William Styron bids farewell to his comrade Truman Capote.
By William Styron
Vanity Fair, December 1984
Truman and I were approximately the same age, although when I got to know him he always insisted that I was six weeks older. This was not accurate—it turned out I was several months younger than he was—but it doesn’t matter. I make this point only to underline the appalling chagrin I felt, in my tenderest years as an aspiring, unpublished writer, when I read some of Truman’s earliest work. The first story of his that I read was, I believe, published in Mademoiselle. After I finished it, I remember feeling stupefied by the talent in those pages. I thought myself a pretty good hand with words for a young fellow, but here was a writer whose gifts took my breath away. Here was an artist of my age who could make words dance and sing, change color mysteriously, perform feats of magic, provoke laughter, send a chill up the back, touch the heart—a full-fledged master of the language before he was old enough to vote.
I had read many splendid writers by that time, but in Truman I discovered a brand-new and unique presence, a storyteller whose distinctive selfhood was embedded in every sentence on the page. I was of course nearly sick with envy, and like all envious artists I turned to the critics for some corroboration of that mean little voice telling me that he wasn’t all that good. Ornamentaland mannered were the words I was looking for, and naturally I found them, for there are always critics driven wild by the manifestation of talent in its pure, energetic exuberance. But basically I knew better, as did the more discerning critics, who must have seen—as I saw, in my secret reckoning—that such gemlike tales as “Miriam” and “The Headless Hawk” had to rank among the best stories written in English. If they were ornamental or mannered, they corresponded to those adjectives in the same way that the finest tales of Henry James or Hawthorne or Edgar Allan Poe do, creating the same troubling resonance.
Needless to say, it is only the most gifted stylists who inspire imitation, and I confess to having imitated Truman in those days of my infancy as a writer. There is a wonderful story of his called “Shut a Final Door,” which details the neurotic anguish of a young man living near Gramercy Park, that still captures the atmosphere of Manhattan during the summer heat wave better than almost any work I know. Not too long ago, I unearthed from among some old papers of mine a short story I wrote during that period, and it seems to be written in a manner almost plagiaristically emulative of Truman’s story, containing nearly everything in “Shut a Final Door,” including the heat wave and the neurotic young man—everything, that is, except Truman’s remarkable sensibility and vision. When his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms,appeared and I read it, flabbergasted anew by this wizard’s fresh display of his narrative power, his faultless ear—the luxuriant but supple prose, everywhere under control—my discomfort was monumental. If you will forgive the somewhat topical reference, let me say that, although my admiration was nearly unbounded, the sense I felt of being inadequate would have made the torment of Antonio Salieri appear to be dull and resigned equanimity.
A few years later, my own first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, was published. Among the early reviews I read was one by Lewis Gannett in the Herald Tribune—a mildly favorable appreciation that noted my indebtedness to the following: William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Truman Capote. I was a little crestfallen. I thought I had become my own man, you see, but Truman’s voice was a hard one to banish entirely.
Shortly after this, I met Truman for the first time, during a Roman soirée. I was left with three separate, distinct memories of the evening: he was accompanied by a mistrustful-looking black mynah bird, whom he called Lola and who perched gabbling on his shoulder; he told me that I should definitely marry the young lady I was with, which, as a matter of fact, I did; and he informed me with perfect aplomb that he had been written up in all twelve departments of Timemagazine, with the exception of “Sport” and “Medicine.” We became friends after that. Although we were not close, I always looked forward with pleasure to seeing him, and I think the feeling was reciprocal. I somehow managed to avoid those sharp fangs he sank into some of his fellow writers, and I took it as a professional compliment of a very high order when, on several occasions, something I had written that he liked elicited a warm letter of praise. Generally speaking, writers are somewhat less considerate of each other than that.
A certain amount of Truman’s work might have been a little fey, some of it insubstantial, but the bulk of the journalism he wrote during the following decades was, at its best, of masterly distinction. His innovative achievement, In Cold Blood, not only was a landmark in terms of its concept but possesses both spaciousness and profundity—a rare mingling—and the terrible tale it tells could be told only by a writer who had dared to go in deep and brush flesh with the demons that torment the American soul. Shrewd, fiercely unsentimental yet filled with a mighty compassion, it brought out all that was the best in Truman’s talent: the grave, restrained lyricism, the uncanny insights into character, and that quality which has never been perceived as the animating force in most of his work—a tragic sense of life.
Truman Capote’s best work is now solidly embedded in American literature. Certainly it is possible to mourn the fact that the latter part of his too early ended life seemed relatively unproductive, but even this judgment is presumptuous, since I doubt that few of us here today have ever had to wrestle with the terrors that hastened his end. Meanwhile, let us celebrate the excellence of the work he gave us. Like all of us writers, he had his deficiencies and he made his mistakes, but I believe it to be beyond question that he never wrote a line that was not wrested from a true writer’s anguished quest for the best that he can bring forth. In this he was an artist—I think even at times a great one—from the top down to the toes of his diminutive, somehow heroic self.