An Overview of Capote's "A Christmas Memory"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1157

Truman Capote often drew on his Southern childhood in finding material for his fiction. He also frequently focused his stories on unconventional, strangely appealing women. "A Christmas Memory" is possibly the best example of a Capote story that exhibits both of these features. Capote described it as his favorite among his stories, and it showed his writing shifting from a preoccupation with the darker aspects of life to warmer and more sentimental subject matter. (He would return to darker subjects later, with In Cold Blood, his account of the murder of a family in rural Kansas.) Capote said he liked "A Christmas Memory" because of the truth in it, but the story is actually an idealized and embellished portrait of his childhood and of his elderly cousin, Sook, who provided much of the warmth and companionship he knew as a youngster.

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Capote's parents were divorced when he was four years old, and his mother placed him with relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, while she went to New York City to look for a job. Young Truman lived most of the time with four cousins, all much older than he. The one with whom he formed the closest relationship was Nanny Rumbley Faulk, nicknamed Sook. She was reclusive and many people considered her peculiar. Relatives later pointed out after characterizations of her began showing up in Capote's work, however, that she was more intelligent and less naive than she appeared. At any rate, she was able to relate to Truman almost as if they were both children. Later, like Buddy in "A Christmas Memory," Truman was sent away to boarding school. Unlike his fictional counterpart, he went through an emotional break with his cousin. Capote's family members, including Sook, were unable to accept his homosexuality or deal with his alcoholism and drug abuse.

Capote modeled several of his characters on Sook. In addition to the kindly and eccentric woman of "A Christmas Memory," she is represented in Dolly Talbo in his novel The Grass Harp. Some other Capote heroines are based less directly on Sook, but are closely related to her. One of them is the character who is perhaps Capote's most famous creation, Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany's. William L. Nance, a literary scholar who has written extensively about Capote, referred to Holly as "a dreamer-heroine whose prototype is the elderly friend of 'A Christmas Memory.'" Nance also noted that these characters are evidence of Capote's nonsexual yet strong attachment to women, especially women who do not quite fit into mainstream society.

The elderly woman of ''A Christmas Memory" certainly is out of the mainstream. Buddy says that his cousin, although in her sixties, "is still a child." She is not stupid, but she does not live her life according to an adult idea of what is sensible or practical. She has a sense of fun that appeals to the boy. Buddy is tolerant of his cousin's eccentricities, which Capote describes in detail and with affection. Her appearance, described in the story's second paragraph, marks her as an unorthodox person. She wears tennis shoes and a baggy sweater with a lightweight calico dress; her "remarkable" face is craggy yet delicate. Later, the narrator, the boy grown up, relates more facts about her. ''She has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry,'' Capote writes. Then he tells us the things she does: "tame hummingbirds ,.. tell ghost stories ... so tingling they chill you in My, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas [a flowering shrub] in town, know the recipe for every sort of old-time Indian cure." The story provides fewer details about the little boy, but it is obvious he is a precocious child, something that inspires admiration in his cousin. She loves to have Buddy tell her the stories of the movies he sees; she will never go to a movie because she wants to save her vision for when she sees God.

Buddy and his cousin create a happy world of their own. They "are not, on the whole, too much aware" of the other relatives who live with them; instead, they find joy in each other's company. Incidents throughout the story underline their attachment to each other and their distance from the rest of their family. Because Buddy and his cousin have little money, most of their pleasures are improvised, from gathering pecans left on the ground after the harvest to making their own Christmas gifts and ornaments. They are enthusiastic about their various moneymaking schemes, from entering contests advertised on the radio to setting up their homemade museum, even though these schemes are more often failures than successes. They enjoy interacting with people outside of the world of their conventional relatives and neighbors—such as the bootlegger Haha Jones or the strangers and near-strangers to whom they send their Christmas fruitcakes. The old woman lets Buddy drink whiskey, which gets her in trouble with the rest of the family. And while the other family members give him disappointingly practical Christmas gifts, she gives him a kite. That's what he gives her, too, in an exchange of gifts that, as critic Stanley Edgar Hyman once pointed out, is as corny and as emotionally effective as the exchange in O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi."

Over the years, some critics have pronounced "A Christmas Memory" overly sentimental, but most of them, along with the reading public, have found it genuinely moving. It is particularly heartrending when Capote moves from the idyllic Christmas Day that Buddy and his cousin spend flying their kites to Buddy's separation from his friend—a separation created first by distance when Buddy goes away to school, then by the old woman's death. It is indicative of their bond that Buddy feels her death before he is told of it. In life, Capote's bond with Sook was so strong, and so painful to break off, that he was driven to recreate it along with similar relationships in his fiction for many years afterward. "A Christmas Memory," according to Nance, ''has a unique importance'' among Capote's works because it is so much a model for his later stories, often centering on unusual women who live in a world of their own and who inspire love that has little to do with sex. "The pastness of the experience is also essential; Capote's is a fiction of nostalgia," Nance observed. "'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."

Source: Trudy Ring, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Trudy Ring is a frequent writer, editor, and reporter on literary subjects.

Surprised by Joy: Stories of the Fifties and Sixties

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1714

...Capote's ability to combine comedy, nostalgia, and a child's sense of tragedy is nowhere more evident than in the story "A Christmas Memory." Declared by Capote to be his most cherished piece, it is more overtly autobiographical than anything else he has written. The author has said that the child in the story is himself and the elderly relative, his cousin, Miss Sook Faulk. He further emphasized the reality behind the fiction in "A Christmas Memory" by having a childhood picture of himself and Miss Faulk reproduced for a reprinting of the story in 1966, ten years after its original publication.

In addition to seeing the autobiographical connection between the story and the author, the reader can discern immediately similarities to Capote's novel, The Grass Harp. In both works, the major figures are a young boy and his older female relative; the scenes take place primarily in the kitchen and in the woods; the story is set in the past and the tone is nostalgic; and an event of great significance takes place in both the story and the novel, that is, the parting of the child and his cousin. In The Grass Harp the woman dies and the young man goes north to school, whereas in "A Christmas Memory" the boy is sent away to a military school, never to see his cousin again; her death occurs after his leaving.

"A Christmas Memory" opens as the narrator evokes memories of late November mornings spent in a warm country kitchen. Looking backwards the speaker becomes a seven-year-old who has lived for a long time with his distant cousin. Although it is not her house, in his child's world the other inhabitants don't matter unless they cause difficulties. The old woman and the boy, whom she has named Buddy, after a childhood friend of hers who died in the 1880s, are best friends. It is possible because the white-haired, small, sprightly, craggy yet delicate-faced woman with sherry-colored, timid eyes has never outgrown the sunny world of childhood. Buddy stresses the great difference between her and others, saying, "She is still a child "

On a particular morning every November, a special ritual is repeated. His cousin looks out the window, notes the chill of the season, thinks of Christmas, and makes the pronouncement: "It's fruitcake weather." The two of them find her hat— worn more for propriety than for warmth, a straw cartwheel decorated with roses of velvet—and get Buddy's old baby carriage, which serves as a cart for carrying the load of pecans that will go into the fruitcake. Along with their dog, Queenie, they walk to a pecan grove, where, on their hands and knees, for hours they will search out nuts.

Their expeditions are like those in The Grass Harp. Dolly, Catherine, and Collin go to the woods to gather ingredients for Dolly's dropsy medicine or to picnic. Buddy and his cousin collect flowers, herbs, and ferns in the spring, firewood in the winter, and fish the creek in the summer. The lives of the two families resemble each other in their patterns. And another similarity exists in their attitudes toward money. It is intended to bring pleasure. However, where Dolly, Catherine, and Collin have Dolly's earnings to purchase magazines and games, Buddy and his cousin enter contests to try to win money to support their activities; they also sell jars of jams, jellies, and preserves they've made, berries they've gathered, and flowers they've picked for important occasions.

They need money for the buying of the items that go into the fruitcake, the candied fruits, the spices, the whiskey, the flour, the butter, the eggs. All year long they save in their "Fruitcake Fund;" most of it is in pennies, which they count out for the thirty or more cakes they send to people they like, such as President Roosevelt, a bus driver who waves at them every day, and a couple who once took a picture of them. And afterwards there are the thank-you letters for their scrapbooks.

The fun and excitement of shopping is followed by the pleasure of preparing the cakes: the glowing of the stove, the sounds of the mixing, the smells of the spices delight Buddy. However, in four days it is all over and he feels let down afterwards. His cousin has a remedy though for depression, the whiskey left from the baking. After Queenie gets a spoonful mixed in coffee, the two of them drink the remainder. Then the sour taste of the liquor is soon replaced by happy feelings. They begin to giggle, to sing, and to dance. Queenie rolls in drunken joy as the cousin waltzes around in her squeaky tennis shoes.

The delightful comedy of the drinking scene is produced by the deft touch of the writer, not only here but elsewhere in the work as well. The description of the meeting with Haha Jones—so named for his somber disposition—proprietor of the shop where they buy the whiskey for the cakes, is another episode enlivened by the lightness of the humor. Looking at the odd pair, Haha asks, ''Which one of you is a drinking man?" The appearance of Haha and the tongue-in-cheek designation of the "sinful" cafe he runs all add to the comic note.

There are also other kinds of humor in the story. A line here and there suggests the eighteenth-century satirist Alexander Pope. When the narrator tells of earning pennies by killing house flies, he says in mockheroic style, "Oh the carnage of August: the flies that flew to heaven!" Superstition further provides the opportunity for comedy; the number thirteen has several possibilities. Fear of having thirteen dollars causes Buddy and his cousin to throw a penny out of the window to avoid the multiple catastrophes that could occur from the unlucky sum. Twelve ninety-nine is safer. The importance of hoarding the money of the "Fund" provides another chance for verbal and visual humor. Buddy makes the following statement, creating an expanding comic effect by the use of detail and the repetition of the word "under": "These moneys we keep hidden in an ancient purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under my friend's bed.''

The only money ever withdrawn from their savings is the ten cents Buddy is given each week for the movies, to which he goes alone. Although his elderly cousin enjoys hearing him tell the film story, she has never been to a movie. Her life, like that of Dolly Talbo, is that of a recluse. One thinks of Dolly's nunlike, pink room when Buddy describes his cousin's bedroom containing an iron bed painted in her favorite rose pink. Further, his cousin has never been far from home, has had very limited experiences, and is ignorant of the world outside the little town in which she lives. Yet she knows all kinds of wonderful things a small boy admires: how to tame hummingbirds, how to tell terrifying ghost stories, and how to treat ailments by using old Indian cures.

Buddy's cousin, who reads only the funny papers and the Bible, is a religious Christian who fully expects to come face to face with God at the end of her life. However, she also understands the natural world, loves and respects it. Once someone chides her for refusing to sell a beautiful fragrant pine she has cut for a Christmas tree and she is told she can get another one. But she responds like a nineteenth-century Romantic philosopher in tune with nature: ''There's never two of anything.''

Decorating the Christmas tree they have dragged home from the woods and making presents consumes much of their time. As early as August they pick cotton to sprinkle on the tree in December. Later, old treasures are brought down from the attic; cutouts of fruits and animals are made from colored paper and tinfoil angels from candy wrappers. They make holly wreaths and family gifts together. But then they separate to make the most important items, the things they will exchange with each other. Both want to give something special, but they have no money for bought presents. Because of that, every year they design colorful handmade kites.

When the holidays are over and the wind is right, they go out of doors to the nearby pastures to fly their kites. Thus the seasons pass, from fruitcake time to tree cutting and decorating, to kite-flying weather. And during the last kite-flying days they have together, Buddy's cousin speaks of a sudden vision she has. She tells him that God shows Himself in many guises, but only at the end of life do we realize that He "has already shown Himself." And as she says that to Buddy, she moves her hand in an encompassing gesture "that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone."

It is not long after his cousin has described to him her sense of a godlike indwelling that Buddy is parted from her. He is forced to take up a new life in military schools, camps, and another home. However, because of his love for his cousin and his great sense of loss in the separation, he never feels that he belongs anywhere. He always identifies home with his cousin.

Remaining alone, his cousin writes him of her activities and sorrows, of the death of Queenie. Each November she sends him the best of the fruitcakes. But she lives only a few years more. Soon her memory fails and she can no longer distinguish the narrator from the Buddy who was her childhood friend.

In the winter season when she dies, Buddy intuits her death before he is told of it. He describes his feeling of loss as an "irreplaceable part" of himself, "loose like a kite on a broken string." He looks up to the December sky as if to see that lost self of his joining with his other self, the spirit of his cousin, "rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven." . ..

Source: Helen S Garson, "Surprised by Joy: Stories of the Fifties and Sixties," in Truman Capote, Frederick Ungar, 1980,pp. 97-102. Garson is a professor of English and a frequent contributor to literary journals.

''A Christinas Memory

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1829

"A Christmas Memory" is Truman Capote's non-fiction short story. In 1956, the year it was published, Capote was in the midst of a major change in literary direction. Five years had passed since his short fiction had drifted into the shallows of' 'House of Flowers," and his vital fictional development had shifted to the short novel. During the next three years he made disappointing experiments with drama (The Grass Harp) and musical comedy (House of Flowers), and went on a cinematic lark (Beat the Devil) in Italy. Then, deciding that he had been wasting his time, he began preparing seriously for the nonfiction novel with some "finger exercises," the most important of which was The Muses Are Heard (1956), his report on the Russian tour of an all-Negro production of Porgy and Bess.

In the same year he returned to the very roots of his own experience in "A Christmas Memory," 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." In 1966, riding the tidal wave of popularity whipped up by In Cold Blood, Capote arranged for a pre-Christmas publication of the story in a slim, boxed volume bearing a reproduction of an actual snapshot of himself, a smiling little boy, with the elderly cousin with whom he spent much of his childhood.

The story is his idealized recollection of his relationship with this woman. 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.

Capote begins by asking the reader to remember a November morning more than twenty years ago and the kitchen of a country house. A little old woman with a craggy but delicate face and eyes "sherry-colored and timid" is standing at the window. Suddenly she exclaims, "Oh my, it's fruitcake weather!" The narrator explains:

The person to whom she is speaking is myself I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives, and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend The other Buddy died in the 1880's when she was still a child. She is still a child

Their annual ritual, the baking of thirty fruitcakes, begins with a trip to gather pecans, followed by an evening spent cracking them: "Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl." The second day is to be spent buying the many ingredients, but first there is the problem of money. During the year, they have supplemented the ''skinflint sums" given them by the family by selling handpicked fruit and preserves, holding rummage sales and backyard entertainments—once by winning seventy-ninth prize in a national football contest. The slowly accumulated Fruitcake Fund is tapped only for a weekly dime to permit Buddy to go to the picture show. His friend has never seen one and doesn't intend to. Her life has, in fact, been extremely circumscribed; yet she has numerous accomplishments, among them the ability to tame hummingbirds, tell ghost stories, and concoct old time Indian cures. She is superstitious and always spends the thirteenth of the month in her bed, which is painted rose pink, her favorite color.

To get whiskey, the most expensive of the fruitcake ingredients, the two friends pay an apprehensive visit to Mr. Haha Jones, proprietor of "a 'sinful' (to quote public opinion) fish-fry and dancing cafe down by the river." Mr. Jones, a sort of benevolent bogeyman with razor scars across his face, decides to charge them one fruitcake rather than the usual two dollars. Buddy's friend later remarks, ''Well, there's a lovely man. We'll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake."

Then comes the baking. "The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke.''

In four days the cakes are finished. They are intended for "friends," most of them met only once or not at all—people who have struck their fancy. Among them are President Roosevelt, a Baptist missionary couple, a knife grinder, the driver of the six-o'clock bus from Mobile (perhaps the same who unwittingly ended the life of Miss Bobbit), and a young couple who chatted with them one day and took the only snapshot they ever had taken. Buddy decides it is because his friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these acquaintances seem their truest friends. Besides, the thank-you notes make them fee l''connected to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.''

Mailing the cakes takes the last of their money, and they return home to celebrate by drinking up the last two inches of whiskey in Mr. Jones's bottle-After a while they begin singing two songs at once and dancing, she with "the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress: Show me the way to go home, she sings, her tennis shoes squeaking on the floor."

Suddenly two relatives enter, very angry. They tell Buddy's friend she "must be a loony" to give whiskey to a child of seven, and exhort her to ''kneel, pray, beg the Lord! '' She runs to her room and cries into her pillow because she is ''old and funny," but Buddy insists that she is fun—"More fun than anybody."

The next day they go to the woods for a Christmas tree. Decorations, made from colored paper and Hershey-bar tin foil, are attached to the tree with safety pins. The two friends make gifts for the family, then separate to prepare each other's. Unable to buy the bicycle and the chocolate-covered cherries which each knows to be the other's true heart's desire, they make each other kites, as they did last year and the year before.

On Christmas morning they are awake long before dawn and rouse the rest of the family by dropping a kettle and tap-dancing in the hall. The others finally appear, "looking as though they'd like to kill us both," and after breakfast the presents are opened. Except for the kite, Buddy is disappointed. "Who wouldn't be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater and a year's subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.''

This hostility toward those outside the magic circle is another reminder of the social alienation of Capote's dream world. Always inclined toward this kind of exclusiveness, he has tried to counteract it in various ways, especially in the non-fiction novel. Here, at a distance of over twenty years, he allows it free rein.

Buddy and his friend spend Christmas day not with their relatives but out in the fields flying their kites. She, growing meditative, tells Buddy she has always believed that the Lord's coming would be "like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don't know it's getting dark. And it's been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling." Now, however, she decides that probably the Lord shows himself even in this world: "'That things as they are'—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—'just what they've always been, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes'." This dreamer, because she is a Bible-reading Christian, thinks not of children on their birthdays but of a more conventional heaven. In this Christmas meditation she almost succeeds in grasping it immediately, transcending death.

And here Capote, through memory, comes closer to sharing it than anywhere else in his fiction. Buddy's own particular dream of starring in the movies links him to Miss Bobbit and Appleseed, reminding us that they and he and his elderly friend are all essentially the same dreamer.

Death intrudes, however: Buddy is sent to military school and moves to a new home. "But it doesn't count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.'' For several years she writes, but gradually she begins to confuse him with the Buddy who died in the 188O's. One November morning she cannot rouse herself to welcome fruitcake weather.

And when that happens, I know it A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

The part of himself that Capote identifies with his childhood friend did not escape him at her death. Or, if something was cut away, it has continued to pulse like a severed arm. Repeatedly he has felt a need to project the emotional pattern of this early friendship into other relationships, in most respects very unlike that first one, and to build stones around them. ''A Christmas Memory'' is in a sense continued in The Grass Harp, which was published five years earlier. There the boy is about ten years older, and it is the death of his friend, there named Dolly Talbo, and his own entry into the adult world that bring the story to a close. Breakfast at Tiffany's picks up his career in New York a few years later and presents, in Holly Golightly, another version of his childhood friend. In ''Among the Paths to Eden,'' Capote's last short story to date, he portrays another of her counterparts.

Source: William L Nance, in The Worlds of Truman Capote, Stein and Day, 1970, pp. 78-83.

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Critical Overview