Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3570
The pattern of Truman Capote’s career suggests a divided allegiance to two different, even opposing literary forms—objective realism and romance. Capote’s earliest fiction belongs primarily to the imagination of romance. It is intense, wondrously evocative, subjective; in place of a closely detailed outlining of a real social world, it concentrates...
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- Critical Essays
The pattern of Truman Capote’s career suggests a divided allegiance to two different, even opposing literary forms—objective realism and romance. Capote’s earliest fiction belongs primarily to the imagination of romance. It is intense, wondrously evocative, subjective; in place of a closely detailed outlining of a real social world, it concentrates on the inner states of its characters, usually with the full resources of romance, including archetypal journeys or a descent into the subconscious. His characters’ inner life is fixed through the use of telling imagery and controlling symbols. In “The Headless Hawk,” for example, the real world exists hardly at all; what little there is of it seems subaqueous, has the liquid flow of things seen underwater. In “A Tree of Night,” the heroine is subjected to real terror, complete with gothic phantoms in the form of two strangers on a train. The journey of the train itself is complementary to Kay’s journey into the dark places of her soul, where the “wizard man” and irrational fear prevail. In “Miriam,” an elderly woman’s sense of reality and personal identity give way before the presence of an implike child.
It is not surprising that these early stories have been compared to those of Edgar Allan Poe, for, like Poe, Capote was fascinated by the psyche at the point of disintegration. Similarly, in Other Voices, Other Rooms, the boy Joel Knox inhabits a vaguely outlined social world; what is ultimately most real is the terror that surrounds and threatens him. The scenes that pinpoint his experience are all charged with moral, symbolic implication; rather than unfolding through a study of social relationships, the narrative moves episodically through assaults on Joel’s mind, imagistic storm points keeping him in agitation and crisis; the identities of the characters surrounding Joel are fixed from the beginning and have only to be revealed through psychic drama. The shape of the work is, finally, that of a romantic moral parable.
How strange it is, then, that as Capote’s career progressed he revealed a pronounced interest in the literature of realism, even a kind of superrealism, implied by “nonfiction fiction.” He began working in this genre with Local Color, a poetic literature of pure “surface.” The texture of surface is the real subject of The Muses Are Heard. With a sleepless vigilance, Capote observes his fellow travelers and in the finest, most precise detail captures their idiosyncrasies, the gestures and unguarded remarks that reveal them, as it were, to the quick. Tart, witty, detached, The Muses Are Heard assumes no depths of meaning in the Cold War world it portrays; eye, ear, and social intelligence are what are important. Capote’s career also shows a desire to bring together the opposing parts of his nature and his equipment as a writer, however, and in In Cold Blood he actually achieved such a fusion. Capote himself never intrudes on the narration, makes no commentary, stands back reporting “impartially” on what occurs. This effacement of self is so complete that readers believe they are witnessing the events as they occur. Yet at the same time the work contains many, not always obvious, romantic urgings, forcing readers to put themselves in the place of Perry Smith on death row. Strict categories of good and evil break down before the sense of the inextricable mixture of both in life, and the helplessness of man before an obscure and ominously felt cosmic drama. The lyric note of baffled yearning at the end is romantic, in spite of the work’s judicious, almost judicial, realism.
Other Voices, Other Rooms
The plot of Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote’s first novel, is not extremely complicated. Joel Knox, a thirteen-year-old, motherless boy, is sent from the home of his Aunt Ellen in New Orleans to Skully’s Landing to be united with his father, Mr. Edward Sansom. Arriving eventually at the Landing, a plantation house partly in ruins, Joel is cared for by a woman named Amy, her languid, artistic cousin Randolph, and two family retainers, Jesus Fever, an ancient black man, and his granddaughter Missouri Fever, known as Zoo. The boy’s inquiries about his father are mysteriously unanswered by the adults, and it is only later in the novel that the boy confronts his father—a paralytic invalid who neither speaks nor understands, his eyes fixed in a wide, crazed stare. The crisis experienced by the boy in the decaying house is largely inward; he attempts to free himself of his situation, but in a series of strange episodes his failure to do so becomes evident, and at the end he embraces his fate, which is complementary to that of Randolph, the dream-bound gay man. He accepts whatever love and solace Randolph (evoked as mother-father, male-female, and “ideal lover” in one) can give him.
In its atmosphere of sinister enchantment, of the bizarre and weird, Other Voices, Other Rooms exploits many of the resources of the gothic mode. William Faulkner stands distantly in the background; Carson McCullers is more immediately evident. Capote’s theme of a quest for love and understanding in a world apparently incapable of providing either, and his use of freakish characters, suggest the generic influence of McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). Even the “normal” world of Noon City is filled with oddity—a one-armed barber, a female restaurant proprietor who has an apelike appearance. Such oddity is minor, however, compared to the characters who inhabit the Landing—Jesus Fever, a brokeback dwarf; Zoo, whose long, giraffelike neck reveals the scars from Keg Brown’s razor assault on her; Randolph, who, in an upper-floor room, dressed in a gown and wig, becomes a “beautiful lady.” At the same time, and often with the most powerful effect, the novel draws on the imagery of surrealism. The late scene at the carnival, for example, is spectacular in its evocation of an irrational world struck by lightning, a sequence followed by the nocturnal pursuit of Joel through an abandoned house by the midget Miss Wisteria, and the coma Joel experiences in which his life is relived while a pianola composes its own jazz and the plantation lurches into the earth.
Essentially, Other Voices, Other Rooms is a romance. It has been compared with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1831 story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” which also deals with a youth who, in a dark and dreamlike world, searches for his identity and is initiated into life. Joel’s journey, in its various stages, has a symbolic shading. At the opening, he leaves the morning world of Paradise to travel to Noon City, where he continues his journey through the backcountry in a mule-drawn wagon, with Jesus Fever asleep at the reins; arriving at the Landing in darkness, Joel is himself asleep, and cannot remember entering the house when he awakens the next morning in an upstairs bedroom. With the effect of a wizard’s spell, the house comes to claim him. Complicated patterns of imagery—of fire and fever, knifing and mutilation, death and drowning—evoke the extremity of the boy’s fear and loneliness as avenues of escape from the Landing are closed to him, one by one. Mythic patterns also emerge—the search for the “father,” the Grail quest, Christian crucifixion, Jungian descent into the unconscious—to reinforce the romantic contour of his experience. Although in some ways Joel’s guide (“I daresay I know some things I daresay you don’t”), Randolph is himself held under an enchantment, dating back to the inception of his life as a gay man. At the end, Joel and Randolph become one. As the ancient “slave bell” in the ruined garden seems to ring in Joel’s head, he goes forward to join Randolph, leaving his childhood behind him.
Other Voices, Other Rooms is less perfectly achieved than The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Randolph, for example, a major character, is more a pastiche of English decadence than a real person. Moreover, the ending becomes snarled in obscurity. In accepting Randolph, Joel accepts his own nature, an act that brings liberation and even some limited hope of love. Yet Randolph is so sterile, so negative, and so enclosed within his own narcissism that the reader cannot share the upsurge of joy that Joel is supposed to feel. Capote’s strength in the novel lies elsewhere—in his ability to create a sustained poetry of mood, to capture psychic states of rare intensity and beauty. His experimentalism in this respect is far more adventurous than that of McCullers. The image-making power of Capote’s language is so impressive in this precocious novel as to leave one fearful that he may have exhausted the resources of the southern gothic mode in a single flight.
The Grass Harp
Capote’s next novel, The Grass Harp, derives from the rural southern fable of “Children on Their Birthdays.” Like that tale, The Grass Harp has a narrative frame that begins and ends in the present, with the story placed in between. Collin Fenwick looks back on his rearing as an orphan in the home of two maiden women, Dolly Talbo, a gentle, childlike woman, and her sister Verena, who has property and investments in town. He is spared the intense ordeal of Joel Knox but is like him in his sense of personal isolation and in his search for love and identity. When Verena takes it upon herself to exploit a home remedy that Dolly makes from herbs (her little scrap of identity), Dolly rebels, and with Collin and Catherine Creek, an eccentric half-breed factotum, she withdraws to a tree house set amid a field of tall Indian grass. Eventually, they are joined by Riley Henderson, a rebellious youth, and Charlie Cool, a retired circuit court judge whose refinement makes him an anachronism to his married sons, at whose houses he stays in rotation. The adventure in the tree house does not have a long duration, but by the time it is over the characters all come to have an enlarged sense of who they are.
The narrative is flawed in various respects. It involves a number of plot contrivances (Morris Ritz’s absconding with the money in Verena’s safe); the “battle” scenes between the tree house occupants and the law-and-order characters from town rely too much on slapstick; and Riley Henderson’s reformation and marriage to Maude Riordan is a trite conception. Yet there are many fine touches in this fragile, not wholly successful tale—the portrait of Judge Cool and his late-in-life courtship of Dolly; Verena’s recognition that it is she who is more alone than Dolly, whose “heart” has been the pillar of the house; the controlling symbols of freedom and imagination versus rigidity and dry rationality (the Indian grass “harp” and the cemetery) that enclose the work and give it life beyond its conclusion. A meditation on freedom and restriction, The Grass Harp reveals Capote moving away from his earlier studies in isolation toward a concern with a discovery of identity through relation to others.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Breakfast at Tiffany’s marks a new stage of Capote’s career, since it brings him fully into the world outside his native South. In this short novel, Capote captures New York and its denizens—Joe Bell, the sentimental bartender with a sour stomach; Madame Sapphia Spanella, a husky coloratura who rollerskates in Central Park; O. J. Berman, the Hollywood agent; and Sally Tomato, the surprisingly unsinister mobster with a Sing Sing address. José Ybarra-Jaegar, the Argentine diplomat, is perceived acutely and never more so than when he writes a mendacious letter to the novel’sprotagonist, Holly Golightly, breaking off a relationship with her when her dream life becomes “unsafe.”
The novel employs a retrospective narrative frame like the one in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby(1925), in which the pale, conventional Nick Carraway observes the strange career of his larger-than-life neighbor. In both cases, the narration is dominated by nostalgia and the sense of loss, accentuated by the use of a reiterated autumnal motif. Holly’s origins go far back in Capote’s writing. In Other Voices, Other Rooms, Randolph’s dream initiator Dolores dries her washed hair in the sun and strums a guitar, as does Holly. Miss Bobbit models her too, her “precious papa” having told her to “live in the sky.” Holly is a Miss Bobbit in her late teens, a child-adult whose ideal of happiness lies “beyond.” An “innocent” immoralist, Holly is, however, a somewhat sentimental conception (a “good” sensitive character misprized by a nasty and unfeeling world), and a rather underdeveloped character. As Alfred Kazin has observed, she is partly New York chic and partly Tulip, Texas, naïve, but in neither case does she become a real person. The fusion of realism and romantic fable attempted in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not achieved fully until Capote’s next work, In Cold Blood.
In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood, which remained on the best-seller lists for more than one year and has since been translated into twenty-five languages, is Capote’s most popular and widely read book. It is also one of his most notable works artistically. F. W. Dupee called it “the best documentary account of an American crime ever written,” and Capote himself claimed that it created a new literary genre, the “nonfiction novel.” Although nothing exactly like In Cold Blood had appeared previously, there are clearly precedents for it—Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), for example, a documentary novel of crime and punishment, and Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa (1935), as well as the reportage of Rebecca West and Lillian Ross. Moreover, In Cold Blood’s objectivity is more apparent than real, since the material Capote draws from has been heightened, muted, and selected in many ways, subjected to his aesthetic intelligence. The New Yorker style of objective reportage clearly was an influence on the book; another may have been Capote’s experience as a scenarist. His use of “intense close-ups, flashbacks, traveling shots, [and] background detail,” as Stanley Kauffmann has observed, all belong to the “structural” method of the cinema.
A cinematic method is particularly noticeable in the earlier part of the work, where Capote cuts back and forth between the murderers and the victims as the knot tightens and their paths converge. It is the convergence of a mythic as well as a literal kind of two Americas—one firmly placed in the wheat belt of the Midwest, decent in its habits, secure in its bounty, if a little stiff in its consciousness of being near to God; the other aimless and adrift, powered by garish and fantastic dreams, dangerous in its potential for violence. The horrible irony of Capote’s description of “Bonnie” Clutter suggests the ominousness of this section. “Trust in God sustained her,” he writes, “and from time to time secular sources supplemented her faith in His forthcoming mercy.” The account of the actual murders, suspensefully postponed until later in the work, is chilling in its gratuitous nature while at the same time, through a steady building of telling details, it has the force of a vast inevitability.
The slaughter of the Clutters is “gratuitous” insofar as it might well not have occurred, has nothing to do with them personally, and gains for the young men responsible nothing except a few dollars, a fugitive life, arrest, and execution. As “haves” and “have-nots” come together, as Smith’s long pent-up rage against his father becomes projected onto Mr. Clutter, a lighted match explodes a powder keg. Contributing to this act of unreason is the standoff between Hickock and Smith, each having told lies about himself to the other; rather than surrender this “fiction” of himself, which would involve confronting the truth of his maimed and powerless life, Smith is driven to a senseless murder. The irrationality of the crime is complemented later by the irrationality implicit in the trial and execution, so that ultimately In Cold Blood deals with the pervasive power of irrationality.
The psychological interest of the book is heightened by Capote’s drifting narrative and use of multiple “perceptors”—the Clutters themselves, Alvin Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent, and many of Holcomb’s townspeople. Of overshadowing interest, however, is Perry Smith, who could, as Capote said, “step right out of one of my stories.” A young dreamer and “incessant conceiver of voyages,” he is at the same time a dwarfish child-man with short, crippled legs. A series of Capote’s earlier characters stand behind him. Holly Golightly, dreamer-misfit and child-woman, is a not-so-distant cousin. Yet in this work, Capote’s sentimental temptation has been chastened by a rigorous actuality, and what results is an extraordinary portrait. Sensitive and sympathetic, Smith is yet guilty of heinous murders. His romantic escapism (he dreams of diving for treasure but cannot swim, imagines himself a famous tap dancer but has hopelessly maimed legs) becomes comprehensible in the light of his homeless, brutalized background, more bizarre than any fiction; his undoing is elaborately plausible.
In the book’s final scene, reminiscent of the ending of The Grass Harp, Capote brings the memory of Nancy Clutter together with the memory of Smith—entangled in an innocence blighted by life; in this way, In Cold Blood becomes a somber meditation on the mysterious nature of the world and the ways of Providence. This questioning quality and lyric resonance were undoubtedly what Rebecca West had in mind in referring to In Cold Blood as “a grave and reverend book.” It is a work in which realism and romance become one.
After the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote produced no new major work. During this period, which included bouts of suicidal depression as well as serious physical illnesses, he continued to write for films and to write shorter pieces, while also supposedly at work on Answered Prayers. Of the four chapters originally published, Capote later decided that “Mojave” did not belong in the novel, being a self-contained short story written by the character P. B. Jones. With its drifting narrative, including flashbacks and a story within the story, it is extremely suggestive. Its theme is never directly stated, but its cumulative effect makes it clear that its concern is with illusion, particularly of those who love others and find their love betrayed. “La Côte Basque: 1965” is set at a fashionable restaurant on New York’s East Side, where all the diners indulge in or are the subject of gossip. P. B. Jones lunches with Lady Ina Coolbirth, who, herself on the eve of divorce, tells stories of broken marriages, while at the next table Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper and Mrs. Walter Matthau tell similar tales. This mood piece closes at the end of the afternoon in an ”atmosphere of luxurious exhaustion."
Jones himself is the focal figure in “Unspoiled Monsters,” which details his career as an opportunistic writer and exploiter of others, exploitation and disillusion being the observed norm among the members of the international set. Unfortunately, even these few chapters reveal the depth to which Capote’s writing had sunk. His “gossip column” approach simply reveals that Capote had lost the capability of producing anything original—he was merely telling thinly disguised tales out of school. Indeed, the publication of “La Côte Basque” alienated many of Capote’s society friends. Its topicality also ensured that Answered Prayers would not have stood the test of time—or of the critics, for that matter—and probably that, more than any other reason, is why Capote never finished it.
Two decades after Capote’s death, in late 2004, a manuscript of his first work, Summer Crossing, was discovered and sold, along with other discovered materials, to Sotheby’s auction house. Capote had left the handwritten manuscript behind when he moved away from a Brooklyn apartment, and the owner kept it. Capote had always told people that he had destroyed this early work, which he began writing in 1943. Alan Schwartz, Capote’s literary trustee, was unsure whether he should have the novel published or not, but after conferring with other authors and Capote scholars, he decided that the work would help shed light on Capote’s later work. Summer Crossing was finally published in 2005.
The novel has been called an earlier version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with seventeen-year-old protagonist Grady McNeil a younger, rougher version of Holly Golightly. Rich and bored, the daughter of a former debutante and a businessman, Grady begins an affair with a World War II veteran who is working as a parking lot attendant while her parents are away in France. Soon Grady is pregnant, and the pair decide to get married, with disastrous results.
Capote excelled in a number of literary forms—as a memoirist, journalist, travel writer, dramatist, short-story writer, and novelist. The body of his work is comparatively small, and it has neither the social range nor the concern with ideas of the work of certain of his contemporaries, but it is inimitable writing of great distinction. Capote is a brilliant and iridescent stylist, and his concern with craft belongs to that line of American writers that includes Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like Fitzgerald particularly, whose romantic themes and classical form he shares, Capote has the abiding interest of sensibility.