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Capote, Truman 1924–1984
An American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, Capote achieved literary fame as a young man, and has remained a literary celebrity ever since. His early writings focus on the Deep South, where he was born, but his later works have varied tremendously in locale and...
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- Critical Essays
Capote, Truman 1924–1984
An American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, Capote achieved literary fame as a young man, and has remained a literary celebrity ever since. His early writings focus on the Deep South, where he was born, but his later works have varied tremendously in locale and style. His best known work, In Cold Blood, contributed to the formation of a new genre, the nonfiction novel. Capote is currently at work on Answered Prayers. The volume contains thinly veiled portraits of many of Capote's friends, and several have appeared as excerpts in periodicals, creating a minor sensation in literary and social circles and making the book notorious even before its publication. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
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Other Voices, Other Rooms is a very good novel, with an extremely simple scheme and plot which the author slowly loads with baroque and decorative details, yet without complicating it. (p. 478)
Mention has been made of Poe in connection with this book of Capote's. It seems to me, however, that the points of resemblance are purely casual and are due to a similarity of subject matter rather than to conscious derivation. In certain of Poe's tales, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Gold-Bug and others, set in the American provinces, in decaying houses full of memories, it is easy to discern the forebears of the country house in Truman Capote. But there is a difference between Poe's and Capote's approach to reality. Poe, even at his most fantastic and unreal, is always extremely literal, accurate, and realistic in his aims and intentions…. [Poe] really believed in the existence of a reality outside of himself. And it matters little whether this reality was moral and psychological or … erotic and sexual.
For Truman Capote, instead, this process worked in reverse. The motive which encouraged Capote to accumulate details which build up a fantastic atmosphere, page after page, in a rich and crowded design, was instead a longing to evade reality by means of an impressionistic and imprecise transcription of actions, suspicions, tastes and feelings which are purely subjective. Capote, in particular, has a magpie's passion for household chattels: countless pieces of furniture, ornaments, knicknacks and trifles decorate his pages. And nature itself is seen with the same morbid passion, enlarging the details at the expense of the general picture. Obviously Capote is concerned not with the real properties of these objects but with the unhealthy feelings to which they give rise in [the central character] Joel's breast. We are, that is to say, faced with a genre of novel which in the last few years has become increasingly common, the novel of imaginary and fantastic distortions of reality seen through the eyes of a child or adolescent. It recalls the more charming fairy-tale atmosphere of Le Grand Meaulnes or even A High Wind in Jamaica. But Capote does not always succeed in leading us, via the grotesque and the baroque, back to normality. Sometimes the transition from fantasy to reality is arbitrary and gratuitous, sometimes the literariness, the taste for decoration for its own sake, makes itself felt. The book belongs to a class which is already adult both in America and elsewhere, and Capote does not ignore his immediate predecessors. He seems to belong rather to the tradition of a writer like Carson McCullers than to that of Poe. (pp. 479-81)
Alberto Moravia, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1960 by The University of the South), Summer, 1960.
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It is one of my intentions in this study to show that the changes in Capote's career have not been casual but are the result of a strong and highly conscious effort at growth. From the start he wrote stories which were among the best of their narrow kind, but even then he was trying to make his fiction both a source and an expression of deeper understanding, broader sympathy, greater fidelity to the reality outside his private childhood world. So far has he moved in twenty-three years of publishing that one is tempted to identify at least two distinct Truman Capotes. There is, of course, only one: In Cold Blood retains deep traces of the earliest stories, and the intellectual toughness so evident in the nonfiction novel was really there all the time. (p. 11)
Some knowledge of Capote's early life is essential to an understanding of his work, for that work, even through In Cold Blood, bears the clear marks of his childhood. It was, Capote has said, "the most insecure childhood I know of," and his early stories are psychological records of it. (pp. 11-12)
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)…. Deep below the surface they are really one story, and they have one protagonist. This story will be continued, and its hero will achieve a peculiar liberation in Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). The fear and sense of captivity that overshadow these stories result from the individual's inability to accept and respond properly to reality. On the social level this means inability to love other persons. More essentially, it means refusal to accept mysterious and frightening elements within the self, for the persons encountered by the protagonist are most properly viewed as projections of inner personae. One indication of the climate of the protagonist's inner world is the fact that nearly all of these persons are grotesques.
The stories are fundamentally psychic in orientation. In at least two cases—"Miriam" and "Shut a Final Door"—the line between realism and fantasy is definitely crossed: things happen that are literally impossible. Usually, however, the settings seem realistic; we are kept in a world that is conceivably real, though strange, and the effects are wrought through manipulations of the protagonist's consciousness. The characteristic style of the early work is intensely poetic, and the meaning of the stories rests heavily on intricate patterns of symbolism. The most prominent stylistic and symbolic motif in the fiction up to and including Other Voices, Other Rooms is that of descent into a state of intensified and distorted consciousness. This happens in each story, the differences being mostly in what might be termed focal length. Sometimes the setting remains normal and the character simply becomes sleepy or drunk, or has a dream. At other times the entire setting takes on dreamlike characteristics, often through weather imagery such as darkness or snow. In the most extreme cases the reader is pulled completely into the illusion by means of apparitions or mysterious voices presented as real. This scale of reader involvement is one of several ways of looking at the stories and not, incidentally, a simple measure of their total effectiveness: Capote handles his various effects always with considerable skill.
Perhaps the most obvious thing to be noted about Capote's early work is its highly personal quality. The stories take place in an inner world almost entirely devoid of social or political concern. Because of this subjective orientation, even the treatment of human relations has about it an air of isolation, of constriction. With this qualification in mind, one may go on to observe that love and the failure of love are of central concern in Capote's fiction. The meaning of love, as it emerges in the early work, would seem to be uncritical acceptance. In each story the protagonist is given an opportunity to accept someone and something strange and disturbing, to push back the frontier of darkness both in the surrounding world and in the soul. Not until Joel works his way through Other Voices, Other Rooms does one of them manage to do so. Their characteristic kind of failure appears in simplest form in the tendency to dismiss any challenging new presence as "crazy." Capote's impulse, from "A Tree of Night" to In Cold Blood, is to accept and understand the "abnormal" person; it has been, indeed, one of the main purposes of his writing to safeguard the unique individual's freedom from such slighting classifications as "abnormal." (pp. 16-17)
In the closing line of Other Voices, Other Rooms, its young hero turns to look back, symbolically, "at the boy he had left behind."… The novel is an account of Joel's growth from childhood to maturity. He achieves this growth by learning, with the help of a series of lessons and ordeals, to accept wholeheartedly—that is, to love—the life that awaits him, however disappointing and mysterious it may seem. He finds and accepts "his proper place" and in so doing gains the freedom that goes with the achievement of a sense of identity.
Described in these general terms, the novel might seem to depict the initiation of any young man into full stature in his society, but it does not. It might be better described as an initiation out of society; for in Other Voices, Other Rooms, as in the stories that preceded it, the world the hero is asked to accept is a world whose norm is abnormality. It is a world that begins where daylight merges into shadow—a refuge from society for the maimed in body and spirit. Though unconventional in this sense, it is nevertheless a place of trial where one achieves freedom by understanding and acceptance. Joel does what his older counterparts failed to do: he outfaces the monsters of his childhood, sees them in truer perspective and with proper detachment, and exposes them for what they are. (p. 41)
Other Voices, Other Rooms is an almost unbelievably intricate novel—a fact not surprising if one has read the earlier stories, particularly "The Headless Hawk" and "Master Misery." In all of them, the symbolic patterns lead toward an ultimate complex oneness, an overlapping and merging of symbols. Other Voices, Other Rooms in particular might be compared to a closed sphere of interwoven endless circles, or even of one endless strand. The novel's question is: Who is Joel? His answer—"I am me…. I am Joel, we are the same people"—completes a circle. Furthermore, his "we" includes almost everyone and everything in the book. His identity is his father, whom he came to find, but also Randolph, whom he found. His father is the sun, and also Little Sunshine, who is also the Cloud Hotel and Drownin Pond and the sinking Landing. The Landing is Skully's, or death's, and so is the snake, which is also Mr. Sansom, as well as Idabel's father and Zoo's grandfather and all fathers. And so on. It is a remarkable achievement, if somewhat like a maze with no exit. This maze entangles the reader in a poetic experience which has the irrational power of childhood itself: it must be grown out of, but, like childhood, it continues to haunt the memory. Capote was completely right when he remarked of the book, eight years after finishing it, "Despite awkwardness, it has an amazing intensity, a real voltage."
Viewed as a liberation, the story is markedly ambivalent. Its explicit meaning is that Joel has broken out of his childhood prison and achieved maturity, yet the way in which he does it, and the symbolic pattern surrounding the action, suggest a narcissistic confinement. This contradiction is presumably intended to function as a vital paradox; still, one feels uneasily that Joel and Capote have not made quite as clean a break with childhood as they think, though they are moving in the right direction. (pp. 63-4)
The year 1948 saw the publication not only of "Master Misery" and Other Voices, Other Rooms, but also of a story which seems at first glance to have little in common with them—"Children on Their Birthdays." If Capote's early stories are about captivity and Other Voices, Other Rooms is about liberation, the later stories—though some of their characters are quite literally imprisoned—have about them an air of limitless vistas. Among the other works of this later period are "A Diamond Guitar" (1950), "House of Flowers" (1951), "A Christmas Memory" (1956), and "Among the Paths to Eden" (1960)….
The typical protagonist of these stories—as of the two longer works written during the same years, The Grass Harp and Breakfast at Tiffany's—is an unattached, unconventional wanderer, usually a girl or a childlike woman, whose life is a pursuit of some ideal of happiness. (p. 65)
[The] Capote heroine first assumes her definitive shape and central position in Miss Bobbit [of "Children on Their Birthdays"]. The significance she has for Billy Bob gives a clue to her significance for Capote. She is the dreamer in him, the child, the delicate spirit wandering in search of ideal happiness. She is "the queer things in him," and also, perhaps, the things he has been too wise an artist to show anyone else. One of the most important results of the liberation he achieved at the time of Other Voices, Other Rooms was the ability to place his alter ego in perspective by somehow managing to find it embodied in real persons he has known, thus freeing himself from it while at the same time continuing to possess it lovingly. Though still narcissistic in its deeper levels, his later fiction has a new air of turning outward, of freshness and sunlight. There is a new sadness in it, too, for the break with childhood is not made without pain. Miss Bobbit and her later counterparts exist finally not as real persons but as bittersweet memories.
One sign of new vigor in Capote's grasp of reality, and evidence of the tougher side of his nature, is the very real strength these heroines possess during their brief hour. Their confident pursuit of an ideal gives them the power to beat society at its own game and to compel its grudging admiration. Like Capote himself, they know how to get what they want. This was not the case with their predecessors, all of whom were directionless and fated to destruction. (pp. 70-1)
In "House of Flowers" Capote moved in a very different direction. The romantic, tropical world … becomes the actual setting of this story, a product of Capote's 1948–49 vacation in Haiti. He published the story in 1951 and three years later collaborated with Harold Arlen in its production as a musical play. Unlike any of his other stories, it was apparently written as a preparatory exercise for a stage version. As this would suggest, it is the most exotic of all Capote's stories, told in a whimsical, playful tone that seems to place it even further from his personal world of experience and imagination than "A Diamond Guitar." It was, in fact, based on stories he heard, as Capote himself has explained…. Though remote from his other work in many ways, it is still about a girl who is a prisoner and a dreamer. This time, however, he decided to let the dream come true. (pp. 75-6)
In finding her dream come true, Ottilie moves into a world of romance in which nothing, not even death, need be taken seriously. Capote has sometimes been called a fantasist and has indignantly denied it. Taken as a charge of irresponsibility, the designation would be better applied to "House of Flowers" than to the earlier, more apparently fantastic, stories, which, as Capote insists, are serious examinations of real states of mind. The story of Ottilie has a fundamental unseriousness which Capote has, fortunately, seldom put into his fiction. And, where it deviates from romantic cliché, the story has something rather chilling about it. Though Old Bonaparte somewhat resembles the archetypal bogeys of the dark fiction, the atmosphere of the story does not sustain that kind of reading, and Ottilie's murderous innocence seems an extreme case of the chill exclusiveness that tends to mar Capote's dreamers.
"A Christmas Memory" is Truman Capote's nonfiction short story. (p. 78)
[It is] a frank memoir which, while generally accepted as one of his finest and most charming short stories, has become his own avowed favorite among his shorter works because it is "true."…
The story is his idealized recollection of his relationship with [the elderly cousin with whom he spent much of his childhood]. As such it has a unique importance among his works, for it embodies the archetype of an emotional pattern which underlies all his later fiction and even exerts a subtle influence on In Cold Blood. Asexual admiration of a childlike dreamer-heroine is the usual attitude of the Capote narrator. The pastness of the experience is also essential; Capote's is a fiction of nostalgia. "A Christmas Memory" is one of his best and most satisfying works because it places the feelings he can dramatize most powerfully in the setting which is best suited to them—which, as Henry James would say, artistically does most for them. (p. 79)
"Among the Paths to Eden," published at about the time Capote began his Kansas research for In Cold Blood, shows signs of the new strength and freedom he feels he derived from his work on the nonfiction novel. One of his principal aims in that project was to enlarge the range of characters he could portray sympathetically. In this story he does precisely that.
"Among the Paths to Eden" resembles earlier works in depicting a non-sexual encounter between a male observer and a wistful dreamer-heroine, but its spirit is new. The story is told in the third person in a playful comic tone that places the author at a slight, good-natured distance from the hero, Mr. Ivor Belli—who in turn views his brief acquaintance, Miss Mary O'Meaghan, in much the same way. The setting is a very real, undreamlike New York, and the time—virtually the first instance of it in Capote's fiction—is the present. (pp. 83-4)
Three years after Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote published his next major work, the short novel The Grass Harp (1951). The story opens on a note of reminiscence: "When was it that first I heard of the grass harp? Long before the autumn we lived in the china tree; an earlier autumn, then; and of course it was Dolly who told me, no one else would have known to call it that, a grass harp."…
[The opening lines] establish much of the story's basic pattern: the first-person narrator recalls a past episode and a heroine who had a special meaning for him. (p. 88)
The grass harp is a field of Indian grass between River Woods and the hilltop cemetery outside a small Southern town. In autumn the wind turns it into a "harp of voices" that tells the story of all the people buried on the hill, "of all the people who ever lived."… Dolly Talbo, who explains this to Joel, is his father's cousin. Since the age of eleven, when his mother died, he has lived with her and her sister Verena, both of them unmarried. (pp. 88-9)
The line of alienation separating Capote's chosen few from the rest of the world—a line first drawn in "Master Misery" and taken for granted in Other Voices, Other Rooms—is, in The Grass Harp, drawn more distinctly than ever. It is, in fact, the backbone of the story's plot.
Life in the Talbo house has some of the bizarre qualities that it had at Skully's Landing, but its isolation from the outer world is less complete. (p. 90)
The Grass Harp contains Capote's fullest expression of antagonism between his chosen dreamers and the rest of society. The Capote characters we have met don't fit in, and, since Joel Knox, they don't seem to want to. They are innocent pilgrims wandering in search of some better place. Society for its part considers them "crazy" and tries to put them into its prisons and its starchy straitjackets. But, as Miss Bobbit divined, beneath its hostility lies envy. On the present occasion the representatives of society stand below Dolly and her crew "like dogs gathered around a tree of trapped possums." (pp. 93-4)
Judge Cool embodies another kind of progression in the development of Capote's themes. Though his dreamers may easily be dismissed by society as of no value, the same cannot be said of Dolly's new recruit. In him, society is condemned by someone right out of its highest ranks, a man whose profession gives him a special claim to wisdom. A broadening of the social base has already been evident, of course, in the selection of Capote code heroes. (p. 94)
The judge announces that they must be prepared, and begins a systematic statement of their "position" that is more philosophical than military….
But here we are, identified: five fools in a tree. A great piece of luck provided we know how to use it; no longer any need to worry about the picture we present—free to find out who we truly are. If we know that no one can dislodge us; it's the uncertainty concerning themselves that makes our friends conspire to deny the differences….
Capote has made Judge Cool his foremost spokesman, and this passage is the author's fullest statement of the values that underlie his fiction and perhaps all his writing. The judge is describing the Capote hero, the dreamer-victim. Everyone we have met in his stories is included here. Here are the early sufferers, prisoners even in their hearts because even in their hearts they were afraid to accept the differences, to recognize the bogeymen who were part of themselves.
The fiction turned from dark to light when, in Joel Knox, they jumped to inner freedom by accepting their identity. Joel found his "one person in the world" in Randolph, and with him retreated into his private rooms, moving almost completely out of the social world. Most of his later counterparts are involved to some extent in that social world but with the full realization that even if they themselves accept the differences, the world of convention and law does not.
Consequently they remain victims, but defiant ones. What each of them longs for is a friend—someone who will accept him completely as he has accepted himself—someone who is, in fact, the self. Even a passing encounter with such a one may be all that can be hoped for. (pp. 96-7)
This kind of love obviously tends away from the personal, and above all from the sexual. (p. 97)
Breakfast at Tiffany's almost completes the movement in Truman Capote's fiction from the submerged world of childhood to the real world of people and events. It employs the same New York setting as "The Headless Hawk" and "Shut a Final Door," but there the resemblance ends. Between those stories and this one, Capote the writer has grown up. The early stories were inward-turning, conscious of the outside world only as a symbolic extension of inner fears. Breakfast at Tiffany's, on the other hand, is as topical as Winchell's column, as cool and sophisticated as the tough, eccentric society it talks about. Its unnamed narrator, an aspiring writer who might well be Capote himself during his first months in New York, is an older Collin Fenwick who has set his own affairs in order and begun to look around him at the world. He observes it more objectively than before, but once again his attention is focused on a dreamer-heroine whose prototype is the elderly friend of "A Christmas Memory." This story, too, is a memory. (p. 107)
Holly Golightly, a remote descendant of the heroine of "Master Misery," has not let the psychiatrists steal her dreams. She belongs to a later generation of Capote heroines who have learned to preserve their integrity by safe-guarding their uniqueness. Society helplessly admires her and considers her crazy at the same time, but Capote and his narrator have only admiration for her….
[She] joins the narrator [during a party], and stays long enough to give him a considerable new insight into her thinking. She explains that she didn't want to be a movie star because it requires the sacrifice of one's ego, and "I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffanys."… Holly's life of traveling is really a search for a home, a place "where me and things belong together."… She hasn't found the place yet, but she knows it will make her feel like Tiffany's does, with the sense of security, the "quietness and proud look of it." (p. 112)
Holly's ideal of love is simply not a sexual one, nor is it likely to be satisfied by any real human being she will meet. The ideal relationship she aspires to is approximated by the narrator's own relationship with her: tender but distant, and consisting largely of admiration for her brilliance and strength. That Holly makes honesty to self her guiding principle is not surprising when we remember that on the deepest level she is the Capote-narrator's alter ego, representing for him—as Miss Bobbit did for Billy Bob—the strange, unconventional side of himself. In admiring Holly he is being true to himself, making that act of acceptance that has been the dominant impulse in most of Capote's writing. (p. 119)
Breakfast at Tiffany's is a showcase for Holly Golightly. O. J. Berman introduced her as a "real phony" who honestly "believes all this crap she believes," and the remainder of the story is a gradual exposition of the content of this belief. We learn that her idea of love is a non-sexual focusing of esthetically oriented feeling, just as it was for Randolph, Judge Cool, and Dolly Talbo. Honesty to oneself, or acceptance of one's identity, is as important to her as it came to be for Joel Knox. All her life she has known deprivation and death and fought a desperate battle against fear. It is, finally, the awareness of death that keeps her from feeling at home anywhere and impels her on a constant search for something better. Here at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany's—which is, except for the genial "Among the Paths to Eden," Capote's last fictional "word" on life up to the time of In Cold Blood—we learn what seems to be Holly's deepest motivating force. Her regret at losing her nameless, battered "slob" of a cat, far from being a sentimental excess on her part (and the narrator's), is an intensely serious expression of a profound fear of relinquishment. Just as the dominant willed movement in Capote's fiction is acceptance—of things, persons, life—so its deepest fear seems to be of the inner principle of rejection that leads one to throw away those few and tenuous possessions life does permit. The fight against death must be carried on even in the innermost recesses of the self.
Holly's values are those of the Capote-narrator: she is a part of himself set free like a broken-stringed kite to wander toward an ambiguous land of dreams and death. Her brief presence is his own breakfast at Tiffany's, his taste of the idyll which always vanishes, leaving pain. (pp. 122-23)
In Cold Blood might be called a remarkably successful attempt at an impossible job. Capote has professed surprise that no one else has done quite the same thing, but it is really not surprising at all. Critics have, for the most part, tended to classify In Cold Blood as simply an extreme form of a familiar class of writing, the documentary novel. (The definite sound of this term is rather illusory, since the documentary novel is a particularly ill-defined subtype of a large class, the novel—itself never strong on definition.) It is interesting to note, however, that Capote does not classify his book this way, but tends always to speak of it as something unique. (p. 177)
If the documentary novelist is doomed to wander between the fixed poles of journalistic factuality and imaginative power, Capote has tried to force the poles together. He has done this, he feels, by living his way so deeply into the real-life events that his eventual incorporation of them in a novel would have as much "poetic altitude" as any of his more purely imaginative works.
It is a fascinating ideal: to reach a point at which the inner reality coincides with the outer and the free use of the artist's shaping power results not in distortion but in heightened fidelity. (p. 178)
Capote's aim eluded his grasp, as it would have eluded anyone's. The book he finally wrote, failing to attain that charmed circle in which fact and fiction would blend, falls back into a category which may as well be labeled "documentary novel"—though it must be added that In Cold Blood is certainly one of the finest specimens of that "impure genre" and quite possibly the best piece of artistic journalism ever written.
There is a sense, however, in which Capote's achievement is not so important as his aim. Neither his literary career nor In Cold Blood itself can be adequately understood without some knowledge of what he hoped to achieve in the nonfiction novel. Capote himself seems, with the supreme self-confidence that artists must breathe like air, to feel that he has achieved it. His extravagant claims for the book are more than mere expressions of his natural flamboyance and high-pressure salesmanship. Confidence in his technical ability is not a new thing with Capote; what is new is his assurance that he has done an immense piece of social groundwork successfully, not only on the level of accurate reporting but on the deeper level of personal understanding. Stated simply, it is the conviction that his talent for writing and his talent for friendship have been fully and triumphantly integrated.
The foundation of In Cold Blood was to be "immaculate" factuality. (pp. 178-79)
Accuracy on the factual level is meant to undergird Capote's really important concern: objectivity with regard to the internal action…. Neither the undisputed factuality of the book nor the author's claims for it should be allowed to obscure the fact that what In Cold Blood presents is Truman Capote's view of the facts. Here, just as in The Grass Harp or Breakfast at Tiffany's, he had to decide what the book was to say, then direct every smallest part of it toward that end. (p. 180)
Capote's claims to objectivity can be resolved only by reference to his conviction that, through painstaking investigation and deep personal sympathy with those involved, he reached a correct judgment about the Clutter case. For the book to be a complete success on Capote's terms, the reader would have to share this conviction. (p. 181)
Within the book itself, granted Capote's fundamental control, he has succeeded in giving a strong impression of objectivity. The very subject he chose made possible an effective show of impartiality through sympathetic portrayal of both victims and killers. Capote says he answered questions about his motive for writing the book by … [saying] that "it didn't have anything to do with changing the reader's opinion about anything, nor did I have any moral reasons worthy of calling them such—it was just that I had a strictly aesthetic theory about creating a book which could result in a work of art."
In terms of narrative technique, Capote kept himself out of the book…. (p. 182)
The limitations I have ascribed to In Cold Blood are inherent to the very concept of a nonfiction novel. Viewed as fictional art, any such work would be found lacking in that self-containedness which the artifact should possess; viewed as reportage, it would always seem to present spurious claims to truth. These flaws are pervasive, setting up disturbing vibrations all through the book. On the other hand, the ores refined in the heat of Capote's intention did turn, if not into pure gold, at least into a very high grade alloy. In Cold Blood is a remarkable blend of compassion and craftsmanship, of life and art, possessing large measures of the factual persuasiveness and poetic altitude its author sought. It is also … the product of an amazing collaboration between design and chance and, for Capote, between the new and the old. (pp. 184-85)
The form Truman Capote gave his nonfiction novel was well chosen from both the journalistic and the artistic points of view. In Cold Blood is written in small sections…. Journalistically this gives, more effectively than a smoothly flowing account could do, the impression of a great multiplicity of events skillfully encompassed. The abrupt scene-shifting often has the effect of an up-to-the-minute news bulletin. (p. 186)
The most obvious advantage of the vignette structure, cinematic or not, is the way it enables Capote to reinforce the contrast between victims and killers by repeated jolts from one group to the other, especially in the section preceding the murders. (p. 188)
In Cold Blood is divided into four equal sections entitled "The Last To See Them Alive," "Persons Unknown," "Answer," and "The Corner." These headings, like the title of the book itself, have the journalistic flavor and are, indeed, taken from the verbal matrix of the case rather than from Capote's imagination. All, however, are rich with a multiple suggestiveness that is the result of his artistry. As Capote told Perry Smith, though without explaining fully, the book's title has a "double meaning," referring both to the murders and the executions, with the ironic emphasis falling heavily on the latter. Capote has always enjoyed disturbing the complacent. Here he shows us that the familiar phrase "in cold blood," if it means anything, doesn't mean quite what we thought it did. (pp. 188-89)
Though portrayed at some length and even permitted to speak on occasion, Dick emerges as an unsympathetic character—shrewd, mean, able to take care of himself. It is Perry who haunts the memory, overshadowing not only Dick but everyone else. (p. 203)
But our feeling for Perry does not, as in the case of Raskolnikov or even of Clyde Griffiths, derive principally from his commission of a gravely immoral act—from his "dynamic badness"—but rather from his amoral, pathetic blending of violence and aspiration. In addition to being a murderer by "psychological accident," Perry is a childlike dreamer, a romantic wanderer.
Perry's physical appearance is that of a grotesque child. (p. 204)
[His] aspiration to artistic success takes several forms. He says of himself, "I had this great natural musical ability…. I liked to read, too. Improve my vocabulary. Make up songs. And I could draw. But I never got any encouragement."… Capote describes a portrait of Jesus he did in prison as "in no way technically naive."… During his talks with Capote, when the latter insisted that his only intention in writing In Cold Blood was to create a work of art, Perry would remark, "What an irony, what an irony." Capote explains, "I'd ask what he meant, and he'd tell me that all he ever wanted to do in his life was to produce a work of art…. 'And now, what has happened? An incredible situation where I kill four people, and you're going to produce a work of art.'" (p. 205)
It is in the portrayal of Perry Smith that Capote's achievement comes closest to his ideal for the nonfiction novel: a perfect identification of the inner vision with the outer reality….
Capote succeeded best with Perry, not only because the latter resembled his fictional characters, but because in his similarity to these childlike dreamer-victims he resembled the author's imaginative projection of himself. Capote obviously thought of Perry as similar to himself even in physical appearance. In the book he makes much of Perry's small stature and speaks of his "changeling's face."…
Capote does not stop at the superficial parallels between Perry's life and his own. When Perry, resentful of his questioning, challenged him to tell about his own sex life, Capote did. "I told him honestly in great detail all about myself—some of my own problems were very close to his. He could see I was very sincere."…
That Capote should find such a "congenial" character in the Clutter case might be explained in two ways: either he distorted Perry in the book, or he was remarkably lucky. (p. 211)
The evidence suggests, in fact, that chance plays an immensely important role in the writing of the nonfiction novel—another reason, no doubt, why the field is so thinly populated. Although Capote had tried other subjects, nothing had worked until the Clutter case, and even that choice depended finally on the presence of Perry. Moreover, without the help of Dick's photographic memory, Capote would have been hard put to reproduce in detail the career of the killers between the murder and the arrest. I would even suggest, without in the least intending to imply that Capote personally desired or neglected opportunities to avert the execution, that the book might very likely not have been completed without that particular conclusion. The extreme difficulty experienced in the writing of the last few pages may well reflect a profound conflict between human anguish and artistic necessity. (p. 212)
Capote's deep sympathy for Perry makes In Cold Blood a powerful work of art and a probing and admirable attempt to understand a human being. If it is less than completely successful, so are all such efforts. (p. 215)
[Capote's] stated purpose in attempting a nonfiction novel was to achieve an artistic and personal liberation—to escape from his private imaginative world into the larger world of reality. He believes that in writing In Cold Blood he achieved that purpose. Today he speaks of having come over the hump, of being able now to apply his artistic intelligence to a wide range of contemporary experience.
The reader who picks up Capote's factual account of a Kansas murder case hardly expects it to have much in common with his fictional accounts of haunted Southern childhoods. (pp. 216-17)
While Capote can take well-deserved pride in In Cold Blood as a genuine enlargement of his artistic scope, his deepest satisfaction probably derives from its being something even more important to him: a vindication of his imagination. In its portrayal of Perry Smith and in its pervasive theme of victimization, the book is a factual echo of Capote's earliest fiction.
That fiction began … with a series of "dark" stories in each of which the rather unattractive protagonist was trapped in a cage of childhood fears. Near the end of the dark period, in "Master Misery," there appeared a new tendency to see the protagonist (though doomed, like the others) as a somewhat admirable dreamer, together with a concomitant scorn for conventional society. (p. 218)
Perry Smith closely resembles the protagonists of these early stories, as do the other characters of In Cold Blood insofar as they are sufferers and dreamers. (p. 219)
The tendency toward acceptance that first appears in Other Voices, Other Rooms is part of a broad movement in the author's work that expresses itself in several other recurrent motifs and has, at least implicitly, a rather coherent philosophical foundation. The kind of love Joel is initiated into finds its perfect object in Randolph, a completely dependent, completely receptive individual in whom sexual distinctions are virtually nonexistent. The desire to obliterate such distinctions, along with all the other classifications that society imposes on persons, is apparent in all of Capote's work. Closely related to it is a movement away from morality in the narrow sense toward a more spiritual standard. His heroines—Miriam, Sylvia, Idabel, Miss Bobbit, Dolly Talbo—are always shocking people, and they are always right; their way proves always to be the most practical or at least the most pleasant. When "morality" and convention enter the stories, they enter to be refuted by someone with a vision that transcends them.
There is, indeed, a strain of American transcendentalism in Capote, which reminds us that his "student" Perry Smith developed, in his last days, a strong admiration for Thoreau. Behind transcendentalism is Platonism…. (p. 221)
Randolph and Judge Cool, Capote's two principal lecturers on the nature of love, certainly reflect the Platonic side of the Western mentality; and Dolly Talbo and his other heroines seem to be both highly committed seekers for and actual representatives of the transcendent realm. The maturing of Joel Knox, which we have seen to be the turning point in Capote's fiction, assumes broad relevance when viewed—as [Frank] Baldanza views it—as a recapitulation of the "passage from the Heraclitan flux of constant change to the Platonic absolute of love,… a momentous achievement of Greek intellectual history."
The spiritual liberation that took place in Capote's work at the time of Other Voices, Other Rooms was bound up with another movement that was to reach its ultimate development in In Cold Blood: a turning outward to the world of social experience…. In style, the stories gradually become less poetic. Their tone becomes less subjective, their atmosphere less thickly crowded with a dreamlike profusion of symbols. Most important, there is a new protagonist at the center of the stories, and this person is usually a woman. Capote had always tended to use feminine protagonists, but in the early work gender did not matter especially, since all the main characters were mirror-images of a single isolated consciousness. The attitude taken toward this captive protagonist ranged from pity to a scorn that was really self-hatred.
Slowly, however, a polarity began to reveal itself. Implicit criticism began to be directed mostly at male characters (Vincent, Walter), and women became the objects of compassion and eventually even of admiration (D. J., Sylvia). Immediately after Other Voices, Other Rooms, this heroine achieved a major breakthrough to freedom. Still a sufferer at the hands of life, she was now predominantly a dreamer—an unconventional childlike wanderer whose integrity in the search for an ideal happiness gave her strength to resist the encroachments of society.
While this heroine had obviously been evolving in Capote's imagination, and in fact is, from beginning to end, a projection of himself, a crucial difference from this time on is that her portrayal begins to be based on real girls and women whom Capote has known. Thus the new heroine illustrates most clearly how Capote's liberation is related to a shift—at least partial—from inner to outer experience. Other Voices, Other Rooms is the first of his works that has the flavor of factual autobiography, though he describes it as a Gothic dream. While maintaining that the book is not literally true, he says that it is "made of all sorts of things from my childhood." Specifically, it deals with one of his first friend-ships, that with Harper Lee, and some of the experiences they shared. (pp. 221-23)
From the time of Other Voices, Other Rooms, most of Capote's stories are based on his "Platonic" relationships with real women…. Even in In Cold Blood Capote tends to favor the use of women observers. (p. 223)
It is Capote's highly objective narrative technique that most clearly distinguishes In Cold Blood from his fiction and even—as many have remarked—from much journalism. Even this, however, is the completion of a trend that may be observed throughout his work. The early stories portray a world of abnormal, trapped individuals viewed as though from within that world itself: its rules are the only rules; its dreams are realities. There is little or no use of narrative technique to gain an effect of objectivity. In Other Voices, Other Rooms we see a similar world, still without clear or consistent distancing through narrative technique or tone; there is, however, a distinction made between the abnormal world and the outside world of society, and, more important, there is the beginning of a division between the central consciousness and this abnormal world through the use of a protagonist who comes from the outside, sees Skully's Landing as distinct from himself, and accepts it freely.
In his later work—as though Capote were coming to identify narrative distance with maturity—the narrative consciousness is more carefully defined and progressively withdrawn from the center of action, which is now dominated by a gently eccentric protagonist wandering through an increasingly realistic world…. In In Cold Blood the narrator is in fact Mr. Capote, and he has virtually refined himself out of the book altogether.
Capote has done in his fiction what Billy Bob did in "Children on Their Birthdays," that first and most delightful expression of Capote's liberation. Having found a heroine who magically embodies the best, most private part of himself, he sadly but determinedly relinquishes her, allowing her to wander free and finally escape him by death…. The same relinquishment can be seen taking place near the end of The Grass Harp, in a scene that exemplifies Capote's literary strategy more clearly than any other. Collin is seated in the rain-soaked tree house, waiting with Verena and the Judge to hear Dolly's decision about whether to marry: "My impatience equaled theirs, yet I felt exiled from the scene, again a spy peering from the attic, and my sympathies, curiously, were nowhere; or rather, everywhere: a tenderness for all three ran together like raindrops, I could not separate them, they expanded into a human oneness."… Objectivity of view blends with universality of sympathy: there could hardly be a better definition of Capote's aim in the nonfiction novel. (Self-effacing in one way, the stance is also godlike in its assumption of unlimited knowledge, power, and benevolence, and accords well with Capote's persistent drive toward a transcendental unity).
Collin's voluntary exile is attended with a strong reluctance to give up the narrower, more childlike identification with Dolly, and it is this reluctance that produces that nostalgic sadness which repeatedly appears as Capote's last word on experience, be it fictional or nonfictional. Standing among graves, listening to a grass harp or gazing at autumn Kansas wheat, he knows that growth is a series of deaths. (pp. 224-26)
Perfect universal sympathy eluded Capote in In Cold Blood as surely as did perfect objectivity. Still, his account of the Clutter murders is deeply and broadly compassionate and thus marks a considerable advance along another of the lines Capote has been tracing in his career. Sympathy was almost completely absent in his earliest stories. (p. 226)
In Cold Blood, by bestowing its understanding in every quarter, emerges into a larger world. Here one feels that Capote attributes the sufferings of his victims not to stupid and malicious "other people" but to a more remote and mysterious principle—one closer to the source of genuine tragedy….
While Capote's vision of man's fate has grown larger and in that respect come closer to the stature of tragedy, it remains, even in In Cold Blood, essentially one of pathos. The tragic world view is an earth-centered one. But Capote's neoplatonists can be only exiles and victims in this world, for they have cast their lot in some other place. Even their power is eccentric, not geocentric. Speaking of the grotesque characters in the fiction of Capote, McCullers, and other Southern writers, Baldanza suggests that "on the philosophical level, the defects of the characters serve symbolically to represent the worthlessness of the material realm." Capote's portrayal of Perry Smith has, finally, the same effect as does the scene in which neighbors burn a pile of the Clutters' belongings and one of the men muses, "How was it possible that such effort, such plain virtue, could overnight be reduced to this—smoke, thinning as it rose and was received by the big, annihilating sky?"… It is this strong current of evanescence tugging at a solid fabric of places, facts, and people that gives In Cold Blood its deepest intensity. (p. 227))
On its deepest level In Cold Blood is not a tragic drama but a meditation on reality. Its immediate dramatic interest lies primarily in the sensational quality of the murders and the pursuit of the criminals, but Capote's approach to the events is not, as has been claimed, voyeuristic. In a tour de force …, Capote has transcended the True Detective genre story just as in "The Duke in His Domain" he transcended the Photoplay-type interview.
Truman Capote has not chosen to take the easy way. In the avowedly autobiographical The Grass Harp, Collin said, "I've read that past and future are a spiral, one coil containing the next and predicting its theme. Perhaps this is so; but my own life has seemed to me more a series of closed circles, rings that do not evolve with the freedom of a spiral: for me to get from one to the other has meant a leap, not a glide."… With intelligence and determination, Capote the artist has tried to grow up. (p. 228)
William L. Nance, in his The Worlds of Truman Capote (copyright © 1970 by William L. Nance; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers), Stein and Day, 1970.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
Called "daylight gothic" by Mark Shorer [in his introduction to Capote's Selected Writings, "Children on Their Birthdays"] contains none of the dark gothic paraphernalia of such stories as "The Headless Hawk" or "Shut a Final Door."… Shorer describes the mood of the story as "buoyant summer rain shot through with sun," but quotes out of context: "Since Monday it has been raining buoyant summer rain shot through with sun, but dark at night and full of sound, full of dripping leaves, watery chimneys, sleepless scuttlings."… The mood of the story is a balance between sun and darkness, buoyant summer rain and sleepless scuttlings. It is gothic in the sense that Lolita is gothic; both have that delicate balance of nostalgia and terror, accuracy and imagination that Leslie Fiedler considers so important in Huckleberry Finn. What Lolita and "Children" share is a moving, affectionate comedy that is also brutal and shattering, a brilliant use of black humor that allows us to delight in that which should spin us into despair. Thus Capote places the wall that is art between man and the horror of life…. (p. 343)
"Children" is less subjective than Capote's adolescent novel Other Voices, Other Rooms; the narrator includes himself "at least to some degree" among "the grownup persons of the house," hinting that he will be a reliable narrator who needs little initiating. Common to the adolescent novel (and Lolita) is an unwillingness to grow up, a wish to stop time. Though this episodic story has a definite duration of one year, the sense of being trapped by a small town suggests timelessness: "It was the summer that never rained; rusted dryness coated everything; sometimes when a car passed on the road, raised dust would hang in the still air an hour or more. Aunt El said if they didn't pave the highway soon she was going to move down to the seacoast; but she's said that for such a long time."…
Time has stopped, but it hasn't; duality is the heart of the story. (p. 344)
Who [Miss Bobbit, a] combination Shirley Temple/Gypsy Rose Lee, really is, what happens to her as metaphor not as character is the key…. (p. 345)
Miss Bobbit is [Billy Bob's] dreams. The wealth of American cultural details suggests that she may be all our dreams….
David Madden [in American Dreams, American Nightmares] correctly points out that in America there is an implicit responsibility to live dreams; the American Dream is supposed to be the American Reality, although there is no single definition for that dream. "Children" is about some forms of that dream. (p. 346)
Two phony dreams, those drilled into us as education and those sold to us as entertainment, make up Miss Bobbit's voice.
A duality in Miss Bobbit's character suggests a duality in our dreams. Both innocent and tainted, she is aloof, demanding chivalry that goes unrewarded; yet she is also seductress….
The paradox of her character makes clear the inconsistent absurdities of our dreams, which, because like Miss Bobbit dreams have a certain magic, gradually seem natural. (p. 347)
"Children" is scarcely soft humor, though so many of its characters are gentle. Holly, heroine of the novella, understands what Miss Bobbit does not, that "it's better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place, so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear." Miss Bobbit's dedication to the imaginative realm of experience has been inspiring to the town. Even the narrator wonders if she couldn't come back just as though she were really there, but he knows that for her to do so the shadows must be confused. By instinct he understands what Miss Bobbit does not. Miss Bobbit's failure is that she responds pragmatically to phenomena that require imaginative response. She fatally mingles the modes, trying to live an experience that is only to be dreamed.
Yes, she is more than being thirteen years old and crazy in love, and "Children on Their Birthdays" is after all a story of initiation, Billy Bob's and ours, to the sad truth that those things we are afraid to show are not to be shown, for they are dreams, worlds private to the imagination. If we do bring them out and they grow to seem natural and we think we might live them, our dreams become illusions, and what happens to illusions Capote makes brutally clear….
You could see what was going to happen; and we called out, our voices like lightning in the rain, but Miss Bobbit, running toward those moons of roses, did not seem to hear. That is when the six o'clock bus ran over her….
Lee Zacharias, "Living the American Dream: 'Children on Their Birthdays'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Fall, 1975, pp. 343-50.