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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 celebrity ever since. His early writings focus on the Deep South, where he was born, but his later works have varied tremendously in locale as well...
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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 celebrity ever since. His early writings focus on the Deep South, where he was born, but his later works have varied tremendously in locale as well as style. His best known work, In Cold Blood, contributed to the development of a new genre, the nonfiction novel. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
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If the Mad Hatter and the Ugly Duchess had had a child, and the child had almost grown up, ["A Tree of Night and Other Stories"] are almost the kind of short stories he could be expected to write. Reading Truman Capote's first collection is, in fact, a good deal like a trip down the rabbit hole with a metropolitanized Alice, for the fey quality which underlay Mr. Capote's first novel, "Other Voices, Other Rooms," is here fortunately absent.
In all eight stories, Mr. Capote appears to be concerned with what might be called the esthetics of unlikelihood….
Perhaps it is because Mr. Capote's people are so full of eerie compulsions which they make no protracted attempt to resist that the reader's resistance to them is accordingly steeled and hardened. Who wants, really, to crawl back into the twilit cave and roll the papier-mâché stone over the doorway? Who would want to let Alice's wonderland serve as the myth around which he organized his adult life? There are sufficiently enthralling problems on this side of the looking-glass and at this end of the rabbit-hole, and if that remark strikes the reader as rather stuffily moralistic, it might be rejoined that Mr. Capote's refusal to look squarely at the realm of the actual is in itself a form of stuffiness.
With these reservations, however, one must fairly assert for these stories a kind of triple power: a mind at times disciplined toward poetry, with a special skill at naming; a pleasant and only slightly grotesque humor, and an ability to suggest, as in the novel, the outlines of haunted personalities, so that several of the stories might be described as biographies of the bugaboo. (p. 7)
The humor, wild as a hatter in a kingdom of pinheads, is exemplified in "My Side of the Matter," which (as often in the book) betrays an implicit debt to the early Faulkner; or in the figure of the bibulous ex-clown Oreilly in "Master Misery." Being brought to bear upon the substance of the hauntednesses, this humor serves as a healthy corrective to what might otherwise verge on the unendurably imperturbable. The same is true of the poetry, where occasionally the act of right seeing brings the actual sharply to focus…. (pp. 7, 33)
[One] trusts in the author's ability to grow.
Which way he grows is his business. "Don't think you can pull the sheep over our eyes," cries one of his characters indignantly. In the novel Mr. Capote pulled wool; here, at any rate, it is a whole sheep. Later, he may get round to eliminating the sheep itself, and helping people to see more clearly into that special wonderland which he appears to inhabit. (p. 33)
Carlos Baker, "Nursery-Tales from Jitter Manor," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1949 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 27, 1949, pp. 7, 33.
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["A Tree of Night and Other Stories"] contains one extraordinarily good story plus three or four others less good but still memorable that should help redeem Truman Capote, the writer, from that other Capote, the creature of the advertising department and the photographer…. The boy author has been a standard feature of our literature ever since the beginnings of romanticism, and I suppose our generation is entitled to one of its own, but surely Capote deserves better than being fixed in that stereotype.
True, his work shows the occasional overwriting, the twilit Gothic subject matter, and the masochistic uses of horror traditional in the fiction of the boy author …, but Capote has, in addition, an ability to control tone, an honest tenderness toward those of his characters he can understand (children and psychotics), and a splendid sense of humor—seldom remarked upon. In the best of his stories, Children on Their Birthdays, he grasps a situation at once ridiculous and terrible, creating out of the absurdities of love and death among children a rich tension lacking in his other stories, even such successful performances as The Tree of Night and Miriam. On the whole, the level of achievement of these shorter pieces of fiction seems to me a good deal higher than that of Capote's novel, "Other Voices Other Rooms," whose occasional triumphs of style or characterization are more than balanced by poor structure and a general air of padding and pastiche. (p. 395)
He has certain disturbing faults even in the shorter forms, most notably an inability to hear and reproduce common speech; and when he tries occasionally to tell a whole story through the mouth of a simple or vulgar character (My Side of the Matter), he fails dismally. But in his hands the fairy tale and ghost story manage to assimilate the attitudes of twentieth-century psychology without losing their integrity, without demanding to be accepted as mere fantasy or explained as mere symbol. (pp. 395-96)
In Capote's stories the fairy world, more serious than business or love, is forever closing in upon the skeptical secure world of grown-ups. Only his children—and the natural allies of children, clown or lunatic—are competent to deal with the underground universe of the incredible; they quite simply believe in it. Children are Capote's greatest successes….
Mr. Capote writes not merely of children but from their side; his stories are the kid's imagined revenge upon maturity. Adults find neither mercy nor tenderness in these tales…. Capote's children are the bearers of this mystery, and no adult ever faces down a child in his stories. (p. 396)
Leslie A. Fiedler, "Capote's Tales," in The Nation (copyright 1949 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 168, No. 14, April 2, 1949, pp. 395-96.
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[While the stories in A Tree of Night and Other Stories are] extremely well-written they are a slippery witchery collection. The usual theme seems to be pursuit—and escape. People are brought face to face and often overwhelmed by the unacknowledged desire and/or fear. When done well this is always an interesting theme. Capote matches logic with the perversely illogical. But his ideas are enshrined in technical fluency, tricks of impressionism and the like, and this makes it difficult to judge at first whether they are utter nonsense, ash from a psychoanalytic binge, or whether they should be taken seriously. The only argument for the latter it seems to me is that Capote takes his subjects to an undefinable area of the soul where usual standards are hard to apply. If this area exists any author who can exploit it has hit a goldmine where he cannot be assailed.
On the credit side is Truman Capote's feeling and capacity for the art of writing. He can express the inner eye, he can invoke, and his prose is careful and effective. It is also journalistic enough to be very easy and pleasant to follow. But what does he choose to see and to invoke and to select? A personal imagery which lacks meaning when brought out and considered in the light of day. These stories intrigue but do not satisfy.
Virginia Bennett, "Books: 'A Tree of Night and Other Stories'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1949 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. L, No. 3, April 29, 1949, p. 77.
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In so far as it is a story of youth and loneliness, Truman Capote's second novel resembles his first, but there are noteworthy differences in quality. "The Grass Harp" is less contrived than "Other Voices, Other Rooms," not so elaborately furnished, not so densely metaphorical. Although much of it is not quite literally credible, it is extravagant, rather than bizarre, and there are no such Gothic touches as the red tennis balls and the hanging mule. More of the writing is colloquial, and fewer of the poetic passages seem forced.
No one, however, need expect out-and-out realism from Capote….
Like "Other Voices, Other Rooms," this is a story of private worlds. The dream world of the tree-house, however, is a world of innocence, not the morbid nightmare of Skully's Landing….
This second novel is not so overwhelming an achievement as "Other Voices" was in its particular way, but it is more satisfying. It is, as Capote's books probably always will be, a book of the grotesque, but the grotesques are created out of love and pity.
Granville Hicks, "A World of Innocence," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1951 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1951, p. 4.
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There is pleasure in reporting how very fine [The Grass Harp] is, how admirably and even brilliantly accomplished—instinct with vitality and humor and a tenderness which never curdles into sentimentality. One's pleasure in this case has little to do with literary actualities: it rises, rather, from satisfaction at the confirmation of a talent….
The Grass Harp represents [Capote's] first serious experiment in major fiction. (p. 73)
Within the slim compass of this work, Truman Capote has achieved a masterpiece of passionate simplicity, of direct, intuitive observation. Without any loss of intensity, he has purified the clotted prose of Other Voices, Other Rooms, producing a luminous reflector for his unique visual sensibility…. But the real wonder of The Grass Harp—the major advance over the earlier novel—is revealed in its awareness of a larger reality. Capote has sunk a shaft more deeply into human experience, and his vision now encompasses greater variety and flexibility.
He still deals in eccentrics but his characters are not wrenched out of their human context; in them, eccentricity becomes an extension, not a distortion, of personality. Compassion, too—that abused quality—takes on a new depth here; it is the authentic coin of the heart and must not be too easily spent. He has constructed a private world, but it is one with roots in the common soil of our common experience, and that is the measure of his achievement. The Grass Harp is a public act of responsibility and love. (p. 74)
Richard Hayes, "Books: 'The Grass Harp'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1951 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 3, October 26, 1951, pp. 73-4.
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It is true that the arboreal fable of The Grass Harp is meant to symbolize an escape from humdrum reality, that Mr. Capote's real theme is the search for one's real self, and that such a theme is not to be stigmatized as trite merely because it is traditional. It has the effect of triteness in this play because it is in no way rendered active by Mr. Capote's art: when he has finished it still belongs to tradition, he has in no way made it his own. When his people speak we hear only other voices echoing in other rooms….
The triteness is in the conclusions and at the core; in the premises and at the periphery all is ridiculous…. On the level of wise-cracking Broadway farce … Mr. Capote reveals a surprising talent.
If only he would stay on that level! Instead he follows what seems to be the dominant contemporary "school" of theatre in pursuing the ridiculous high into the intense inane. (p. 22)
Mr. Capote has to use words, can't get by with color and form, can't help being involved with life even if he is incapable of shaping it. It is almost as if he started with a realistic play and later tried to transform it into a fantasy. In combination the realistic and fantastic elements became the trite and the ridiculous, respectively. (p. 23)
Eric Bentley, "On Capote's 'Grass Harp'," in The New Republic (© 1952 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 126, No. 15, April 14, 1952, pp. 22-3.
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When "The House of Flowers" is trying to be colorful there is a surplus. When it is trying to be funny or touching there is a deficiency. The characteristic originality that makes Truman Capote one of our most distinguished short-story writers seems to have been dispensed with for the purpose of writing a Jamaica travelogue that for all its visual lushness and lovely Harold Arlen music lacks a point of view.
Mr. Capote, who found West Indian bordellos a pleasant place for drink and conversation, has used them for his principal setting. Yet he appears to have about as much feeling for their inhabitants as a eunuch in a harem. Except for Violet, the only unplucked flower in Madame Fleur's hothouse, the characters are all palely drawn—with a few obvious jokes. What's worse, the earthy ribaldry is coyly insinuated….
Mr. Capote seems more at home in [the] imaginative world of fairytale than he does in the realistic world of punks and bawds.
Henry Hewes, "Romanoff and Capote," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1955 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, January 15, 1955, p. 31.∗
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Of an exhibition of D. H. Lawrence's paintings, largely nudes, Rebecca West once noted: "Mr. Lawrence has very pink friends." In "Breakfast at Tiffany's" Mr. Capote has very lost friends or, more accurately, one very lost friend, Miss Holiday Golightly, who is surrounded by as false-hearted a clutch of drab witches and cut-rate warlocks as ever picked one another's bones at the Stork Club….
[Her compressed saga] is remindful around the edges of Djuna Barnes's "Nightwood," and raises a few French horn echoes of Iris March, Lady Brett Ashley, and the heroine of John O'Hara's "Butterfield 8" as well. But they are echoes of subject only; Capote's handling of scene, dialogue, illumination of character, near-caricature which rises to revelation, his eye for comedy both social and joyously antisocial; above all, his sympathy for Holly, which can deepen to controlled eloquence, make this short novel his own; and a fine one, outstanding in any season.
To the charges of pointillisme which academic children are quick to bring against masterful detail, it may now be remarked that a pencil flashlight is by definition as important as a lighthouse. And there are shadows in which it is far more effective….
Meantime, the craftsmanship crackles. Capote's humor, inclined to be waspish, often very funny, flies crisply at such "creatures" as O. J. Berman, the Hollywood agent; Rusty Trawler, the everlasting baby; Mag Wildwood, as interesting a specimen of frightful womanhood as the world has yet seen. Yet even here there is the tiny shaft of penetrating light, it goes much deeper than exotic burlesque; it is felt, and it turns dross valuable under the eye. When Capote deals directly with Holly he is able to bring the whole luminous question to the top of the mind; to touch pathos squarely.
These are not a decorator's accomplishments. There are equally hard-won triumphs all through the short novel; they add to much. A rare individual voice, cool even when exasperated, never more sure of itself than when amazed, sounds through every sentence. It is heard, as well, in varied emotional keys through the trio of admirable short stories bracing the title piece…. "Breakfast at Tiffany's" finds "the deep note of human existence" beyond moral condemnation, wry laughter, or the world's assessment. And that is art.
Paul Darcy Boles, "Legend of Holiday and the Lost," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1958 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 41, No. 44, November 1, 1958, p. 20.
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"Breakfast at Tiffany's" is a valentine of love, fashioned by way of reminiscence, to one Holly Golightly…. This is a very funny portrait of an ex-child wife from some place named Tulip, Tex.—who made several mistakes upon coming to New York….
She is a wild thing searching for something to belong to. (p. 5)
When her pineywoods husband comes to New York and explains the psychological and spiritual basis for her behavior, Holly seems to the reader less feasible.
When Mr. Capote begins to make up a plot involving Holly and one Sally Tomato (a dope peddler serving a term in Sing Sing) he vitiates the up-to-then sharp power of his character. He also plunges his reader into an unbelievable melodrama involving crime, defrocked priests, lost brothers, etc., and asks us to believe psychological motivations compelling Holly that we are not prone to put our faith in very seriously.
Mr. Capote's characteristic resorting to almost vaudevillian devices weakens his originally serious conception of his character, thins it down and so, in mid-reading, forces the reader to a dimmer view of her. This kind of genial philandering runs through all these stories, a tendency to over-glaze situations, to overdress characters—not stylistically so much as conceptionally—a tendency to fool with characters on the author's terms of whimsy, not on the characters. (pp. 5, 38)
"A Diamond Guitar" and "House of Flowers" are two dainty pieces, blown like pretty pieces of dyed boa into the air. They are both cute stories with enough heart in them to cause a stroke. This cuteness in Mr. Capote often supplants truth, just as the names of his characters often supplant depth of characterization. Names like Mag Wildwood, Mr. Haha Jones, Jose Ybarra-Jaeger, Tieo Feo seem to have come first to the author's mind and then been fitted to a character….
"A Christmas Memory" is a truly Valentine-like reminiscence of the sweet and far-away relationship between a Capotesque little old lady aged "sixty-something" and a boy named Buddy…. The bucolic mood, the descriptions of Southern woods and pastures, seem half-bred (there is a little of the brownstone in them). It is a curiously heartless and unfelt story despite its sentimental intention, and is laced with maidenly metaphor.
In all these stories there is the noble Capote talent for catching the off-beat nature of people and for writing about them as though he were delivering a midnight monologue before his audience-reader. There is in this work the quality of doll-like glee; of creating and dwelling in a dolly story-world entirely of the author's own tatting, of staying in it with his characters, come high water or low, until he has to get out of it—if he does. Then he might take the way out of chic, or of marshmallow romance, of spoof or cracker barrel. Capote makes unique reading. (p. 38)
William Goyen, "That Old Valentine Maker," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1958 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 2, 1958, pp. 5, 38.
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There is nothing [in Breakfast at Tiffany's] for anybody in search of a "major" novelist but at his best, Capote is very, very good, as is illustrated by the fragment called "A Christmas Memory" which appears at the end of this collection…. It is full of kitchen smells and tastes, of outdoor excursions to gather nuts and holly, of the world of things and of childlike human warmth. One is tempted to quote, but it is contrived of so many small touches that one would be obliged to quote it all to convey its whole flavor. It is nostalgic but the observation never blurs or softens, it is affectionate but never sentimental. It is also very funny. One would like it to go on and on but it soon stops. The public image of the author, wan and recumbent, comes to mind and one is grateful that he has found the energy to write this much.
On the other hand, there is the "short novel" which gives this book its title. I think it is fair to assume that it is intended as a study of character, one Holly Golightly, a young lady of nineteen with some fairly free and easy attitudes towards the world….
We have met Miss Golightly before. Christopher Isherwood has written of her, or someone so like her that it makes no difference…. She is the romantic adolescent's projection of the ideal woman who will make no demands on anybody's manhood. Having divested herself of desirability for the fastidious by her declared promiscuity, she can remain just a good chum as she strolls across the room stark naked. Capote writes of her with rapt admiration….
In structure and plan, this story is curiously reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Aside from the effect achieved by the prose, which is at once stylish, detached and colloquial, aside from the unabashed use of theatrical device, a startling parallel may be drawn between the two central characters. Both have cloaked their pasts in elaborate fantasies. Having done many things for which they might be called to account, both are tripped up ironically by something they didn't do. Both are betrayed by love. The great difference is that Fitzgerald was constantly scratching away at the surface, revealing the horror and emptiness below; for Capote, the surface is everything…. As a consequence, his story is never more than clever entertainment, as entertaining, say, as something tossed off by Somerset Maugham, though he lacks too, perhaps, that foxy grandpa's popular touch. (p. 23)
"Childlike," but not "childish," is the essential word in any discussion of Capote's work. His naïve enthusiasm for Holly Golightly is the child's enthusiasm for the mysterious adult world. (pp. 23-4)
Truman Capote is no genius, despite the manner of his presentation ten years ago, but his music, when in tune, is clear and lovely and I hope that it will still be heard long after Holly Golightly has been forgotten. (p. 24)
Gordon Merrick, "How to Write Lying Down," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1958 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 139, No. 23, December 8, 1958, pp. 23-4.
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Unlike most traditional journalism, In Cold Blood possesses a tremendous power to involve the reader. This immediacy, this spellbinding "you-are-there" effect, comes less from the sensational facts (which are underplayed) than from the "fictive" techniques Capote employs. The narrative reads "like a novel" largely because of the use of scene-by-scene reconstruction instead of historical narration, the ironic heightening of dialogue, and the skillful manipulation of point of view. (pp. 69-70)
Capote wanted it both ways: the impeccable accuracy of fact and the emotional impact found only in fiction. (p. 70)
Capote's skill and experience as a novelist are everywhere evident in the final product. He could not, of course, record all of the events of the Clutters' lives, nor did he dwell on each minute detail concerning the killers. Instead, he chose the scenes and conversations with the most powerful dramatic appeal…. It is precisely Capote's ability to capitalize on the hidden meanings of these significant moments that contributes to the narrative impact of the book. The conversations of close friends of the Clutters, of the chief detectives, and even of the killers themselves are powerfully rendered. (p. 71)
Throughout In Cold Blood, a silent alliance is maintained between the narrator and the reader as Capote presents hidden meanings not apparent to the speakers.
In addition to the use of dialogue to underscore his themes and to heighten suspense, Capote manipulates with the skill of the novelist the point of view from which events are perceived. His choice of third person, omniscient narration promotes "objectivity" and suggests, at the same time, a complex pattern of cause-and-effect relationships surrounding the crime. (p. 72)
Capote's heightening of dialogue and his selection of significant moments to depict suggest that every detail, every fact, is fraught with meaning. Yet the narrator refrains from supplying easy morals. Capote says merely: all this happened, these facts exist. When he does, at times, come close to moralizing or offering an interpretation of the terrible events, he quickly retreats again to simple narration.
Although Capote does his best to minimize direct commentary, the ideal of perfect neutrality … is impossible. The sequence in which events are presented is another form of heightening. (pp. 72-3)
Capote must have realized that the final narrative presents only one version of the facts. In Cold Blood, despite its scrupulous adherence to verifiable events, suggests the impossibility of any "objective" history, since any attempt to write a narrative account implies establishing a "fiction" that best fits the facts as they are known. (p. 74)
The main dramatic interest of the book—Capote's greatest accomplishment—is his portrayal of Perry Smith. More than the social critic's indictment of injustice, or the crime writer's concern for a "whodunit" plot, the novelist's concern for character analysis and moral ambiguity dominates In Cold Blood. A detailed examination of the portrayal of Perry Smith will reveal three things about the nature of this nonfiction novel: (1) the affinity of Smith's character to the characters of Capote's fiction; (2) the methods of heightening dialogue and scenes; and (3) the legitimacy of Capote's claims that In Cold Blood should be considered literature rather than journalism.
Although Capote was proud of the prodigious research and legwork that contributed to In Cold Blood, his themes as a novelist intrude themselves upon the observable facts collected by the journalist…. Capote perceived in the Kansas murders some of the preoccupations of his stories and novels.
Like the protagonist of a Capote gothic story or novel, Perry Smith is a loner, a psychic cripple, almost from birth an outcast from society. (p. 75)
Capote enlists the reader's sympathy for Perry Smith from the outset, frequently by comparing him to wounded animals. In fact, Smith is more often described as a frightened "creature" than as a human being responsible for his actions….
Capote's presentation also shows that Perry has been wronged by society. Although we tend to see Perry ironically because of his self-delusions, we are also provided with the testimony of his prison friend Willie-Jay who sees him as "sensitive" and "artistic." (p. 76)
Because the descriptions of Smith draw freely on the resources and obsessions of Capote's fiction, they serve to reveal clearly the imprint of dramatic heightening. Capote's sympathy for both killers as persons, as unique individuals, elevates the nonfiction novel above the pulp detective story…. Ultimately. Capote raises without answering the important questions of how a man can be so riddled with contradictions and how our society could have produced such a man.
Beyond these techniques of characterization, In Cold Blood lies closer to fiction than to journalism on what might be called a symbolic level. Capote's treatment of the "facts" creates a context of meaning beyond these particular killers, this particular crime. He weaves the facts of the case into a pattern that resonates with the violence of an entire decade of American life. And yet, how, exactly, does the book achieve this suggestive power? How does it become universal in a way that most reportage is not? (pp. 77-8)
Robert K. Morris suggests in a provocative essay on Capote's imagery that the selective repetition of certain images, landscapes, and atmospheric details creates a cumulative impact. As in Capote's fiction, Morris explains, the environments of In Cold Blood are "the 'lonesome areas' of 'out there' where people are isolated, muted, rarely able to vent their cry of loneliness or anger or impotence or fear, and perhaps never heard when they do."…
Melvin J. Friedman contends that Capote's exploitation of these remote, almost uninhabitable environments allies him with French experiments in the nouveau roman, notably the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet. (p. 78)
The most striking similarity between In Cold Blood and such new novels as Les gommes or Portrait d'un inconnu is the technique of repeating certain landscapes and inanimate objects…. Capote's position in In Cold Blood is not nearly so radical as that of the French new novelists, but he shows a similar predisposition to present landscapes, environments, and objects in repeated patterns. He leaves to the reader the attribution of value and the responsibility of moral interpretation. He resists the temptation to impose meaning or to moralize upon fundamentally inexplicable events. (p. 79)
[Despite] Capote's relentless care to present only the facts and his reluctance to impose a too easy moral, his story achieves in the end a kind of mythic significance. The destiny of an archetypal American family crosses paths with warped killers whose vengeance is portrayed more as the result of fate than of human motivation…. This mythic dimension of Capote's story dawns on the reader gradually and subtly. First of all, the Clutter family is shown to typify all of the traditional American values. Herbert Clutter is a man whose prosperity is built upon hard work, endurance, and faith in God. He is a pillar of the community, a local booster, and a successful farmer—a man who has played hard by the rules and won.
In the eyes of Holcomb's people, Herbert Clutter and his family represent the American Dream come true. (pp. 79-80)
Once this mythic dimension of the Clutters is established, we see that their inexplicable deaths profoundly disrupt Holcomb's ethical universe. For by all the conventional values of our society, and most of our ready notions of good and evil, such murders are incomprehensible. (p. 80)
If the Clutters are portrayed as representatives of the American Dream, Hickock and Smith are shown to be agents of fate rather than morally culpable human beings. The reader is asked to view Perry Smith's crime as the product of a "brain explosion"—a "mental eclipse"—rather than an act for which he is responsible. The role of fate in shaping Smith's personality gradually emerges as Capote recounts his family background. (pp. 80-1)
[In Cold Blood is] more than merely a documentary. It is almost a moral allegory of an innocent family struck down by killers who are themselves victims of fate. The Clutters stand for everything in life that Perry Smith found unattainable: sustaining love, economic security, an orderly existence based on simple virtue. (p. 82)
[The] difficulty of placing In Cold Blood generically brings into clear focus a long-standing critical problem. How do we distinguish fiction from nonfiction? What are the basic differences between literature and mere journalism?…
First we might ask what a novel is. In Anatomy of Criticism Northrop Frye concludes that "any literary work in a radically continuous form, which almost means any work of art in prose," might be considered a novel. Second, Frye declares that a novel must be "made for its own sake," that is, for intrinsically aesthetic rather than didactic purposes. By both these criteria, then, In Cold Blood would qualify. (p. 83)
Perhaps because it was written by a novelist, many reviewers have considered In Cold Blood on aesthetic rather than didactic grounds—as they would a novel. Yet in the Library of Congress system it is placed under nonfiction, in a category of "social pathology" including murder case histories…. These discrepancies merely demonstrate our critical problems in classifying certain works. In the end, attempts to place a work like In Cold Blood definitely in a generic category appear doomed…. Perhaps a more manageable problem than whether Capote has established a new literary form is to examine why he might have made such extravagant claims.
As we have seen, Capote's role as a literary promoter is foremost. His rhetoric of originality neglects to mention a whole tradition of true crime books he found it convenient to ignore. The author's tactic of imposing a polemical definition of his work, however, is a familiar one. In the eighteenth century, Fielding called Joseph Andrews "a comic epic poem in prose." Like Fielding, Capote wanted to appropriate for himself the prestige of his era's dominant literary form and, in part, to shape the critical standards for judging his work. (pp. 83-4)
Capote's insistence upon the sanctity of his new genre, however, reflects an impossibility, a romantic yearning for more than the form he chose will allow. For while In Cold Blood is an extremely well-documented and dramatically satisfying account of a case history, it follows in a well-established tradition. Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment, and Dreiser's An American Tragedy were all drawn from actual case materials. Perhaps the most recent example of the genre, and the closest to In Cold Blood, is Levin's Compulsion, which the author calls a "documentary novel." (p. 84)
In Cold Blood exemplifies the seemingly random, meaningless crime that became symptomatic of America in the sixties. For implicit in the story of the Kansas killings are larger questions about the social dislocations of the sixties and the failure of conventional morality to explain away the senseless violence we read about daily in the newspaper. Ultimately, Capote's story of Perry and Dick and the Clutter family transcends the here and now, the merely local and particular that are the hallmarks of journalism. (p. 85)
John Hollowell, "Truman Capote's 'Nonfiction Novel'," in his Fact & Fiction: The New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel (copyright © 1977 by The University of North Carolina Press), University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pp. 63-86.
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[Truman Capote says of writing:] "A writer ought to have all his colors, all his abilities available on the same palette for mingling…. But how?"
"Music for Chameleons," a miscellany of stories, reportage, an extended crime narrative and a few autobiographical snippets, is the result of a search for an answer to that question. The search is described by the author as both perilous and exhausting…. All the more troubling, therefore, to report that the book is disappointing.
The longest piece of writing, "Handcarved Coffins: A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime," is a rambling chronicle of Mr. Capote's friendship and conversations, literary and nonliterary, with Jake Pepper of the State Bureau of Investigation, who suspects a rich rancher of committing multiple murders. Rarely in its length do we explore the interior either of a criminal or of a threatened innocent or man of law. And the experimental dimension seems negligible, amounting only to the periodic interruption of conventional first-person prose by patches of dialogue laid out as though in a film script or play….
Roughly the same failings surface in the fiction and journalism—authorial claims of hard-won breakthroughs, little supporting evidence…. The new fictional style is … flat, perfunctory and bored with itself—witness a piece of grotesque about a Connecticut Jane Austen fancier whose deepfreeze is "filled with stacks of frozen, perfectly preserved cats" (the dead pets of her past).
The "new" journalistic style appears in accounts of an afternoon with Marilyn Monroe and a morning with a Manhattan cleaning woman and consists once more of conventional first-person prose interrupted by patches of (exceedingly arch) conversation printed as in a film script….
There's nothing mysterious about Capote's decision, at this point in his literary career, to insist on his identity as an experimenter grimly gambling his way thorugh creative chaos in pursuit of new shapes and idioms….
The disquiet I felt on reading "Music for Chameleons" was rather different from that which sub-par performances by accomplished writers usually inspire. The book left an impression of veiled scorn for the standards and values of those for whose hospitable welcome the author now bids on returning to letters from the world of publicity. And that impression is directly traceable, I think, to the unearned use of the language of deep esthetic commitment.
I don't deny that here and there in these pages humor leavens the toploftiness, condescension and melodramatized dedication. There is even a moment of sober self-critique….
But still the misgivings multiply. Their source, as I say, is the author's pretense that all one needs to do, in order to repossess oneself of the ambition of an artist and the scrupulosity of a craftsman, is to assert that one has thus repossessed oneself. No sweat; it's as easy as opening an umbrella in a summer shower. Simply tap out, on typewriter keys, "creative chaos," "experiment," "grim gambles," "hundreds of pages," "dark madness," and there you are, made whole again, peer of the truly consecrated poet engaged in the truly lonely struggle. In his best days Truman Capote stood at a remove from such fearful cynicism. May those days soon return.
Benjamin DeMott, "Intense Travail, Mixed Results," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 3, 1980, p. 9.
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When [Capote] thinks, he is like nobody else—lapidary craftsman, master of nuance and detail. When he babbles, he is a nobody. Music for Chameleons displays the thinking Truman—with the customary intrusion of commonness that has marred much of his work.
Everything is displayed in this crow's nest of a book…. The title story is all the author claims for it…. The prose blackens, alters its tone, summons ghosts, and recalls Caribbean melodies and celebrations. (p. 30)
The High Capote returns in such pieces as "Dazzle," a Proustian recollection of the day he first wished aloud to be a girl, and when he sensed that for the rest of his life he would be haunted by the derision greeting his request. And I found a superabundance of moving tragicomedy in "A Day's Work."… Yet even here, Capote cannot resist low vaudeville Jew jokes—the Berkowitz parrot, named Polly, naturally, has learned to say "Oy Vey!" Mary Sanchez describes the bird's owners as "real stuffy Jewish people. And you know how stuffy they are!" Capote: "Jewish people? Gosh, yes. Very stuffy. They ought to be in the Museum of Natural History. All of them."
Of course, it may be that the reader is supposed to be as stoned reading this as Capote was when he said it. Otherwise one might almost mistake it for country-club bigotry masquerading as social satire.
Still, as he would be the first to proclaim, Capote's powers derive from his weaknesses: fussiness becomes exactitude; gossip, acute dialogue; snobbism, a form of confession; and the announcement of new art forms, a refurbishing of the old ones. There is, in fact, nothing new in Capote's new book, except Capote. (p. 31)
The self-inflation introducing Music for Chameleons will soon fade. Dust-jacket prose always does. The stories and vignettes will endure, not because they enlighten and certainly not because they bear any moral qualities. They will last because, however variable their quality, they entertain…. [It] is not Oscar Wilde whom Capote now evokes, but the Comparable Max [Beerbohm], caricaturing the famous, writing with a deceptively casual, limpid prose style….
There is still another figure Capote strains to emulate. There it is hovering around the portrait for Music for Chameleons: the eyes, no longer hidden by spectacles, stare out pitilessly like Isak Dinesen's. The hands are like claws. The mouth no longer smiles. At the figure's back are 14 hypnotic tales. He hints, and we believe him, that there is more, far more to tell. Truman Capote's pose and Bert Stern's photograph make it all too clear who decorates this book: Sheherazade in drag. (p. 32)
Stefan Kanfer, "'Music for Chameleons'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, Nos. 10 & 11, September 6 & 13, 1980, pp. 30-2.
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Mr. Capote's principal stylistic innovation [in "Music for Chameleons"] consists of nothing more than setting himself center stage and reconstructing, "in a severe, minimal manner, commonplace conversations with everyday people"; and … the result of this apparently modest experiment—that is, the contents of "Music for Chameleons"—does not immediately strike one as Mr. Capote writing with the full powers at his command. (pp. 472-73)
[While] nearly all of the collection displays the prose style, "clear as a country creek," that Mr. Capote claims to have striven for, it seems something less than the major innovation he has announced in his preface.
All the same, a little reflection makes one realize why these pieces seem so important to Mr. Capote. By setting himself "center stage" for the first time in his career, he has succeeded in projecting all the facets of his remarkable and varied personality. By telling such seemingly far-fetched stories as "A Lamp in the Window" and "Mr. Jones," he has indulged the side of himself that delights in making up whoppers. By making the resolution of "Handcarved Coffins" dependent on his fantasies, he is able to exploit his fascination with, and uncanny perception of, the criminal mentality….
In short, the pieces in "Music for Chameleons" have freed him to write about himself—even to confess, without a trace of self-pity or bravado, the agony he felt as a child over his secret desire "to be a girl." Yet these pieces can hardly be called an egotistical celebration of his personality. He does what he does with art. That art is a sort of music. We gather to listen and to blend ourselves into the composer's background. Just like the chameleons. (p. 473)
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'Music for Chameleons'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 5, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. III, No. 10, October, 1980, pp. 472-73).
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Inasmuch as [Truman Capote] has produced a number of works that continue to be read, studied, and discussed, he must be regarded as one of the more significant writers of the second half of this century. Undoubtedly, Other Voices, Other Rooms, A Tree of Night and Other Stories, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and In Cold Blood, his best works, will have reader appeal for a very long time and will remain influential for other writers.
Some reviewers criticized Capote's fiction prior to In Cold Blood for its unrealistic characters, fanciful plots, and its indifference to moral and societal issues. Still, there are critics who find those same qualities praiseworthy, commenting that Capote's stories develop from the historical conventions of the romance. (pp. 6-7)
Readers who accept the idea that Capote's early writing should be categorized as romance can then dismiss irrelevant issues. They are the people who find Capote's second book remarkable in its voyage into the human psyche via the route of the romance. A Tree of Night and Other Stories is like a heavily woven tapestry of different depths that draws one from layer to layer. The collection contains stories in both a light and dark mode. Although Capote was never again to publish stories of the latter kind, some of the characteristics appear in other works, and some of the characters surface under other names in the fiction of the past decade. (p. 7)
American literature in the thirties and forties was dominated by social consciousness. The preferred fiction was sociological prose, much of it naturalistic. Thus, when Other Voices, Other Rooms was published soon after World War II, it was criticized as being out of the main stream. Within a decade, however, as other young writers gained renown, it became apparent that Capote's novel was a piece of a new pattern in fiction, one that was described by terms such as narcissistic, grotesque, symbolic, and aesthetic. (p. 13)
Unlike Faulkner or Tate, [Capote] is not concerned with the destruction of a region, the downfall of a class, or the decay of a family. His first novel, as well as those that succeed it, is narrower in scope than theirs…. Undeniably, Other Voices, Other Rooms belongs to the Southern gothic mode, but it is much more than a baroque fiction. The novelist has combined elements of gothicism with both a Southern setting and Southern characters. The work has mystery and suspense, terror and horror, heavily textured description, strange episodes and people, and psychological and symbolic elements of the gothic. A decaying Southern mansion far removed from ordinary life provides the setting for characters so different from the norm that they are grotesque. But there is purpose in Capote's creation.
The major theme of the novel is homosexuality, a topic considered taboo in American work prior to the advent of contemporary fiction. When the subject did appear in the past, it was usually carefully masked. Capote, however, uses no disguises other than symbols, dreams, and images as he tells the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who becomes an innocent victim of an inescapable fate. In the course of the novel, [Joel] develops into a tragic figure as he is drawn toward the encapsulated world of the homosexual. (pp. 13-14)
[The] Southern gothic world in which Joel becomes entrapped forces him to discover one self, one voice, one room that will imprison him forever. The other Joels that might-have-been are deterministically eliminated as he journeys from the real world of a thirteen-year-old into a surrealistic nightmare from which he can awaken only into another kind of unreality. Joel is an innocent, a victim of people and events over which he has no control. (p. 14)
At thirteen Joel is in an amorphous stage. Having reached the end of childhood he must cross the threshold into adulthood. But Joel has an uncertain masculinity…. Having known only the feminine world of his mother and his aunt, he views the masculine world as mysterious and magical, equating it with abnormal strength and power. He is possessed of many fears, fear of hidden enemies, fear of humiliation, fear of pain, fear of loss and loneliness. These mitigate his desire to escape the sterile future of Skully's Landing for the reality of an existence which has shown him enemies, humiliation, pain, loss, and loneliness. (pp. 20-1)
All things have prepared [Joel for his fate]: loss, fear, loneliness, disaster, deception, desertion. Randolph's encircling web cannot be escaped unless Joel wills it, and he does not…. Overwhelmed by the most intense loneliness he has ever known, even more than that of his first afternoon at Skully's Landing, he hears a bell toll in his head. The summer and boyhood that are ending become the "was," "gone," and "dead" of the autumn woods. Words of finality are brought together with images of the coming winter, sterility, frigidity, and death. (pp. 24-5)
Because of the distinctly different types of fiction Capote wrote in the first decade of his career, for the purpose of discussion critics divided his work into two large categories: the sunny or daylight stories, and the dark or nocturnal ones. The sunlight stories are often comic, somewhat realistic, and sometimes sentimental. The nighttime stories are concerned with a world of dreams and nightmares, gothics and grotesques, aberration and evil. The daylight stories are generally told as first-person narrative and move from the narrator to the outer world, whereas the dark stories have a third-person narrator and move to the inner world of the characters. Not only the short fiction but also the lengthier works follow this pattern. (p. 27)
Of the daylight stories in the collection [A Tree of Night and Other Stories], "Children on Their Birthdays" is the most familiar and one of the most popular of all Capote's pieces. It was written the same year that Other Voices, Other Rooms was published, 1948, thus illustrating the divided stream of Capote's talent. Although the reader can discern some similarities between the two works, more obvious links are to be found between the short story and Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Grass Harp: a young man gives an eye-witness account of the events, but almost nothing is known about him in "Children on Their Birthdays," for he does not appear to be a participant in the action as are the young writer in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Collin Fenwick in The Grass Harp. The plot and setting are realistic and the characters have none of the grotesque qualities we associate with the dark works. "Children on Their Birthdays" has a tender tonal quality that recalls both Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Grass Harp. (p. 55)
The struggle between innocent naturalness and restrictive societal values is basic to the meaning of The Grass Harp. Although in the long run the rules of society prevail, it is not as if goodness is defeated by a corrupt force. Rather, it is the recognition that compromise is necessary for the continuity of a community. Thus, over a brief period of time, all the important characters of the novel are touched and changed by the events that occur. Each person gains some self-knowledge as well as understanding of others. (p. 63)
Humor in The Grass Harp has a wide range: there is situational comedy as well as comic characters, verbal humor and physical humor. Some of it consists of slapstick stage business …, some depends on regional elements …, some suggests the influence of burlesque in sexual humor …, and some of the comedy depends on the reader's enjoyment of the tall tale. Although Capote frequently enlivens his work with humor, The Grass Harp contains more comic components than any of the author's other works. (p. 72)
The final passage [of The Grass Harp] returns to the beginning pages, a technique Capote later uses in Breakfast at Tiffany's. He establishes the pastness of the story about to be told. A tone of nostalgia underlies both the introduction and the conclusion, as it suggests the beauty but also the sweet melancholy of autumn with its brilliant colors and the wind blowing through the crackling leaves. Both here and in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the circular technique helps to create the sensation of remembrance: something lovely happened long ago and for a short time we participate in the recollection of the narrator. (p. 77)
Much of Breakfast at Tiffany's is muted in tone. Although there is a great deal of humor in a number of episodes, in the dialogue, and in some of the Damon Runyonesque characters, the liveliness exists inside a frame of memory. That remembrance has, like many of Capote's stories, an autumnal sound. (p. 87)
Breakfast at Tiffany's goes full circle. The beginning, which is actually the ending, has a gentle feeling of nostalgia. One hears in the background the echo of "gone" and "was," from Other Voices, Other Rooms, as the narrator walks towards the old brownstone apartment house, which stands "next to a church where a blue tower-clock tells the hours." This use of the past, memory, and sweet sadness is an identifying element of Capote's style. It is what some critics object to, labeling it style without substance. But this seems unfair caviling. For it is just that characteristic which sets off the story, encloses it, as if it were a narrative scene inside a crystal paperweight. At the same time that it pleases and delights, it suggests something else, a pleasurable melancholy for the days that are no more. (pp. 88-9)
Capote is like a painter in [the nonfiction sketches collected in Local Color]. He brushes in color upon color, shading, adding tonal quality. These are more than travel pieces or journalistic reports or anecdotes. They are all of these; in reading them along with the other essays and portraits of this period one may see the techniques that were vital to the writing of In Cold Blood. (p. 140)
Not only are the theme and characters [of In Cold Blood] intriguing, but so also are the methods Capote used to establish the reality of the drama he unfolds. Mingling realism with novelistic imagination, Capote gives the facts, disclosing them not in straightforward newspaper fashion but as a creative artist selecting details, positioning them, and reiterating them much as a painter repeats a line or color for meaning or intensity. The structural pattern also suggests film technique with its use of flashback and close-ups, its carefully depicted settings, the gathering momentum behind the escape, pursuit, and capture of the criminals, the crowd scenes, and the courtroom episodes. The tension of the narrative increases as the hunters—the murderers—become the hunted, and as they, the victimizers of a small innocent family, become (according to Capote's presentation) the victims of the large bureaucratic system of criminal justice in Kansas.
The story of the murder of an exemplary American family, an act of apparently "motiveless malignity," carries a universal appeal for readers, no matter how they view its ultimate meaning: as symbol of violence in America; as the failure of the American Dream; or as a social study of death-obsessed criminals. (pp. 143-44)
Structurally the work is designed to provide maximum suspense, a masterful accomplishment, inasmuch as newspaper reports had given the reader knowledge of the outcome. Capote moves back and forth, first between the criminals and the victims and then between the detectives and the criminals, creating the effect of a montage…. (p. 144)
[In] some ways the conclusion [of In Cold Blood] is like that of a Victorian novel, with all the characters accounted for, "deaths, births, marriages." More significantly, it is finished in quintessential Capote style, reminding the reader of The Grass Harp, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and "A Christmas Memory."
One May afternoon in Kansas "when the fields blaze with the green-gold fire of half-grown wheat," Dewey [the chief investigator] goes to the cemetery to visit his father's grave. Nearby are the graves of the Clutters, where he encounters Nancy Clutter's friend Susan Kidwell, now a young woman, a junior in college. They talk for a while, and as Susan leaves, Dewey envisions the way Nancy might have been, had she lived. The conclusion has Capote's memorable elegiac note. Dewey starts for home, going past the large trees, "leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat."
Although some reviewers have criticized the ending as unfitting for a journalistic work, one must remember that this story is not purely documentary. Therefore, the ending seems completely appropriate to the artistic intent behind the novelistic element. Readers, left with a weight of sadness and loss, recognize that they have been confronted not only with an American tragedy but also the human tragedy, the wanton as well as the inexplicable nature of existence. (p. 164)
Helen S. Garson, in her Truman Capote (copyright © 1980 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1980, 210 p.