Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
How do the mysterious details of setting and the various eccentric characters contribute to the characterization of Joel in Other Voices, Other Rooms?
Discuss the following assertion: Truman Capote’s insistence on the originality of his “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood, enhanced its popular success but misdirected criticism of the work.
What did Capote ultimately learn and reveal about the motivation of the killers in In Cold Blood?
Are there important mutually exclusive values in journalism and fiction? Has Capote been a bad influence on the recent journalists who have betrayed journalistic standards by incorporating fictitious material in their reports?
Does Capote’s literary output after In Cold Blood demonstrate that celebrity—and especially his practice of cultivating his own celebrity—damaged his integrity as an artist?
What work of Capote’s do you think best illustrates his conviction that “all writing has at its center a perfectly wrought core and shape”? Describe the core of that work.
Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
In addition to stories and short novels, Truman Capote wrote travel sketches and various kinds of nonfiction, much of which has been collected, along with some of Capote’s short stories and novellas, in A Capote Reader (1987). The volume Local Color (1950), on the other hand, is a collection solely of travel essays. Capote also did some screenwriting, including critically well-received scripts for Beat the Devil (1954) and The Innocents (1961), an adaptation of the Henry James story The Turn of the Screw (1898), and an adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which became a well-known film in 1961.
In Cold Blood (1966), probably his most famous work, is a “nonfiction novel,” a documented recreation of the murder of a family in Kansas. The novel was both a critical and a popular success, and the television film version won an Emmy Award in 1967. Capote’s last work, another nonfiction novel, Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel (1986), set off a social scandal with its gossipy revelations. Capote finished his writing career in ignominy.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
The best of Truman Capote’s writing is regarded as elegant prose, noted for its lucidity, although at its worst it became an example of vain excess and gossip. Yet Capote was one of the United States’ leading post-World War II writers. He pioneered the genre of the “nonfiction novel” with In Cold Blood and gained renown for his short stories and novellas. His story “Miriam” won the O. Henry Memorial Award in 1943, and “Shut a Final Door” won the same prize in 1946. Although much of his work has been both critically and popularly praised, Capote was rarely formally recognized during his writing career.
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
In addition to writing fiction, Truman Capote (kuh-POH-tee) worked principally in two other forms: the drama (stage, film, and television) and reportage. Capote’s first work for the stage was his adaptation of his novel The Grass Harp, which was produced in New York in the spring of 1952. In 1954, he collaborated with Harold Arlen on the Broadway musical House of Flowers, based on his short story. He also wrote the film scenario for Beat the Devil (1954) and dialogue for Indiscretion of an American Wife (1954). He adapted Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw for film as The Innocents (1961). Two Hollywood films, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and In Cold Blood (1967), were based on his work, but Capote himself did not contribute to the screenplays. He did, however, with Eleanor Perry, adapt three of his stories—“Miriam,” “Among the Paths to Eden,” and A Christmas Memory—for television. A Christmas Memory was honored with the Peabody Award in 1967, and the three story dramatizations were later released as a film, Trilogy: An Experiment in Multimedia (1969).
Capote’s first venture in reportage was Local Color (1950), a series of impressionistic sketches of New Orleans, New York, and other places where he had lived or visited in America and Europe. Local Color was followed by The Muses Are Heard (1956), an urbane account of his trip to Leningrad and the opening-night performance of the American cast of Porgy and Bess. Other sketches of the 1950’s appeared in Observations (1959), with photographs by Richard Avedon. His masterpiece in this form is In Cold Blood, although Capote preferred to regard this work as a “nonfiction novel.” The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places (1973) collects his earlier nonfiction writing and includes some additional sketches, while Music for Chameleons (1980) includes later reportage and a short “nonfiction novel,” Handcarved Coffins, an account of multiple murders in the American Southwest.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
With the publication of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote achieved fame at the young age of twenty-four. His precocity, the bizarre nature and brilliant quality of the novel, and the astonishing photograph of the author on the book’s dust jacket (a figure, childlike in stature, who reclines on a period sofa and looks out with an expression of unsettling maturity and aloofness) made him widely discussed in both America and Europe. This debut set the tone of Capote’s later career, in which he consistently attained remarkable popularity while yet appealing to an elite audience of serious readers.
The publication one year later of A Tree of Night, and Other Stories (1949) consolidated Capote’s reputation as an author of baroque fiction, fiction concerned with the strange, often dreamlike inner states of estranged characters. A peculiarity of this volume, however, is that several of the stories it contains are lightly whimsical. The Grass Harp, which shares this more “sunlit” vision, shows Capote emerging, tentatively, from his “private,” subjective fiction; in this work, whimsy predominates as the individual gropes for his relationship to others. Breakfast at Tiffany’s moves further out into the world, and this tendency becomes more pronounced still in his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood.
His unfinished novel Answered Prayers, with its large gallery of precisely observed characters, was Capote’s fullest effort to engage the many-sided world of actual social experience. In whatever form he wrote, however, whether sequestered fantasy or fiction with a social orientation, Capote’s preoccupations remained constant—loneliness and isolation, the dichotomy between the world and the self, the deprivations of the innocent or unconventional and their moments of grace.
Capote’s strength was mainly in the briefer modes—in the vignette, short story, and short novel. Of his longer works, the best is In Cold Blood, the most accomplished “nonfiction novel” of its time. Called by Norman Mailer “the most perfect writer of my generationword for word, rhythm upon rhythm,” Capote is known for being a great stylist. There is no question that he belongs in the first rank of modern American writers.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Truman Capote. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Collection of critical essays discusses Capote’s most important works. Includes an informative editor’s introduction, a brief biography, and a chronology.
Brinnin, John Malcolm. Truman Capote: Dear Heart, Old Buddy. Rev. ed. New York: Delacorte Press, 1986. Chronicles Capote’s life from before the success of In Cold Blood to his ruin from alcoholism and drugs. Most useful is the insight into the literary circles in which Capote moved. Includes an index.
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Arguably the definitive biographical work on Capote, this lengthy text covers all the ups and downs of his career. Contains copious references and an index.
Dunphy, Jack.“Dear Genius”: A Memoir of My Life with Truman Capote. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989. Written by Capote’s friend and close companion of more than thirty years and a novelist in his own right. Details the disintegration of Capote’s life as a result of drugs and alcohol. Includes index.
Garson, Helen S. Truman Capote: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992. Divided into three sections: a critical analysis of the short fiction, an exploration of Capote’s biography and his...
(The entire section is 589 words.)