In the preface to the last collection of his work published in his lifetime, the 1980 volume Music for Chameleons, Capote discussed in detail his views about the ordeal of writing as a creative activity and his own lifetime commitment to that pursuit. Writing was an occupation with a great risk to it: One had to take chances or fail. Indeed, Capote compared writing to professional pool playing and to a professional card dealer’s abilities. He also explained that he began writing as a child of eight and was, by his view, an accomplished writer at seventeen. Thus, when Other Voices, Other Rooms appeared in 1948, he viewed it as the end result of fourteen years of writing experience.
The substance of writing—and its accompanying pain of creation—Capote explained with a phrase he borrowed from Henry James; it was the “madness of art.” All imaginative writing was, he explained, the artist employing his creative powers of observation, of description, of telling detail; it was that act that led Capote in his later writing to see the possibilities of journalism (which is factual, detailed observation of truth) as an art form that could be as powerful as fictional writing. So it was that he shifted from fiction to nonfiction in mid-career with works such as The Muses Are Heard and his most famous work, In Cold Blood.
For Capote, the writer is, by nature, an outsider, the observer seeing and hearing that which is about him but comprehending the witnessed events with an artistic sensitivity unknown to others. The outsider’s perspective is—simply because it is detached from the observed society—more comprehensive. As he was an artist “outside,” it was natural that Capote’s works often dealt with the conflict between vulnerable persons similarly outside their more conventional environment. This theme can be seen in a number of his works, such as Other Voices, Other Rooms, and even in the real-life killer of his masterwork, In Cold Blood. Often this theme is played out in his work through a confrontation of an unconventional outsider with the conforming, ordered world.
In Other Voices, Other Rooms, Cousin Randolph, the homosexual older relative, states the outsider’s lament as he attempts to explain the search for love to the youthful Joel, explaining that all men are isolated from one another, that everyone, in the end, is alone:Any love is natural and beautiful that lies within a person’s nature; only hypocrites would hold a man responsible for what he loves, emotional illiterates and those of righteous envy, who, in their agitated concern, mistake so frequently the arrow pointing to heaven for the one that leads to hell.
A similar idea occurs in The Grass Harp when Judge Cool, having joined a rebellious group hiding in a tree house, speaks of those who are pagans or spirits and defines them as accepters of life, because they are those who grant life’s differences.
Some of the more flamboyant examples of the free, nonconforming spirit are seen in Capote’s female characters, specifically Idabel, the tomboy twin of Other Voices, Other Rooms, who outwrestles young Joel in one scene and whose lack of femininity is an obvious counterpoint to Joel’s boyhood homosexual longings. Another such unconventional personality is Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, who has run away from her background of poverty and also from a childhood marriage to seek glamor and to indulge her New York encounters with a series of wealthy men. Holly’s defiance of convention is as meaningful as Joel’s and Idabel’s or, for that matter, the runaways in The Grass...
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Harp, whose tree house retreat is Capote’s symbol for all places of security for those who may be yearning for a place for their differences, their individual spirits, their ideal fantasies to be at home.
Capote frequently said in interviews that he saw in the real-life killers—particularly Perry Smith—of In Cold Blood the man he might have become had his own life taken a different turn. His realization was that the killers were the evil side of the same yearning for love, acceptance, even artistic achievement (especially with Smith) that he had known. That desire is seen in a key scene in Miami after the murders, as Perry realizes that all his hopes and ambitions are a dead end:Anyway, he couldn’t see that he had “a lot to live for.” Hot islands and buried gold, diving deep in fire-blue seas toward sunken treasure—such dreams were gone. Gone, too, was “Perry O’Parsons,” the name invented for the singing sensation of stage and screen that he’d half-seriously hoped some day to be.
In Capote’s musical, House of Flowers, one of the characters sings a song of yearning for escape from the everyday titled “I Never Has Seen Snow,” and snow is a recurring image in many Capote works for the elusive dreams of life. One of the young boyfriends of the Clutter girl recalls becoming lost in a snowstorm in In Cold Blood. The cook, Missouri, hopes to run away north to see snow in Other Voices, Other Rooms. Judge Cool’s distant wife had died in the snows of Switzerland in The Grass Harp. Ultimately, in a world that fails to understand or make room for the sensitive, artistic spirits, the “different,” Capote returns frequently to the idea, stated by Judge Cool, that whatever passions compose them, private worlds are good—that is, unless turned to evil ends by the greater uncomprehending world.
Other Voices, Other Rooms
First published: 1948
Type of work: Novel
A young boy, seeking his lost father, moves into a strange household in Mississippi where he encounters bizarre relatives while trying to find love.
Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote’s first published long work, is a moody and atmospheric tale characterized both by its strange setting—a decaying mansion in rural Mississippi—and by the host of peculiar characters it presents to the reader.
The book details the encounters of thirteen-year-old Joel Knox Sansom, who travels to an old mansion, Skully’s Landing, where he hopes to meet his long-lost father, Edward Sansom. In its emphasis on romantic and ghostly settings and its use of strange, eccentric characters, Other Voices, Other Rooms is typical of what has been termed the southern gothic school of fiction, a style of fiction marked by its use of the grotesque both in locale and in characterization.
This category can be seen in the works of other southern-born fiction writers such as William Faulkner (his short story “A Rose for Emily” and his 1931 novel Sanctuary both offer elements of southern gothic), Tennessee Williams (his 1958 play Suddenly Last Summer deals with incest, homosexuality, insanity, lobotomy, and cannibalism), Carson McCullers (her 1941 novel Reflections in a Golden Eye and her story “Ballad of the Sad Café” both have grotesque situations and characters), and Flannery O’Connor (her 1952 novel Wise Blood deals with religious obsession and madness). In Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote uses this sense of the strange and the mysterious to convey the loneliness, isolation, and naïveté of Joel.
When Joel arrives at Skully’s Landing, he meets a variety of unusual characters: an ancient black man, Jesus Fever; Jesus Fever’s granddaughter, a twenty-one-year-old cook named Missouri (nicknamed “Zoo”); Joel’s father, the bedridden invalid Edward Sansom (who communicates with the rest of the household by rolling red tennis balls down the stairs); his father’s new wife, Miss Amy; and a much-talked-about cousin, Randolph. En route to the Landing, Joel also has met two young girls, the twins Florabel Thompkins and her tomboy twin sister, Idabel. (Many interpreters of Capote’s work see Idabel as Capote’s fictional version of his own childhood friend, Harper Lee.)
While the main plot of the book appears to be dealing with Joel’s attempt to find and, later, to talk with his father, Capote really is presenting the plight of Joel as a lonely, sensitive youth who is, in fact, trying to come to terms with his own identity in an environment where he has no moorings. In one key scene, he tries to pray; he finds it almost impossible to ask God for someone to love him, yet that is really what the boy is seeking.
It is the search for love that defines the lives of many of the characters in Other Voices, Other Rooms: Cousin Randolph, Joel’s homosexual older relative, still laments the loss of his great love, a boxer named Pepe Alvarez, and Miss Amy has married Joel’s father—even though the man is an invalid—to have someone to care for and love. These aspirations to love are reflected in the desperation of other characters: At a carnival, Joel is pursued by the midget woman, Miss Wisteria, who, throughout her tragic life, has never found anyone her own size to love.
Similarly, the cook, Zoo, has suffered from her first experience with love; at age fourteen, she had married a man named Keg Brown who tried to kill her. Zoo seeks a place of beauty and purity, which, in her fantasy, she believes she will find in the North, where she hopes to go to see snow for the first time.
At the end of the novel, Joel, after recuperating from a severe illness during which he was cared for by Cousin Randolph, makes a decision about his life. He realizes that Randolph is, in many ways, a child like himself who has simply sought love in his life. Joel decides that he must abandon his childhood and accept his own sexual nature; at the end of the novel, the mature Joel ascends from the haunted garden at Skully’s Landing to Randolph’s room to embrace Randolph, leaving behind both his youth and his own sexual longing.
The Grass Harp
First published: 1951
Type of work: Novella
In a rigid, small-town, southern setting, an odd assortment of local people attempt to assert control over their lives by their defiance of convention.
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 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.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
First published: 1958
Type of work: Novella
A romantic, nonconformist runaway seeks glamour, self-identity, and freedom in Manhattan during World War II.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a first-person narrative with a young male writer as its single point of view. The narrator relates what he observes of the life and experiences of Holly Golightly, a young Texas woman who has come to New York in the early 1940’s seeking new life, excitement, and glamour, which she feels is in keeping with her freewheeling, sometimes irresponsible, approach to life.
Like Other Voices, Other Rooms, which preceded it, Breakfast at Tiffany’s presents a free-spirited person trying to escape from the tawdry aspects of a past life by finding a lifestyle more compatible with her dreams and fantasies. Capote’s story of Holly develops as a remembrance triggered in the writer-narrator’s memory by an encounter with a Lexington Avenue bar proprietor, Bell, who had known Holly as a frequent and colorful patron of his bar. Bell reports to the narrator that Holly in 1956 may have been seen in East Anglia, in Africa, where a Japanese photographer (who also had known Holly in New York) has encountered a wooden replica of Holly’s face in a remote native village. The writer then recalls his first encounter with Holly when he had rented an apartment in the same building as she (and the photographer) during the early years of World War II.
The writer (whom Holly calls “Fred,” after her brother, who is in the military service) grows more familiar with the irrepressible Holly after their first meeting. He finds that she views life essentially as a continuing party; some noisy parties occur in Holly’s apartment. Holly first met the writer as she slid into his apartment from the fire escape one evening. He soon learns that Holly plays host to a wide assortment of mostly male friends, ranging from soldiers to Hollywood agents to an occasional gangster. Holly also is a regular visitor to Sing Sing Prison, where she is a paid messenger for a gangster named Sally Tomato. Holly is a vivacious blond who speaks in a kind of butchered French-English, which is her attempt at city sophistication.
Holly fascinates everyone who meets her: the young writer, her former agent, the bar owner, a rich playboy named Rusty Trawler, and a handsome Brazilian, Jose Ybarra-Jaegar, whom she hopes to marry. Holly is, in effect, a kind of free-spirited earth goddess, the kind of myth men tend to worship, a myth suggested by the wooden carving in the story’s opening. The freedom to love as one desires is one of Holly’s obsessions. She tells the narrator that she believes people should be allowed to marry as they like, either male or female. In another conversation, she expresses her open-minded attitude toward lesbians and even considers taking in a lesbian roommate. She further reveals that she is attracted to older men (such as Wendell Willkie) but that she could as easily be interested in, ideally, Greta Garbo.
The novella is a slowly unfolding character study of Holly through a series of episodic events: her parties; her free lifestyle; her taking in a model, Mag Wildwood, as a roommate; the visit of her older Texas husband, Doe; her aspirations to marry the rich Brazilian Ybarra-Jaegar; and her arrest and scandal because of her associations with Sally Tomato. Most important of all these casually related events is the sudden death of Holly’s brother, Fred, killed in overseas combat. Faced with scandal and the end of her planned marriage, Holly, at the end of the story, leaves New York, abandoning her only commitment—the pet cat with no name—and heads to South America to seek further that glamorous place of safety for which she yearns.
The book’s title is a symbol of that search; Holly likes the environment of Tiffany’s jewelry store in New York, because nothing bad (she thinks) could happen to anyone there. A quiet, assured place of the security, wealth, and glamour—a place of calm belonging—that Holly so desperately seeks, she sees it as an alternative to the despair that grips her, the depression she calls the “mean reds.” Although frivolous and exasperating to those who know her, Holly Golightly (her name obviously suggests her attitude toward life) captivates all who meet her so that, in their minds, she takes on the substance of an elusive mythic dream, her appeal carved in their memories just as it was in the African wooden figure.
In Cold Blood
First published: 1966
Type of work: Nonfiction novel
A Kansas farm family is mysteriously murdered by two ex-convicts who flee the scene but are eventually captured, tried, and executed.
In Cold Blood was created as a work of deliberate literary experiment. Having written extensive journalistic coverage in his account of an opera company’s tour of the Soviet Union (The Muses Are Heard) and in various travel writing, Capote desired to combine the reportorial techniques of journalism—the gathering of detailed factual material by observation and interviewing—with the narrative and dramatic scene devices of fiction. The grisly, senseless murders of a Kansas farm family (Herbert W. Clutter, his wife, and two children) on November 15, 1959, in Holcomb, Kansas, provided the opportunity for the writer to try his experiment.
In Cold Blood is a documented record of those murders, but it is also a documentation of the backgrounds, motives, attitudes, and perspectives of hundreds of local townspeople as well as those of the two killers, ex-convicts Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Smith, who are arrested eventually for the crime, tried, and executed. Shortly after the crime was committed, Capote went to Kansas to begin the massive accumulation of material that forms the substance of the book. At the outset, the murders were baffling because of the lack of any apparent motive for the slayings. There also were few clues.
Initially Capote envisioned his work as a short one in which he would explore the background of the murders and the reaction of the town to them. With the discovery, capture, and confession of the two killers, however, Capote’s concept changed focus and became not only a study of the crime and its impact on the local community but also an investigation into the lives and motives of the two killers. While describing present action—the arrest, incarceration, trial, and conviction, then the appeals process. and finally the execution by hanging in Lansing, Kansas, in 1965—Capote also delves back into the murderers’ past—their families, aspirations, and personal defeats. Writing the book took more than six years.
The organization of the material was ingeniously handled. Capote once said he had taken more than six thousand pages of notes. The book has four sections, all of which offer the reader shifts in time and place, rather like the cinematic technique of parallel editing, thus allowing the reader to experience simultaneous events with different persons in different locales. The four sections are titled “The Last to See Them Alive,” “Persons Unknown,” “Answer,” and “The Corner.” In the first section, Capote traces the members of the Clutter family through their activities on the last day of their lives, going through their routine in remarkable detail (even clothing is noted, as is music heard on the radio.)
While following the family, Capote also allows the readers to follow the ongoing progress of the two killers, Dick and Perry, as they move inexorably toward their victims in Kansas. The shifts between the killers’ activities and those of their intended victims come to seem as fatalistic as Greek tragedy, and they add to the sense of tension and suspense (even though the reader is aware of the outcome of the impending meeting). Capote further heightens the reader’s sense of dramatic anticipation by having section 1 end with the discovery of the bodies by local people. He carefully withholds the actual murder scenes until much later in the work; once the killers have been captured, the murder scenes are revealed in their confessions.
Part 2 catalogs the investigation of the crimes and the town’s reaction to them. Against the ongoing investigation, the reader also follows the travels of Dick and Perry as they flee from Kansas—first to Mexico, later to Florida, and eventually back to Texas. As the authorities try to find leads to what seems a motiveless act, the reader sees the murderers as they fish, drink, and go to beaches. Capote also begins to introduce background information about the killers. A letter by Perry’s father is included, as are a letter from Perry’s sister written to him in prison and another convict’s lengthy commentary on her letter. These revelations are juxtaposed against the frustration of investigator Alvin Dewey as he tries to find leads in the case.
Part 3, “Answer,” brings the break in the case: A convict in prison reveals that Dick Hickock once told him of a plan to rob the Clutter household and leave no witnesses. As the net draws slowly about the killers after that revelation, the reader is given a sadly humorous episode in which a young boy and his ailing grandfather are given a ride by the murderers. The meeting of the open, honest, good-natured child with the killers is an example of how Capote has skillfully manipulated his material for maximum ironic effect. The killers join with the boy in a game to find empty soft-drink bottles in the barren Texas countryside.
Part 4 deals with events after Dick and Perry’s arrest: their trial and conviction, the innumerable appeals in the courts as they seek to avoid execution, and, finally, their deaths by hanging in the Kansas State Penitentiary. Of particular interest in this section of the book is Capote’s study of Dick and Perry’s time on death row and his look at the lives of others who were death-row prisoners at the same time.
Capote’s book does not end with the hanging of Dick and Perry; instead, there is a tranquil scene back in Holcomb, at the cemetery where the Clutter family is buried. Detective Alvin Dewey visits the graves and, while there, meets a young girlfriend of the Clutter girl. Their talk is routine—about school, college plans, marriages, hopes, aspirations, ambitions, the stuff of everyday life. These are exactly the details of routine life that have been denied the Clutter family and, indeed, their killers, by the tragic turns that fate works in people’s lives. With the contrast between retribution and innocent hope, the book’s final irony is eloquently achieved.