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.