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.
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.
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.