficiency. The characteristic originality that makes Truman Capote one of our most distinguished short-story writers seems to have been dispensed with for the purpose of writing a Jamaica travelogue that for all its visual lushness and lovely Harold Arlen music lacks a point of view.
Mr. Capote, who found West Indian bordellos a pleasant place for drink and conversation, has used them for his principal setting. Yet he appears to have about as much feeling for their inhabitants as a eunuch in a harem. Except for Violet, the only unplucked flower in Madame Fleur's hothouse, the characters are all palely drawn—with a few obvious jokes. What's worse, the earthy ribaldry is coyly insinuated….
Mr. Capote seems more at home in [the] imaginative world of fairytale than he does in the realistic world of punks and bawds.
Henry Hewes, "Romanoff and Capote," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1955 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, January 15, 1955, p. 31.∗
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Paul Darcy Boles
Of an exhibition of D. H. Lawrence's paintings, largely nudes, Rebecca West once noted: "Mr. Lawrence has very pink friends." In "Breakfast at Tiffany's" Mr. Capote has very lost friends or, more accurately, one very lost friend, Miss Holiday Golightly, who is surrounded by as false-hearted a clutch of drab witches and cut-rate warlocks as ever picked one another's bones at the Stork Club….
[Her compressed saga] is remindful around the edges of Djuna Barnes's "Nightwood," and raises a few French horn echoes of Iris March, Lady Brett Ashley, and the heroine of John O'Hara's "Butterfield 8" as well. But they are echoes of subject only; Capote's handling of scene, dialogue, illumination of character, near-caricature which rises to revelation, his eye for comedy both social and joyously antisocial; above all, his sympathy for Holly, which can deepen to controlled eloquence, make this short novel his own; and a fine one, outstanding in any season.
To the charges of pointillisme which academic children are quick to bring against masterful detail, it may now be remarked that a pencil flashlight is by definition as important as a lighthouse. And there are shadows in which it is far more effective….
Meantime, the craftsmanship crackles. Capote's humor, inclined to be waspish, often very funny, flies crisply at such "creatures" as O. J. Berman, the Hollywood agent; Rusty Trawler, the everlasting...
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"Breakfast at Tiffany's" is a valentine of love, fashioned by way of reminiscence, to one Holly Golightly…. This is a very funny portrait of an ex-child wife from some place named Tulip, Tex.—who made several mistakes upon coming to New York….
She is a wild thing searching for something to belong to. (p. 5)
When her pineywoods husband comes to New York and explains the psychological and spiritual basis for her behavior, Holly seems to the reader less feasible.
When Mr. Capote begins to make up a plot involving Holly and one Sally Tomato (a dope peddler serving a term in Sing Sing) he vitiates the up-to-then sharp power of his character. He also plunges his reader into an unbelievable melodrama involving crime, defrocked priests, lost brothers, etc., and asks us to believe psychological motivations compelling Holly that we are not prone to put our faith in very seriously.
Mr. Capote's characteristic resorting to almost vaudevillian devices weakens his originally serious conception of his character, thins it down and so, in mid-reading, forces the reader to a dimmer view of her. This kind of genial philandering runs through all these stories, a tendency to over-glaze situations, to overdress characters—not stylistically so much as conceptionally—a tendency to fool with characters on the author's terms of whimsy, not on the characters. (pp. 5, 38)
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There is nothing [in Breakfast at Tiffany's] for anybody in search of a "major" novelist but at his best, Capote is very, very good, as is illustrated by the fragment called "A Christmas Memory" which appears at the end of this collection…. It is full of kitchen smells and tastes, of outdoor excursions to gather nuts and holly, of the world of things and of childlike human warmth. One is tempted to quote, but it is contrived of so many small touches that one would be obliged to quote it all to convey its whole flavor. It is nostalgic but the observation never blurs or softens, it is affectionate but never sentimental. It is also very funny. One would like it to go on and on but it soon stops. The public image of the author, wan and recumbent, comes to mind and one is grateful that he has found the energy to write this much.
On the other hand, there is the "short novel" which gives this book its title. I think it is fair to assume that it is intended as a study of character, one Holly Golightly, a young lady of nineteen with some fairly free and easy attitudes towards the world….
We have met Miss Golightly before. Christopher Isherwood has written of her, or someone so like her that it makes no difference…. She is the romantic adolescent's projection of the ideal woman who will make no demands on anybody's manhood. Having divested herself of desirability for the fastidious by her declared promiscuity, she...
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Unlike most traditional journalism, In Cold Blood possesses a tremendous power to involve the reader. This immediacy, this spellbinding "you-are-there" effect, comes less from the sensational facts (which are underplayed) than from the "fictive" techniques Capote employs. The narrative reads "like a novel" largely because of the use of scene-by-scene reconstruction instead of historical narration, the ironic heightening of dialogue, and the skillful manipulation of point of view. (pp. 69-70)
Capote wanted it both ways: the impeccable accuracy of fact and the emotional impact found only in fiction. (p. 70)
Capote's skill and experience as a novelist are everywhere evident in the final product. He could not, of course, record all of the events of the Clutters' lives, nor did he dwell on each minute detail concerning the killers. Instead, he chose the scenes and conversations with the most powerful dramatic appeal…. It is precisely Capote's ability to capitalize on the hidden meanings of these significant moments that contributes to the narrative impact of the book. The conversations of close friends of the Clutters, of the chief detectives, and even of the killers themselves are powerfully rendered. (p. 71)
Throughout In Cold Blood, a silent alliance is maintained between the narrator and the reader as Capote presents hidden meanings not apparent to the speakers.
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[Truman Capote says of writing:] "A writer ought to have all his colors, all his abilities available on the same palette for mingling…. But how?"
"Music for Chameleons," a miscellany of stories, reportage, an extended crime narrative and a few autobiographical snippets, is the result of a search for an answer to that question. The search is described by the author as both perilous and exhausting…. All the more troubling, therefore, to report that the book is disappointing.
The longest piece of writing, "Handcarved Coffins: A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime," is a rambling chronicle of Mr. Capote's friendship and conversations, literary and nonliterary, with Jake Pepper of the State Bureau of Investigation, who suspects a rich rancher of committing multiple murders. Rarely in its length do we explore the interior either of a criminal or of a threatened innocent or man of law. And the experimental dimension seems negligible, amounting only to the periodic interruption of conventional first-person prose by patches of dialogue laid out as though in a film script or play….
Roughly the same failings surface in the fiction and journalism—authorial claims of hard-won breakthroughs, little supporting evidence…. The new fictional style is … flat, perfunctory and bored with itself—witness a piece of grotesque about a Connecticut Jane Austen fancier whose deepfreeze is "filled with stacks...
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When [Capote] thinks, he is like nobody else—lapidary craftsman, master of nuance and detail. When he babbles, he is a nobody. Music for Chameleons displays the thinking Truman—with the customary intrusion of commonness that has marred much of his work.
Everything is displayed in this crow's nest of a book…. The title story is all the author claims for it…. The prose blackens, alters its tone, summons ghosts, and recalls Caribbean melodies and celebrations. (p. 30)
The High Capote returns in such pieces as "Dazzle," a Proustian recollection of the day he first wished aloud to be a girl, and when he sensed that for the rest of his life he would be haunted by the derision greeting his request. And I found a superabundance of moving tragicomedy in "A Day's Work."… Yet even here, Capote cannot resist low vaudeville Jew jokes—the Berkowitz parrot, named Polly, naturally, has learned to say "Oy Vey!" Mary Sanchez describes the bird's owners as "real stuffy Jewish people. And you know how stuffy they are!" Capote: "Jewish people? Gosh, yes. Very stuffy. They ought to be in the Museum of Natural History. All of them."
Of course, it may be that the reader is supposed to be as stoned reading this as Capote was when he said it. Otherwise one might almost mistake it for country-club bigotry masquerading as social satire.
Still, as he would be the first to proclaim,...
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Mr. Capote's principal stylistic innovation [in "Music for Chameleons"] consists of nothing more than setting himself center stage and reconstructing, "in a severe, minimal manner, commonplace conversations with everyday people"; and … the result of this apparently modest experiment—that is, the contents of "Music for Chameleons"—does not immediately strike one as Mr. Capote writing with the full powers at his command. (pp. 472-73)
[While] nearly all of the collection displays the prose style, "clear as a country creek," that Mr. Capote claims to have striven for, it seems something less than the major innovation he has announced in his preface.
All the same, a little reflection makes one realize why these pieces seem so important to Mr. Capote. By setting himself "center stage" for the first time in his career, he has succeeded in projecting all the facets of his remarkable and varied personality. By telling such seemingly far-fetched stories as "A Lamp in the Window" and "Mr. Jones," he has indulged the side of himself that delights in making up whoppers. By making the resolution of "Handcarved Coffins" dependent on his fantasies, he is able to exploit his fascination with, and uncanny perception of, the criminal mentality….
In short, the pieces in "Music for Chameleons" have freed him to write about himself—even to confess, without a trace of self-pity or bravado, the agony he felt as a...
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Helen S. Garson
Inasmuch as [Truman Capote] has produced a number of works that continue to be read, studied, and discussed, he must be regarded as one of the more significant writers of the second half of this century. Undoubtedly, Other Voices, Other Rooms, A Tree of Night and Other Stories, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and In Cold Blood, his best works, will have reader appeal for a very long time and will remain influential for other writers.
Some reviewers criticized Capote's fiction prior to In Cold Blood for its unrealistic characters, fanciful plots, and its indifference to moral and societal issues. Still, there are critics who find those same qualities praiseworthy, commenting that Capote's stories develop from the historical conventions of the romance. (pp. 6-7)
Readers who accept the idea that Capote's early writing should be categorized as romance can then dismiss irrelevant issues. They are the people who find Capote's second book remarkable in its voyage into the human psyche via the route of the romance. A Tree of Night and Other Stories is like a heavily woven tapestry of different depths that draws one from layer to layer. The collection contains stories in both a light and dark mode. Although Capote was never again to publish stories of the latter kind, some of the characteristics appear in other works, and some of the characters surface under other names in the fiction of the past decade....
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