Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 916
The Grass Harp, Capote’s sadly humorous tale about a curious collection of small-town southern eccentrics, continued the romantic and occasionally bizarre mood of his earlier Other Voices, Other Rooms, but his emphasis in this work more often is on the possibilities for humor in such strange behavior rather than on shock value. Capote captured the same tone of southern small-town hilarity that one also finds in many of the short stories of Eudora Welty.
Eleven-year-old Collin Fenwick, from whose point of view the work is told, is sent as a young boy by his grieving father to live with two unmarried cousins, Verena and Dolly Talbo. The father was distraught over the death of Collin’s mother, so much so that he took off his clothes and ran naked into the yard the day of her death.
Collin is similar to Joel Knox Sansom of Other Voices, Other Rooms (and to the real-life youthful Capote) in that he is a lonely boy being raised by odd relatives. The Talbo household consists of Verena, the domineering force, who also has a head for business activities in the town; Dolly, the somewhat addled but good-hearted sister; a black woman, Catherine Creek, a companion to Dolly, who insists that she really is an Indian; and Collin, the boy who frequently spies on the household residents in different rooms through peepholes in the attic floor.
As a study of human loneliness, The Grass Harp echoes the themes of Other Voices, Other Rooms: the isolated, unloved, and unwanted child as well as the quiet desperation of many adults in small communities who suffer their own private terrors and despair. Dolly, Catherine, and Collin spend time regularly on picnics held in the hidden tree house of two lofty China trees outside the town. The tree house becomes a vehicle for their transport away from their real lives in the constricting town and into worlds of their imaginings. Verena, too—though not in their group—has suffered rejection; her intense friendship with another woman, Maudie Laurie Murphy, was lost when Maudie married a liquor salesman from St. Louis, left on a wedding trip (paid for by Verena), and never returned.
While The Grass Harp covers Collin’s life from age eleven to age sixteen, the primary conflict of the work develops when sisters Dolly and Verena quarrel over a dropsy medicine formula known only by Dolly but which Verena hopes to develop commercially with a new man friend, Dr. Morris Ritz, a confidence man she met in Chicago. Dolly, viewing her formula as her own, decides to leave the house, taking both Collin and Catherine Creek with her. With no real destination or other home, the group moves into the tree shelter, while Verena arouses the town in a search for the runaways.
There are several comical encounters as a posse, including the local sheriff and a stuffy minister, attempts to get the group out of the tree. The group’s rebellious independence is attractive to others, however, including a teenage loner, Riley Henderson, and the elderly Judge Charlie Cool, and both soon join the tree-dwellers in their defiance of the town’s authority figures. At one point, the Judge summarizes the shared plight of the tree’s inhabitants, telling them that there may not be a place in society for characters such as they are; he thinks there may be a place for them somewhere, however, and that the tree just might be the spot.
The search for that true, spiritual, home—for a place of real belonging—haunts each of the sympathetic characters in The Grass Harp . The Judge further defines...
(This entire section contains 916 words.)
for the group their role in life, as “spirits,” or persons willing to grant differences in human behavior. He recalls, too, how he once almost had to imprison a man because that man defied custom and wanted to marry a black woman he loved. He reveals that his family views him as scandalous because he once maintained a long, friendly correspondence with a lonely thirteen-year-old girl in Alaska.
Capote sketches a variety of townspeople—some curious types, others mean and petty. There are the owners of the Katydid Bakery, Mr. and Mrs. C. C. County, and there is the traveling evangelist Sister Ida, the mother of fifteen children, one of whom is a star in her religious show and regularly lassoes souls for Christ. Ultimately, Sister Ida’s troupe joins forces with the tree-house group in a battle with the town’s conformist faction. A reconciliation becomes possible when Dolly realizes that she truly is needed by her sister, Verena. Verena, by this time, has been robbed of her cash and bonds by the smooth-talking Dr. Ritz, whom she had hoped to marry.
The last sections of the work deal with the maturing of Riley Henderson, his falling in love, and his eventual marriage to Maude Riordan. As Collin also matures, he plans to go away to law school and thus leave the town. Dolly, Verena, and Catherine Creek live together until a stroke kills Dolly, after which Catherine retires to live in seclusion in her own cabin. As Collin prepares to leave the town, he notes that the town remains—like the stories of the people in it—in memory. The Grass Harp reverberates with themes of alienation, loneliness, and the search for a secure and meaningful place in life, ideas Capote used in Other Voices, Other Rooms and was later to employ in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.