Capote’s Legacy on the Line

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Understanding Truman CapoteUnderstanding Truman Capote
by Thomas Fahy
University of South Carolina Press
186 pages, $39.90

 

IN THE FINAL PAGES of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote’s most popular book, there are two derisive references to homosexuality. In one, Holly Golightly calls the policewoman who’s about to arrest her a “dreary, driveling old bull-dyke.” In the other, the closeted narrator relates that a man named Quintance Smith occasionally received a black eye from the “gentleman callers of a noisy nature” he entertained in Holly’s former apartment. In a story about charming, sophisticated people who otherwise reject restrictive attitudes toward sexuality, contemporary readers are likely to be surprised, if not offended, by these gratuitous passages. Truman Capote, himself so stereotypically gay, wrote often about homosexuality, but he never depicted it as something humanly fulfilling. For Capote, homosexuality was a topic that, through its shock value, could be used to challenge conventional ways of seeing the world, but he always pulled back from seeing it as a viable way of being in the world.

In Understanding Truman Capote, Thomas Fahy argues for a new approach to this problematic writer. As he notes in the excellent introductory chapter, Capote’s standing in the eyes of readers and scholars has declined since his death. The rococo style of the early novels and stories with their nostalgic depictions of the pre-sexual world of childhood has lost its novelty. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was soon overshadowed by the sanitized but very popular film version. Even In Cold Blood, the work most likely to endure due to its masterful structure and prose, has long been surpassed by television in its depiction of violence in American life. And, of course, Answered Prayers, the unfinished posthumously published novel, is a sad embarrassment.

Fahy believes that placing Capote’s work “in dialogue with the field of American Studies” can restore its relevance for new readers and earn the author a permanent place in the literary canon. This will require reading the books with attention to their historical context and identifying the political, social, and cultural issues of the 1940s and ’50s that appear in his works. In Fahy’s hands, such an approach can yield mixed results. We see that Capote was more socially astute, particularly concerning racism, than previously recognized. On the other hand, his achievements as a writer tend to get lost in discussions of extra-literary matters, such as the Cold War, American consumerism, and life in the suburbs.

CAPOTE         It is possible to see the anxiety, isolationism, and nostalgia that many Americans felt during and after World War II reflected in Capote’s writings from the early 1940s through the publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948 (the novel with the scandalous dust jacket photo). Yet Americans have always been anxious, prone to isolationism and nostalgia, and these themes can be found in writers from any era. Noting their presence is not likely to attract new readers to these books or cause teachers to assign them to students. Capote’s early work is primarily a brilliant exercise in style. His characters, especially his confused, precocious adolescents, are unable to understand their experience. When they eventually surrender to the social norms surrounding them, the narratives leave the reader with a sense of the author’s inability to imagine a more satisfying resolution.

Fahy does, however, identify a startling connection between the rape of Zoo in Other Voices, Other Rooms and the 1944 rape of an African-American woman in a town near Capote’s childhood home, Monroeville, Alabama. The event gained national attention because the six assailants were known but not brought to trial. As an investigator for the naacp, Rosa Parks organized a national campaign of protest that was a precursor of the Montgomery bus boycott ten years later. Capote, unlike his protagonist who abandons Zoo, was clearly outraged by racism and violence against women. Fahy finds Capote similarly engaged in denouncing racism in The Muses Are Heard, his 1956 book reporting on an American opera company’s tour of the Soviet Union with a production of Porgy and Bess. Remaining the objective reporter, Capote points out without comment that, abroad, the African-American singers were expected to express patriotic views about their country even though, at home, they were the victims of segregation.

Objective reporting was the hallmark of Capote’s 1966 masterpiece, In Cold Blood. His claim to have created a new genre with this book, the “nonfiction novel,” was not Capote’s usual mode of self-promotion. Within a few years, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe would follow his lead, but Capote was the pioneer. In his discussion of this long, depressing account of the brutal murder of four members of a Kansas family by two drifters, Fahy focuses on two societal problems of the era, poverty and juvenile delinquency. The latter leads him to an extended analysis of Beat culture, car culture, and eventually to Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. This American Studies approach draws some interesting connections among these topics, but what Capote accomplished rhetorically in his nonfiction novel is given short shrift. Fahy’s reading of On the Road is more compelling than his insights into the significance of In Cold Blood.

From the 1960s through the ’80s, Capote and Gore Vidal, two writers who disliked each other intensely, appeared frequently on television. The generation of Americans who viewed them firsthand is now faced with assessing the lasting worth of their work. For gay readers, this is not easy. Vidal adamantly maintained that there was no such thing as a homosexual, only homosexual acts. Capote made no secret of his sexuality but seemed more interested in playing with the rich and famous than in addressing the historic events of gay life in those decades. As their media celebrity fades, their books remain. Most of Vidal’s novels now seem superficial and written-to-order. Fahy makes a case for Capote’s engagement with political and social issues, but ultimately the books must stand on their own. The only one that unquestionably does so is In Cold Blood, a story of fate and violence that belongs to the great tradition of American naturalism.

 

Daniel A. Burr is assistant dean at the Univ. of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where he also teaches in the medical humanities program.

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