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Truman Capote was one the most famous and controversial figures in contemporary American literature. Often known more for his flamboyant lifestyle than for his writings, he produced some memorable works, including the highly influential true-crime classic, In Cold Blood (1966).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Troubled Childhood
Truman Capote was born in New Orleans on September 30, 1924. He seldom saw his father, Archulus Persons, and his memories of his mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, mainly involved emotional neglect. When he was four years old, his parents divorced, and his mother left her son with various relatives in the South while she began a new life in New York with her second husband, Cuban businessman Joseph Capote. The young Capote lived with elderly relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, and he later recalled the loneliness and boredom he experienced during this time.
His unhappiness was assuaged somewhat by his friend ships with his great aunt Sook Faulk, who appears as Cousin Sook in his novellas A Christmas Memory (1966) and The Thanksgiving Visitor (1967), and Harper Lee, a childhood friend who served as the model for Idabel Thompkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). Lee, in turn, paid tribute to Capote by depicting him as the character Dill Harris in her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).
When Capote was nine years old, his mother, having failed to conceive a child with her second husband, brought her son to live with them in Manhattan, although she still sent him to the South in the summer. Capote did poorly in school, causing his parents and teachers to suspect that he was of subnormal intelligence; a series of psychological tests, however, proved that he possessed an I.Q. well above the genius level. To combat his loneliness and sense of displacement, he developed a flamboyant personality that played a significant role in establishing his celebrity status as an adult.
Capote had begun secretly to write at an early age, and rather than attend college after completing high school, he pursued a literary apprenticeship that included various positions at the New Yorker and led to important social contacts in New York City. Renowned for his cunning wit and penchant for gossip, Capote later became a popular guest on television talk shows as well as the frequent focus of feature articles. He befriended many members of high society and was as well known for his eccentric, sometimes scandalous behavior as he was for his writings.
Capote’s first short stories, published in national magazines when he was seventeen, eventually led to a contract to write his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). Despite occasional critical complaints that the novel lacks reference to the real world, Other Voices, Other Rooms achieved immediate notoriety. This success was partly due to its strange, lyrical evocation of life in a small Southern town as well as to the author’s frank treatment of his thirteen-year-old protagonist’s awakening homosexuality. The book’s dust jacket featured a photograph of Capote, who was then twenty-three, reclining on a couch. Many critics and readers found the picture erotically suggestive and inferred that the novel was autobiographical.
Many of Capote’s early stories, written when he was in his teens and early twenties, are collected in A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1950). The following year, he published his first full-length novel, The Grass Harp (1951). In this work, Capote drew on his childhood to create a lyrical, often humorous story focusing on Collin Fenwick, an eleven-year-old boy who is sent to live in a small Southern town with his father’s elderly cousins. This novel, which achieved moderate success, is generally considered to offer a broader, less subjective view of society and the outer world than Capote’s earlier fiction, and was adapted as a Broadway drama in 1952.
A light and humorous tone is also evident in such works as the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and the three other stories published in the same volume, ”House of Flowers,” ”A Diamond Guitar,” and A Christmas Memory. Breakfast at Tiffany’s features Capote’s most famous character, Holly Golightly, a beautiful, waif-like young woman living on the fringes of New York society. Golightly, like the prostitute heroine in ”House of Flowers,” is a childlike person who desires love and a permanent home. This sentimental yearning for security is also evident in the nostalgic novella A Christmas Memory, which, like the later The Thanksgiving Visitor, dramatizes the loving companionship the young Capote found with his great-aunt Sook.
Productivity and Success Followed by Writer’s Block and Declining Reputation
Capote was very productive throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, writ ing such well-known works as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the influential In Cold Blood. In late 1959, Capote came upon the idea for In Cold Blood when he ran across an article in the New York Times about a brutal murder in Kansas. For the next six years, Capote wandered the plains of Kansas as he researched the story of the murder of the Clutter family. He became intensely involved in unraveling the whole story, and with extraordinary stamina and patience, he researched, interviewed, collected, and stored information about the murders, the police investigation, the arrest and charges, and the conviction of the men who perpetrated such a seemingly senseless act. The result was a book that blended journalistic style and fictional technique. Anxious to prove that “journalism is the most under estimated, the least explored of literary mediums,” Capote hoped that In Cold Blood contained ”the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose and the precision of poetry.” From the outset the book was critically acclaimed and highly successful—it was on The New York Times bestseller list for more than a year.
In the late 1960s, Capote began to suffer from writ er’s block, a frustrating condition that severely curtailed his creative output. Throughout this period he claimed to be working on Answered Prayers, a gossip-filled chronicle of the Jet Set that he promised would be his masterpiece. He reported that part of his trouble in completing the project was dissatisfaction with his technique and that he spent most of his time revising or discarding work in progress.
During the mid-1970s he attempted to stimulate his creative energies and to belie critics’ accusations that he had lost his talent by publishing several chapters of Answered Prayers in the magazine Esquire. Most critics found the chapters disappointing. More devastating to Capote, however, were the reactions of his society friends, most of whom felt betrayed by his revelations of the intimate details of their lives and refused to have any more contact with him.
Gone But Not Forgotten
Towards the end of his life, Capote succumbed to alcoholism, drug addiction, and poor health, and when he died on August 25, 1984, a month short of his sixtieth birthday, he had few mourners. In a letter to Helen S. Garson after the 1986 publication of Capote’s unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, Capote’s longtime editor, Joe Fox, stated he was happy not to have to work with Capote anymore. Obituaries described bizarre and unattractive aspects of Capote’s personality, and pundits predicted that the public had not only seen but also had heard the last of him. Time has proved them wrong. The writer—described mockingly by Capote’s life time enemy Gore Vidal in his 1996 memoir Palimpsest as someone for whom ”an interview is his principal art form”—is gone but not forgotten. Revival of interest in Capote led to production ofa popular feature film, Capote (2005), which chronicles the period in Capote’s life when he was writing In Cold Blood.
Works in Literary Context
Originally considered a Southern Gothic writer, Capote was later noted for the humorous and sentimental tone of his works. As Capote matured, his works became less mannered in style, partly as a result of his experiments in nonfiction writing. In his best-known work, In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences (1966), he became a leading practitioner of ”New Journalism,” popularizing a genre that he called the nonfiction novel.
Southern Gothic and Humorous Sentiment
The ornate style and dark psychological themes of Capote’s early fiction led him to be categorized as a Southern Gothic writer. The pieces collected in A Tree of Night and Other Stories show the influence of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty, all of whom are associated to some degree with a Gothic tradition in American literature. Like these authors, as well as the Southern Gothic writers Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, with whom critics most often compare him, Capote filled his stories with grotesque incidents and characters who suffer from mental and physical abnormalities.
Yet Capote did not always use the South as a setting, and the Gothic elements in some of the tales are offset by Capote’s humorous tone in others. Critics often place his fiction into two categories: light and sinister. In the former category are narratives that report the amusing activities of eccentric characters. This tone is present in several stories based on his Southern childhood and in the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). More common among Capote’s early fiction, however, are the sinister stories, which are heavily symbolic fables that portray characters in nightmarish situations, threatened by evil forces. Frequently in these tales evil is personified as a sinister man.
In other instances evil appears as a weird personage who represents the darker, hidden side of the protagonist. In later years Capote commented that the Gothic eeriness of these stories reflected the anxiety and feelings of insecurity he experienced as a child.
Combining Fact and Fiction
In some of his works of the 1950s, Capote abandoned the lush style of his early writings for a more austere approach, turning his attention away from traditional fiction. Local Color (1950) is a collection of pieces recounting his impressions and experiences while in Europe, and The Muses Are Heard: An Account (1956) contains essays written while traveling in Russia with a touring company of Porgy and Bess. From these projects Capote developed the idea of creating a work that would combine fact and fiction. The result was In Cold Blood, which, according to Capote himself, was ”a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it.”
In writing In Cold Blood, Capote avoided conventional forms of journalism and presented facts with an array of literary devices. He told the story chronologically, reconstructing the story in dramatic scenes, thereby achieving a scenic depiction rather than a historical summary. He recorded dialogue in full rather than in the bits and pieces common to reportage and history-writing. He depicted mannerisms, gestures, styles, and manner of dress to portray characters in rich detail. He employed point of view, which new journalism critic John Hollowell writes ”generates sympathy for the killers by narrating their sto ries from the viewpoints of comforting women close to them.” Capote extended these techniques to interior monologue by reporting events as his characters were thinking about them. More than one critic said Capote had written a factual story fictionally, apparently meaning that Capote fictionalized some of the facts of the story. The author adamantly denied this, remaining steadfast in his claim to have created a new writing form, a claim that ruffled feathers in the literary community.
Works in Critical Context
Critical assessment of Capote’s career is highly divided, both in terms of individual works and his overall contribution to literature. In an early review Paul Levine described Capote as a ”definitely minor figure in contemporary literature whose reputation has been built less on a facility of style than on an excellent advertising campaign.” Ihab Hassan, however, claimed that ”whatever the faults of Capote may be, it is certain that his work possesses more range and energy than his detractors allow.” Although sometimes faulted for precocious, fanciful plots and for overwriting, Capote is widely praised for his storytelling abilities and the quality of his prose.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s One of Capote’s most lasting successes came with the publication of the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Many critics felt that Capote had displayed a level of maturity missing in his earlier fiction, and that he had finally created characters who were likable, realistic, and fashioned with a humorous pen. Capote had been criticized in earlier works for prose that at times seemed contrived, but for the most part, Breakfast at Tiffany’s escaped this criticism and had the critic for the Times Literary Supplement, as well as others, placing Capote ”among the leading American writers of the day.” After publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Norman Mailer wrote that Capote ”is the most perfect writer of my generation. He writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm. I would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood, Capote’s best-known and most influential work, was given some of the most extensive critical interest in publishing history. Although several commentators accused Capote of opportunism and of concealing his inability to produce imaginative fiction by working with ready-made material, most responded with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Rebecca West, writing in Harper’s, called In Cold Blood a ”formidable statement about reality and concluded that it was a ”grave and reverend book.” In the New York Review of Books, F. W. Dupee drew comparisons between In Cold Blood and works by Cervantes, Hawthorne, and Henry James. The most extended analysis of In Cold Blood and its place in Capote s literary career came in George Garrett s Hollins Critic essay ”Crime and Punishment in Kansas.” The comparison invited by the use of Dostoyevsky s title suggested Garrett s high regard for In Cold Blood, which he described as ”a frank bid for greatness.
There was, however, some negative response. Writing in The Spectator, Tony Tanner credited Capote with creating ”a stark image of the deep doubleness in American life,” yet concluded that In Cold Blood suffered by comparison with other works that took their inspiration from reports of actual crimes but developed into true works of the imagination. Diana Trilling treated In Cold Blood even more harshly in her Partisan Review essay on it. She found Capote’s prose ”flaccid, often downright inept” and his narrative “overmanipulated.” Further, she con tended that the objectivity that Capote retained throughout the book served not to produce truth but to protect Capote from the need to take a stand on the issues his work raised.
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Windham, Donald. Lost Friendships: A Memoir of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Others. New York: Morrow, 1987.
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