Truman Capote Capote, Truman - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Truman Capote 1924–-1984

(Born Truman Streckfus Persons) American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, playwright, and scriptwriter.

Capote was one of the most famous and controversial figures in contemporary American literature. The ornate style and dark psychological themes of his early fiction, including the short stories collected in A Tree of Night, and Other Stories (1949), caused critics to categorize him as a Southern Gothic writer. However, other works, including several stories based on his southern childhood, display a humorous and sentimental tone. Throughout his career, Capote's reputation as a major literary talent was rivaled by his notoriety as a flamboyant public personality.

Biographical Information

As a celebrity, virtually every aspect of Capote's life became public knowledge, including the details of his troubled childhood. Born in New Orleans, Capote's parents divorced when he was four years old; after the divorce, his mother, Lillie Mae, boarded her son with various relatives in the South while she began a new life in New York with her second husband Cuban businessman Joseph Capote. The young Capote lived mainly with elderly relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, and he later recalled the loneliness and boredom he experienced during this time. When Capote was nine years old, his mother brought him to Manhattan, although she still sent him to the South in the summer. He began to write at an early age, and rather than attend college after completing high school, he pursued a literary career. His first short stories were published in national magazines when he was seventeen, which led to a contract to write his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).

In the 1950s Capote adopted a more austere approach to his writing, turning his back on traditional fiction. In such work as The Muses Are Heard (1956), a series of articles originally written for The New Yorker, he made his first experiments with combining the techniques of fiction writing with nonfiction reportage, a style then becoming known as New Journalism. His experiments culminated in the 1960s with In Cold Blood (1966), a novelistic account of two psychotics who murdered a family in rural Kansas. This nonfiction novel, while critically controversial because of Capote's unorthodox approach, was a popular success, and Capote became an international celebrity. In the late 1960s, Capote began to suffer from writer's block, a frustrating condition that severely curtailed his creative output. In 1980 his final collection of short prose pieces, Music for Chameleons (1980), was not warmly received by critics. Afterward, Capote succumbed to alcoholism, drug addiction, and poor health. He died shortly before his sixtieth birthday.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Considered a novel by some critics and a novella by others, Other Voices, Other Rooms was a critical and commercial success. Reviewers praised its strange, lyrical evocation of life in a small southern town, as well as the author's frank treatment of his thirteen-year-old protagonist's awakening homosexuality. Capote's early stories, represented in his collection A Tree of Night, were written when he was in his teens and early twenties. They show the influence of such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty, all of whom are associated to some degree with a Gothic tradition in American literature. Like these authors, as well as the Southern Gothic writers Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor, with whom critics most often compare him, Capote filled his stories with grotesque incidents and characters who suffer from mental and physical abnormalities. Yet Capote did not always use the South as a setting, and the Gothic elements in some of the tales are offset by Capote's humorous tone in others. Critics often place Capote's short fiction into two categories: daylight and nocturnal stories. The daylight stories are written in an engaging conversational style and report the amusing activities of eccentric characters. More common among Capote's early fiction, however, are the nocturnal stories. These are heavily symbolic fables that portray characters in nightmarish situations, threatened by malevolent forces. Frequently in these tales evil is personified as a sinister man, such as the Wizard Man feared by the heroine in “A Tree of Night” or the dream-buyer in “Master Misery.” In other instances iniquity appears as a mysterious figure who represents the darker, hidden side of the protagonist. In later years Capote commented that the Gothic nature of these stories reflected the anxiety and feelings of insecurity he experienced as a child. Indeed, intelligent, lonely children figure in many of the stories. During the 1950s, Capote evoked a mood of sentimentality in such works as the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), which featured his most famous character, Holly Golightly, a beautiful, waiflike young woman living on the fringes of New York society.

Critical Reception

From the beginning of his career, Capote's works have been highly publicized and widely reviewed. In order to counter what some critics considered inordinate attention and praise, many commentators, while acknowledging Capote's talent, have stressed his relatively small output and the uneven quality of much of his work. A number of reviewers regarded his early writings as skillfully written, yet somewhat insubstantial. Critics often suggest that Capote wasted his talent on trivial work and squandered his energies on travel, socializing, and high living. Assessing his impact on contemporary literature, most critics portray him as a gifted writer who left behind a small body of intriguing work, but whose potential remained largely unfulfilled.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Other Voices, Other Rooms (novella) 1948

A Tree of Night, and Other Stories 1949

Breakfast at Tiffany's (novella) 1958

Selected Writings 1963

The Thanksgiving Visitor 1967

Music for Chameleons 1980

A Capote Reader 1987

Local Color (travel essays) 1950

The Grass Harp (novel) 1951

The Grass Harp (drama) 1952

Beat the Devil [adaptor; from a novel by Thomas Helvick] (screenplay) 1954

House of Flowers [with Harold Arlen] (musical drama) 1954

The Muses Are Heard (nonfiction) 1956

In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences (nonfiction novel) 1966

The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places (essays) 1973

Answered Prayers (unfinished novel) 1987

Marguerite Young (review date 1948)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tiger Lilies,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, Summer, 1948, pp. 516–18.

[In the following review of Other Voices, Other Rooms, Young asserts that Capote exhibits “the aura of individuality, of personality, a special atmosphere of thought and style, an attitude toward reality apart from any merely practical problem, character, or situation.”]

The large number of novels, even when well written, bear no qualifications of individuality. Except as to subject matter, one can scarcely be singled out from another. Other Voices, Other Rooms, the first novel by the young Southerner Truman Capote, does bear, in the writing itself, the aura of individuality, of personality, a special atmosphere of thought and style, an attitude toward reality apart from any merely practical problem, character, or situation. This work, like the short stories, is concerned with the extra-marginal, the symbols interloping among otherwise unintelligible experiences, the dreams, memories, perceptions, the fleeting peculiarities of human nature as revelatory of the psychic underworld which all persons inhabit in daylight. Character, problem, situation are secondary to these.

As in his short stories, the author veers away from the common sense world of familiar, tried orientations, utilizing instead data of the psychic underworld, signs, symbols, derangements which, through extension, seem metaphysical, a commentary upon man in space. There is nothing literal, though there is accuracy of observation, a deceptive accuracy. The individual is never the supposed normal but is a confluence of signs. The individual is cloaked in an arabesque of disguises psychologically motivated but not always stated, moving in a world of curved mirrors and distortions from which he cannot be distinguished, as the image reflected or the image of exaggerated deceit may be the only character. The text of moral analysis is thus absent from this amoral work of strange reversals and strange proportions, where the figure of a butterfly may well blot out a man or seem equated with him. But the very absence of such analysis may have its meaning in a mosaic of revelations, contributing, for example, to the hidden thesis that the abnormal does exist and is therefore valid.

Who is the individual person of whom Capote writes methodically, yet adventuresomely? It would be only the naive, most often the purposefully naive, who could dismiss this individual as altogether alien and strange. The individual, according to Capote's view, is not an organized whole so much as he is the aberrant fragment of self, something struck off from the whole, a piece of the unconscious, a single fleeting image in a disturbing mirror and representative of the repressed forces within the human mind which do put on...

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John W. Aldridge (essay date 1951)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Metaphorical World of Truman Capote,” in Western Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, Summer, 1951, pp. 247–60.

[In the following essay, Aldridge provides a stylistic analysis of Capote's short fiction, contending that the characters in Other Voices, Other Rooms function as metaphors of one another.]

On the face of it, Truman Capote would seem to be just about the most promising new writer we have in America today. Not only is he the most precocious of the group of younger novelists whose first books began attracting attention right after the war, but he has already displayed an idiosyncrasy of vision and temperament which has ended, literarily, in the...

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Paul Levine (essay date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Truman Capote: The Revelation of the Broken Image,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 34, No. 4, Autumn, 1958, pp. 600–17.

[In the following essay, Levine perceives Capote as a writer who deftly explores “the dichotomy in the world between good and evil, the daylight and the nocturnal, man and nature, and between the internal and external manifestation of things.”]

The inclusion of Truman Capote in any discussion that pretends to be at most scholarly and at least literary is usually frowned upon by the more stern-faced of our critics. The mention of his name conjures up images of a wispish, effete soul languishing on an ornate couch, emitting an...

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Ihab H. Hassan (essay date 1960)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Daydream and Nightmare of Narcissus,” in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1960, pp. 5–21.

[In the following essay, Hassan identifies the Narcissus theme as the unifying motif of Capote's work.]

The name of Truman Capote is already legend, and the picture of his boyish face—the famous bangs, the wide, mysterious eyes—is on the cover of all his books to give the legend credence. To some, Capote is the sprite with a monstrous imagination, the lonely child—“I had the most insecure childhood I know of. I felt isolated from all people”—living with his aunts in Alabama, painting flowers on glass and...

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Marvin E. Mengeling (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Other Voices, Other Rooms: Oedipus Between the Covers,” in American Imago, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1962, pp. 361–74.

[In the following essay, Mengeling discusses the Oedipal theme in Other Voices, Other Rooms.]

Truman Capote's first and most widely acclaimed novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) germinated in a mind deeply concerned with the power of darkness. Heaped with dreadful psychologies and nightmare terrors, it comes near to resembling a Gothic romance, stylistically nocturnal in the best tradition. It is a complicated work of many motifs, themes and sub-themes, a work which in the fourteen years since its publication has fallen...

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Irving Malin (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “From Gothic to Camp,” in The Critical Response to Truman Capote, edited by Joseph J. Waldmeir and John C. Waldmeir, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 95–7.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1964, Malin contends that Capote's fiction has descended from Gothic supernaturalism into camp.]

Perhaps the best clue to Capote's talent is one line from “Shut a Final Door”: “All our acts are acts of fear.” In such early stories as “A Tree of Night,” “The Headless Hawk,” and “Master Misery,” he presents characters who are afraid to stare at their furious shadows. Why are they afraid? What causes their exaggerated, childish...

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William L. Nance (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Dark Stories,” in The Worlds of Truman Capote, Stein and Day, 1970, pp. 16–39.

[In the following essay, Nance examines the defining characteristics of Capote's early short stories.]

The early fiction of Truman Capote is dominated by fear. It descends into a subconscious ruled by the darker archetypes, a childhood haunted by bogeymen, a world of blurred realities whose inhabitants are trapped in unendurable isolation. The stories set in this dark world include “A Tree of Night” (1943), “Miriam” (1944), “The Headless Hawk” (1946), “Shut a Final Door” (1947), and “Master Misery” (1948) (S).1 Deep below the surface...

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Helen S. Garson (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Surprised by Joy: Stories of the Fifties and Sixties,” in Truman Capote, Frederick Ungar, 1980, pp. 91–110.

[In the following essay, Garson describes the plots and major thematic concerns of four of Capote's short stories and a novella published in the 1950s and 1960s.]

The story “A Diamond Guitar,” which appeared first in Harper's Bazaar in 1950, was reprinted in the collection Capote called Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Short Stories, in 1958. Also included in the group were “A House of Flowers” (1951) and “A Christmas Memory” (1956), both of which had been published in Mademoiselle. The story,...

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Kenneth T. Reed (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Short Fiction: The Ten Dollar Dream,” in Truman Capote, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 34–70.

[In the following essay, Reed categorizes Capote's short fiction in terms of the settings of the stories.]

Capote remarked once to an interviewer that his “more unswerving ambitions still revolve around” the complex art of the short story. “When seriously explored,” he continued, “the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I have,” he said, “I owe entirely to my training in this medium.”1 The expression “my training” should be borne in mind especially,...

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Blake Allmendinger (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Room Was Locked, with the Key on the Inside: Female Influence in Truman Capote's ‘My Side of the Matter,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1987, pp. 279–88.

[In the following essay, Allmendinger detects the influence of Eudora Welty's “Why I Live at the P.O.” on Capote's “My Side of the Matter.”]

Grobel: “Has any American writer had an influence on you as a writer?”

Capote: “No American writer has.”

Conversations with Capote



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Helen S. Garson (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Caravan Moves On: Last Stories,” in Truman Capote: A Study of Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 63–73.

[In the following essay, Garson provides a thematic analysis of Capote's later work.]


“Dazzle,” which appeared first in Vogue in 1979 and then in the collection Music for Chameleons in 1980, has multiple connections to the new kind of fiction Capote was writing by this time. Although the story is more focused than the pieces in the unfinished Answered Prayers, the works are similar in their revelations of details from the author's life. “Dazzle” also has links to his final...

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Brian Mitchell-Peters (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Camping the Gothic: Que(e)ring Sexuality in Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms,” in Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2000, pp. 107–38.

[In the following essay, Mitchell-Peters considers the portrayal of homosexuality in Other Voices, Other Rooms, focusing on the function of Camp and Southern Gothic style on the novella.]


With possible influence from the utopian “greenwood” of E. M. Forster's Maurice, originally written from 1913 to 1914 and first published posthumously in 1971, Truman Capote released his first novel in the late 1940s with a striking never-never land that...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Stanton, Robert J. Truman Capote: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980, 287 p.

Comprehensive bibliography featuring works by and about Capote.


Barry, Iris. “Short Stories of Truman Capote.” Herald Tribune (27 February 1949): 2.

Favorable assessment of A Tree of Night.

Garson, Helen. Truman Capote. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980, 210 p.

Comprehensive critical survey.

———. Truman Capote: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992, 186...

(The entire section is 313 words.)