Truman Capote (1924-1984) was one the most famous and controversial figures in contemporary American literature. The ornate style and dark psychological themes of his early fiction caused reviewers to categorize him as a Southern Gothic writer. However, other works display a humorous and sentimental tone. As Capote matured, he became a leading practitioner of "New Journalism," popularizing a genre that he called the nonfiction novel.
Because of his celebrity, virtually every aspect of Capote's life became public knowledge, including the details of his troubled childhood. Born in New Orleans, 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 afterward Lillie Mae boarded 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 friendships with his great-aunt Sook Faulk, who appears as Cousin Sook in his novellas A Christmas Memory and The Thanksgiving Visitor (1967), and Harper Lee, a childhood friend who served as the model for Idabel Thompkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms. 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. Set in the South, the novel centers on a young man's search for his father and his loss of innocence as he passes into manhood. The work displays many elements of the grotesque: the boy is introduced to the violence of murder and rape, he witnesses a homosexual encounter, and at the novel's end, his failure to initiate a heterosexual relationship with Idabel Thompkins, his tomboy companion, leads him to accept a homosexual arrangement with his elder cousin Randolph, a lecherous transvestite. Each of these sinister scenes is distorted beyond reality, resulting in a surreal, nightmarish quality. 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. These pieces show the influence of such writers 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 early fiction into two categories: light and sinister stories. In the former category are "My Side of the Matter," "Jug of Silver," and "Children on Their Birthdays." Written in an engaging conversational style, these narratives report the amusing activities of eccentric characters. More common among Capote's early fiction, however, are the sinister stories, such as "Miriam," "A Tree of Night," "The Headless Hawk," and "Shut a Final Door." These 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, such as the Wizard Man feared by the heroine in "A Tree of Night" or the dream-buyer in "Master Misery." In other instances evil appears as a weird personage who represents the darker, hidden side of the protagonist. The ghostly little girl who haunts an older woman in "Miriam" is the best-known example of this doubling device in Capote's fiction. In later years Capote commented that the Gothic eeriness of these stories reflected the anxiety and feelings of insecurity he experienced as a child.
In The Grass Harp (1951), Capote drew on his childhood to create a lyrical, often humorous novel 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, Verena and Dolly Talbo. At sixteen years of age, Collin allies himself with the sensitive Dolly and other outcasts from the area by means of an idyllic withdrawal into a tree fort. There, the group achieves solidarity and affirms the value of individuality by comically repelling the onslaughts of the ruthless Verena and other figures of authority. The 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 and the three 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.
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, signaled "a serious new art form: the 'nonfiction novel,' as I thought of it." Upon publication, In Cold Blood elicited among 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. Originally serialized in The New Yorker and published in book form in 1965 following nearly six years of research and advance publicity, this book chronicles the murder of Kansas farmer Herbert W. Clutter and his family, who were bound, gagged, robbed, and shot by two ex-convicts in November, 1959. In addition to garnering Capote an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, In Cold Blood became a bestseller and generated several million dollars in royalties and profits related to serialization, paperback, and film rights. Written in an objective and highly innovative prose style that combines the factual accuracy of journalism with the emotive impact of fiction, In Cold Blood is particularly noted for Capote's subtle insights into the ambiguities of the American legal system and of capital punishment.
In the late 1960s, Capote began to suffer from writer'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. In addition, Capote's final collection of short prose pieces, Music for Chameleons (1983), was less than warmly received by critics. Afterward, Capote succumbed to alcoholism, drug addiction, and poor health, and he died in 1984, shortly before his sixtieth birthday. According to his friends and editors, the only portions of Answered Prayers he had managed to complete were those that had appeared in Esquire several years previously.
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.
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