Capote, Truman (1924-1984)

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Capote, Truman (1924-1984)

Truman Capote is one of the more fascinating figures on the American literary landscape, being one of the country's few writers to cross the border between celebrity and literary acclaim. His wit and media presence made for a colorful melange that evoked criticism and praise within the same breath. For many, what drew them to him was, for lack of a better word, his "attitude." Capote relished deflating fellow writers in public fora. In a televised appearance with Norman Mailer, he said of Jack Kerouac's work, "That's not writing. That's typewriting." In his unpublished exposé, Answered Prayers, his description of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the Pony Royal Bar in Paris could hardly have been less flattering: "Walleyed, pipe-sucking, pasty-hued Sartre and his spinsterish moll, de Beauvoir, were usually propped in a corner like an abandoned pair of ventriloquist's dolls." And when wit had been set aside, he could be just downright abusive, as when he described Robert Frost as an "evil, selfish bastard, an egomaniacal, double-crossing sadist." Capote's place in the twentieth century American literary landscape, however, is clear. He contributed both to fiction and nonfiction literary genres and redefined what it meant to join the otherwise separate realms of reporting and literature.

The streak of sadism that characterized Capote's wit stemmed largely from his troubled childhood. Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons on September 30, 1924 in New Orleans, the son of Archuylus (Archie) Persons and Lillie May Persons Capote. At the age of four, his parents divorced, and Truman became the itinerant ward of various relatives in Alabama, several of whom would serve as inspiration for his fictional creations in such works as his classic short tale "A Christmas Memory" and first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. When he was ten years old, he won a children's writing contest sponsored by the Mobile Press Register with his submission of "Old Mr. Busybody." Apropos of his later claim to fame as literary gossip par excellence, the story itself, according to Capote, was based on a local scandal that ended his brief writing career in Monroeville, Alabama, for the next half-decade. At age 15, Capote rejoined his mother and her second husband, Joseph Capote, in New York, where he attended several local boarding schools. At age 17, Capote decided to leave school for good, taking work as a copyboy at The New Yorker.

From The New Yorker, Capote soaked up much of the literary atmosphere. He also spent his leisure hours reading in the New York Society Library, where, he claimed, he met one of his literary heroines, Willa Cather. Capote's career at The New Yorker ended after two years when he supposedly fell asleep during a reading by Robert Frost, who promptly showed his ire by throwing what he was reading at the young reporter's head. A letter to Harold Ross from the fiery Frost resulted in Capote's dismissal, and with that change in circumstances, Capote returned to Alabama to labor three years over his first major work, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). Between 1943-46, as Capote worked on his novel, a steady stream of short stories flowed from his pen, such as "Miriam," "The Walls Are Cold," "A Mink of One's Own," "My Side of the Matter," "Preacher's Legend," and "Shut a Final Door." The response to the Other Voices, Other Rooms was immediate and intense. The lush writing and homosexual theme came in for much criticism, while the famous publicity shot of Capote supine on a couch, languidly staring into the camera's eye invited an equal mix of commentary and scorn.

Capote was only 23 years of age when he became a literary star to be lionized and chastened by the critical establishment. Hurt and surprised by the novel's reception, although pleased by its sales, Capote left to tour Haiti and France. While traveling, Capote served as a critic and correspondent for various publications, even as he continued to publish annually over the next three years Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949), Local Color (1950), and The Grass Harp (1951). By 1952, Capote had decided to try his hand at writing for stage and screen. In 1952, Capote rewrote The Grass Harp for Broadway and later in 1954 a musical called House of Flowers. During this period, he also wrote the screenplay Beat the Devil for John Huston. None fared particularly well, and Capote decided to avoid theater and movie houses by resuming his activities as a correspondent for The New Yorker. Joining a traveling performance of Porgy and Bess through the Soviet Union, he produced a series of articles that formed the basis for his first book-length work of nonfiction, The Muses Are Heard.

Capote continued to write nonfiction, sporadically veering aside to write such classics as Breakfast at Tiffany's and his famous short tale, "A Christmas Memory." The former actually surprised Capote by the unanimously positive reception it received from the literary establishment (including such curmudgeonly contemporaries as Norman Mailer). In late 1959, however, Capote stumbled across the story that would become the basis for his most famous work, In Cold Blood. Despite the remarkable difference in content, The Muses Are Heard trained Capote for this difficult and trying work that helped establish "The New Journalism," a school of writing that used the literary devices of fiction to tell a story of fact. The murder of the Clutter family in Kansas by Perry Smith and Dick Hickok was to consume Capote's life for the next six years. Although many quarreled with Capote's self-aggrandizing claim that he had invented a new genre that merged literature with reportage, none denied the power and quality of what he had written. Whatever failures Capote may have experienced in the past were more than made up for by the commercial and critical success of In Cold Blood.

Capote would never write a work as great as In Cold Blood, and with good reason, for the six years of research had taken a terrible toll. He did, however, continue to write short stories, novellas, interviews, and autobiographical anecdotes, all of which were collected in such works as A Christmas Memory, The Thanksgiving Visitor, House of Flowers, The Dog's Bark, and Music for Chameleons. On August 25, 1984, Truman Capote died before completing his next supposedly major work, Answered Prayers, a series of profiles so devastating to their subjects that Capote underwent a rather humiliating ostracism from the social circles in which he had so radiantly moved. Still, no one disputes Capote's contribution to literature as a writer who taught reporters how to rethink what they do when they ostensibly record "just the facts."

—Bennett Lovett-Graff

Further Reading:

Clarke, Gerald. Capote. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Garson, Helen S. Truman Capote: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston, Twayne, 1992.

Grobel, Lawrence. Conversations with Capote. New York, New American Library, 1985.

Plimpton, George. Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. Garden City, New Jersey, Doubleday, 1997.