Truman Capote, who died last summer at the age of fifty-eight, was one of a handful of American novelists who became famous at a very early age in the years following the Second World War. Perhaps the three most celebrated of these writers were Gore Vidal (whose Williwaw appeared in 1946, when he was nineteen), Norman Mailer (whose The Naked and the Dead was issued two years later, when he was twenty-five), and Capote (who published Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1949, at the age of twenty-three). If Mailer and Vidal spent the early part of their careers climbing out of derivative ruts and attempting to find their own voices, Capote was an original from the start. This is not to suggest that he did not, in the manner of every young writer, learn from his antecedents. Other Rooms, Other Voices is riddled with Southern Gothic touches—grotesque characters, haunting scenes—that are reminiscent of Faulkner and Carson McCullers; its lyrical style and elegiac tone (a tone that was to stay with Capote forever, however radically his style might change) recall Willa Cather; and the situation and the contours of the plot bring to mind both Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw. For all this, to read Other Voices, Other Rooms is not to catalogue influences but to appreciate the way Capote makes these varied borrowings over into something entirely his own.

Carl Van Vechten, Truman Capote, 1948. Photo: Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

Other Voices, Other Rooms charts the path toward self-discovery of an intelligent, rather delicate thirteen-year-old, Joel Knox, who, as the novel opens, is finding his way to the grand, dilapidated back-country home of his invalid father, Mr. Sansom, and his stepmother, Miss Amy, neither of whom he has ever met. Joel has been sent for by these two, but, as he eventually discovers, the summons was really the work of the third member of the household: his odd cousin Randolph, who appears one day, ghost-like and dressed as a woman, at an upstairs window. Randolph’s yen for Joel is obvious, and at the end of the novel Joel recognizes that his own fate is, to put it delicately, bound up with Randolph’s:

His mind was absolutely clear. He was like a camera waiting for its subject to enter focus. The wall yellowed in the meticulous setting of the October sun, and the windows were rippling mirrors of cold, seasonal color. Beyond one, someone was watching him. All of him was dumb except his eyes. They knew. And it was Randolph’s window. Gradually the blinding sunset drained from the glass, darkened, and it was as if snow were falling there, flakes shaping snow-eyes, hair: a face trembled like a white beautiful moth, smiled. She beckoned to him, shining and silver, and he knew, he must go: unafraid, not hesitating, he paused only at the garden’s edge where, as though he’d forgotten something, he stopped and looked back at the bloomless, descending blue, at the boy he had left behind.

Capote never stopped looking back at that boy. The innocence of childhood, the tragedy of having to trade it in for the sordidness and disillusionment of adulthood: these themes haunt all of Capote’s major works. The heroes of his novels are invariably sensitive souls, aliens in the world of civilized, responsible adults, who are tortured by their inability to let go of childhood.

Critics have leveled many complaints against Other Voices, Other Rooms: that it hasn’t got much of a plot, that it doesn’t add up to anything, that it’s intellectually barren. It’s a mood piece, they complain, a stylistic tour de force. Perhaps. But what a mood, what a style! One marvels at the assured prose, at this young writer’s ability to sweep one up and carry one, without a misstep, through a mysterious landscape which is to the real Deep South as Hardy’s Wessex is to Dorset. One marvels, too, at his ability to defamiliarize—without a trace of self-consciousness—that most tiredly familiar of all first-novel genres, the Bildungsroman.

For almost a decade after Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote produced one largish project per year. 1949: A Tree of Night (a story collection). 1950: Local Color (travel essays). 1951: The Grass Harp (a novel). 1952: the stage adaptation (unsuccessful) of The Grass Harp. 1953: the film Beat the Devil. 1954: book and lyrics (including the jazz standard “A Sleepin’ Bee”) for a Broadway musical, House of Flowers, with music by Harold Arlen. 1956: The Muses Are Heard, a journal of Capote’s trip to the Soviet Union with the cast of Porgy and Bess. Clearly, in the early Fifties Capote was already developing the fascination with those glitzy extra-literary milieus (showbiz, cafe society, the jet set) which were to usurp much of his time and energy over the ensuing years, and evincing a remarkable willingness (and ability) to apply his talents to a variety of genres. Despite this dazzling (and, perhaps, dismaying) versatility, however, Capote continued to devote himself, throughout the 1950s, primarily to prose fiction.

Like Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Grass Harp, his major work of the period, offers a setting in the Deep South, eccentric relatives, grotesque neighbors, an intelligent yet delicate boy’s confrontation with adulthood, a thinly veiled homosexual theme—and rich, romantic prose:

When was it that I first 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.

If on leaving town you take the church road you soon will pass a glaring hill of bonewhite slabs and brown burnt flowers: this is the Baptist cemetery. . . . Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.

Beyond the field begins the darkness of River Woods. It must have been one of those September days when we were there in the woods gathering roots that Dolly said: Do you hear? that is the grass harp, always telling a story—it knows the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who ever lived, and when we are dead it will tell ours, too.

The speaker here is sixteen-year-old Collin, who lives in a small town with his father’s cousins Verena (a tyrant) and the above-mentioned Dolly (the first of many endearing child-women in Capote’s work). When Verena returns from a trip to Chicago with a vulgar man named Morris Ritz, who insists upon learning the formula for Dolly’s secret herbal medicine—he and Verena want to patent it, market it, and reap the rewards —Collin, Dolly, and their black friend Catherine escape to a tree house in the woods. Complications ensue—some forced and farcical, some melodramatic: the town descends upon them, threatening legal action and physical harm; the local judge and Riley, the town hellion (and Collin’s idol), join them in the tree; Ritz absconds with Verena’s money; Collin and his companions abandon the tree house; Dolly dies of a stroke; Riley marries; Collin packs his bags and leaves town, “not foreseeing] that I would travel the road and dream the tree until they had drawn me back.” The Grass Harp demonstrates that Capote’s aims had changed somewhat since his first book: he wanted to be not only moving but funny, to create a mood and tell a relatively involved story, and to concentrate less on his boy-hero and more on the people around him. But the style of this short novel did not, for the most part, depart markedly from the lyrical, meditative manner of Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Capote continued to develop, though, and in the same direction.

Capote continued to develop, though, and in the same direction. By the time of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), he was even more concerned with developing a plot, being humorous, and looking beyond his protagonist (who had, by now, grown into a young man); and he had, fortunately, developed a style that suited these ends perfectly. That style, New Yorkerishly terse and precise, is reminiscent of J. D. Salinger, and so is the setting, “a brownstone in the East Seventies . . . during the early years of the war.” The hero of the novella is a fledgling Southern (and, though he never says so explicitly, homosexual) writer who lives in that brownstone; the heroine, Holly Go-lightly, is a gorgeous, stylish playgirl in the apartment directly below, who peppers her conversation with French expressions, earns her living by dating middle-aged men and delivering coded messages to a “sweet” Mafia kingpin named Sally Tomato, and hopes to marry very, very rich. Breakfast at Tiffany’s marks a switch in Capote’s stylistic emphasis from evocative description to dialogue—which is, in its own way, equally evocative:

Be a darling, darling, rub some oil on my back.” While I was performing this service, she said: “O. J. Berman’s in town, and listen, I gave him your story in the magazine. He was quite impressed. He thinks maybe you’re worth helping. But he says you’re on the wrong track. Negroes and children: who cares?”

“Not Mr. Berman, I gather.”

“Well, I agree with him. I read that story twice. Brats and niggers. Trembling leaves. Description. It doesn’t mean anything.”

The twist in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is that Holly (who seems here, perhaps, to have been reading something very much like The Grass Harp) is a hillbilly girl, real name Lulamae, the runaway wife of a horse doctor in Tulip, Texas, who is old enough to be her grandfather. She is, at bottom, a scared, vulnerable Southern child, a self-exile, compelled by her helpless fear of the responsibilities of adulthood to wander far from home, binding herself to no one, trying desperately to lose sight of her terror and loneliness among the bright lights and the nightclub crowds of New York.

The more closely one looks at Breakfast at Tiffany’s the more difficult it is to avoid feeling that the novella is something of a schizophrenic act on Capote’s part. One side of him (the disciplined, mature writer) observes the other (the wild, frivolous party-goer, enthralled by criminals and enamored of the very, very rich, who refuses to grow up). The ego lives upstairs, the id downstairs. Not that this Freudian schema is at all conspicuous; on the contrary, few contemporary American novels provide as good an example as Breakfast at Tiffany’s does of Flaubertian economy, elegance, and (seeming) objectivity. It is Capote’s finest work— witty, affecting, not a word wasted.

Many, of course, would accord that distinction to In Cold Blood (1966). This study of the 1958 murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, is undeniably riveting, but Capote’s lifelong tendency to identify with the outsider led him, in this instance, to present the facts in such a way that the reader has to struggle to avoid sympathizing with the murderers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. As Capote describes them, the Clutters are Reader’s Digest-reading robots, fudge-baking clones, church-going zombies, who have no great ambitions, no profound torments, no interest in pursuing anything other than the unexamined life. Contrasted with these card-carrying members of the Bible Belt booboisie are the two killers. The Clutters’ murderers—Perry Smith especially—fascinated Capote. In Perry, a small, childlike man with an I.Q. of 130, a earful of books, maps, poems, and letters, and a preoccupation with his memories of boyhood, Capote appears to have seen a sensitive soul—and, one suspects, yet another alter ego. Though the tone of In Cold Blood is controlled and impersonal, the fact is that Capote developed a warm friendship with the murderers during his years of research; at the end, he accompanied them to the scaffold, wept for days over their deaths, and even paid for their grave markers. One wishes, for the sake of In Cold Blood, that he had been as close to the Clutters. Even that, though, would probably not have been enough: Capote’s fascination with murder and murderers (which by no means ended with In Cold Blood) was too profound, and his aloofness from moral considerations (in these matters, at least) too extreme, to allow for much authorial sympathy for the victims.1

Capote trumpeted that he had, in In Cold Blood, created a new literary form, the “non-fiction novel.”

Capote trumpeted that he had, in In Cold Blood, created a new literary form, the “non-fiction novel.” Some critics hailed this “invention,” others dismissed it. Norman Mailer suggested that Capote’s swing to nonaction bespoke “a failure of imagination,” and then (as Capote spent the next eighteen years pointing out) wrote The Armies of the Night, a “novel-as-history,” and won the Pulitzer Prize for it. In Cold Blood is, of course, no novel; but it is a very sophisticated piece of New Journalism, the sort of handsomely written, subtly partisan reportage that only a gifted author of fiction could have concocted.

After In Cold Blood, Capote continued to experiment with genre. He published less and less; during most of the nearly two decades between the publication of In Cold Blood and his death, Capote claimed to be working hard at a book called Answered Prayers, which he described as “a variation on the nonfiction novel.” (The title “is a quote from Saint Thèrése, who said: ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’”) Chapters from this work-in-progress appeared in Esquire during the mid-Seventies, and the information they disclosed about certain of Capote’s cafe society friends—who, by that time, seemed to have become far more important to him than his writing—supposedly turned all of them against him. (This rejection, in turn, reportedly drove him to the heavy drinking and drug-taking that brought on his death.) The excerpts didn’t do Capote’s literary reputation much good either. Critics saw Answered Prayers as gossip, not serious literature—the work of a man grown lazy and self-indulgent. And they were, unfortunately, right: the Esquire excerpts represent a surrender, on Capote’s part, to those more puerile tendencies that were evident in—but did not, at any rate, tyrannize—his earlier work. To be sure, one can discern, in reading the excerpts (which are beautifully composed), that Capote did have at least a ghost of a serious literary intention here. He wanted to say the usual things about fame, wealth, and the wages of ambition, while doing for the New York society of the 1970s what Edith Wharton had done for the New York society of the 1870s. The excerpts do succeed in one sense: they prove beyond a doubt that most of the rich ladies who spend their afternoons at La Côte Basque and La Grenouille are dull and shallow. This, indeed, seems to be Capote’s main point. But why, if these women are so dull and shallow, would anyone want to spend a decade of his life reproducing their silly chatter and collecting their gossip—or, for that matter, keeping them company? It is, to be sure, possible that Answered Prayers, as Capote envisioned it, would have added up to a profound, penetrating novel of contemporary manners. But the published excerpts, as they stand, do not penetrate very deeply.2

It appears likely that we shall never know precisely what Answered Prayers could have been. An article by Julie Baumgold which appeared last fall in New York magazine told the story. After Capote’s death, his biographer, his editor, and his lawyer searched his Long Island house but failed to find a single page of the manuscript that he had claimed, for so many years, to be toiling over, and which (though he had never shown it to anybody) he had expostulated upon at length in countless interviews. After looking everywhere, Capote’s friends faced what appeared to be the unpleasant truth: there was no Answered Prayers; Capote had seemingly been lying for years about his progress on it. It is, of course, possible that he had produced hundreds of pages of his intended magnum opus, but had found them unworthy and destroyed them in the course of attempted revision.

In the preface to his final book, Music for Chameleons, Capote indicated that he had stopped work on Answered Prayers as the result of “a creative crisis and a personal one” that came upon him at the same time. These crises, as it turned out, “altered my entire comprehension of writing, my attitude toward art and life and the balance between the two, and my understanding of the difference between what is true and what is really true.” The upshot is that he began to rewrite Answered Prayers in an entirely new style. That style—which dominates Music for Chameleons—represents yet another step in the direction Capote had been moving all along: toward greater concision and “realism,” a heavier reliance upon dialogue, and a more comprehensive combination of forms. The idea was to “combine within a single form . . . all [he knew] about every other form of writing . . . . A writer ought to have all his colors, all his abilities available on the same palette for mingling (and, in suitable instances, simultaneous application).”

The longest and most effective of the pieces in Music for Chameleons, a “nonfiction short novel” called “Handcarved Coffins,” describes a bizarre-but-true series of crimes that Capote followed closely during the late Seventies; the new style works well here, and the story, though shorn of the depth and detail of In Cold Blood, has an immediacy, an emotional force, and a quality of genuine suspensefulness and terror that Capote had never achieved before. The “Conversational Portraits” that occupy nearly half of Music for Chameleons are somewhat less ambitious. As the collective title indicates, each of these short pieces consists of the record of a conversation between Capote and someone he finds interesting—Pearl Bailey, Bobby Beausoleil (of Manson Family fame), Mary Sanchez (Capote’s cleaning lady). In the most celebrated of these pieces, “A Beautiful Child,” Capote describes his cavortings on an April day in 1955 in Manhattan with Marilyn Monroe, whom he sees as a Holly Golightly-like child-woman, a beautiful innocent adrift on the corrupt seas of life. The cavortings end at twilight on South Street Seaport:

MARILYN: Remember, I said if anybody ever asked you what I was like, what Marilyn Monroe was really like—well, how would you answer them? (Her tone was teaseful, mocking, yet earnest, too: she wanted an honest reply) I bet you’d tell them I was a slob. A banana split.
TC: Of course. But I’d also say . . .
(The light was leaving. She seemed to fade with it, blend with the sky and clouds, recede beyond them. I wanted to lift my voice louder than the seagulls’ cries and call her back: Marilyn! Marilyn, why did everything have to turn out the way it did? Why does life have to be so fucking rotten?)
TC: I’d say . . .
MARILYN: I can’t hear you.
TC: I’d say you are a beautiful child.

There is some lovely writing in the work that Capote published after In Cold Blood, and the mixed-salad style of Music for Chameleons is often surprisingly successful. But— as pieces like “A Beautiful Child” graphically illustrate—the appeal of much of this work has relatively little to do with its literary merits. Capote, in his zeal to write “nonfiction novels” and “nonfiction short stories,” may well have thought that he was being faithful to “what is really true,” but all he was doing, in actuality, was neglecting his obligation as a literary artist to create, to order, and thereby to serve not merely personal and superficial truths but universal ones. It is an obligation to which Capote was attentive for so long, and which he fulfilled with such distinction, that his ultimate renunciation of it (manifestly well-intentioned though it may have been) is particularly disheartening. Because of this renunciation—and for the other reasons I have suggested—it is, perhaps, easier to celebrate the fine literary talent Capote was gifted with than to applaud many of the uses he made of it. The Capote-like narrator of one of the published Answered Prayers excerpts, writer P. B. Jones, remarks at one point: “I knew I was a bastard but forgave myself because I was born a bastard—a talented one whose sole obligation was to his talent.” This sounds exactly like Capote talking about himself, and it describes what may well have been Capote’s tragic flaw: that throughout most of his adult life, he considered himself to be responsible only to his talent. It seems never to have occurred to him that his talent, in turn, might have its own responsibilities.

  1.   In Conversations with Capote, published last year, Lawrence Grobel asks: “Have you ever wondered why you are able to relate so well to murderers?” Capote replies: “Because right away they realized that I wasn’t passing any judgment on them. I had no opinion about them as a person regarding the fact that they’d killed ....” The book—which consists mostly of insulting remarks about nearly everyone Capote ever knew—was published by the New American Library (244 pages, $14.95). Also recently issued is Three by Truman Capote, which includes Other Voices, Other Rooms; Breakfast at Tiffany’s; and Musk for Chameleons (Random House, 358 pages, $12.95).
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 10, on page 39
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