Truman Capote stands in the middle of his motel room, watching the TV. The motel is in the middle of the country—Kansas. It’s 1963. The crummy carpet beneath his feet is stiff, but it’s the stiffness that helps hold him up—especially if he’s had too much to drink. Outside, the Western wind blows and Truman Capote, a glass of scotch in hand, watches the TV. It’s one way he gets to relax after a long day in Garden City or its environs as he researches and writes “In Cold Blood,” his nonfiction novel about a multiple murder and its consequences. Capote began the book in 1959, but at first it wasn’t a book; it was a magazine article for The New Yorker. As originally conceived by the author, the piece was meant to describe a small community and its response to a killing. But by the time he arrived in Garden City—the murders had been committed in nearby Holcomb—Perry Smith and Richard Hickock had been arrested and charged with slaying farm owners Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and their young children, Nancy and Kenyon; as a consequence of that arrest, Capote’s project shifted focus, got more involved.
On this particular late afternoon, though, “In Cold Blood” was about two years away from being finished. It’s 1963, and Truman Capote stands in front of the TV. He’s almost forty, and he’s been a writer for nearly as long as he’s been alive. Words, stories, tales—he’s been at it since he was a child, growing up in Louisiana and rural Alabama and then Connecticut and New York—a citizen formed by a divided world and opposing cultures: in his native South there was segregation, and, up North, at least talk of assimilation. In both places there was his intractable queerness. And the queerness of being a writer. “I started writing when I was eight,” Capote said, once. “Out of the blue, uninspired by any example. I’d never known anyone who wrote; indeed, I knew few people who read.” Writing, then, was his, just as his gayness—or, more specifically, his observant, critical, amused homosexual sensibility—was his, too. One would serve the other. “The most interesting writing I did during those days,” Capote wrote of his wunderkind years, “was the plain everyday observations that I recorded in my journal. Descriptions of a neighbor. . . . Local gossip. A kind of reporting, a style of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ that would later seriously influence me, though I was unaware of it then, for all my ‘formal’ writing, the stuff that I published and carefully typed, was more or less fictional.” And yet it is the reportorial voice in Capote’s early short stories that remains among the work’s more poignant features—along with his careful depiction of difference.
From “Miss Belle Rankin,” a story about misfits in a small Southern town, written when Capote was seventeen:
I was eight the first time I saw Miss Belle Rankin. It was a hot August day. The sun was waning in the scarlet-streaked sky, and the heat was rising dry and vibrant from the earth.
I sat on the steps of the front porch, watching an approaching negress, and wondered how she could ever carry such a huge bundle of laundry on top of her head. She stopped and in reply to my greeting, laughed, that dark, drawling negro laughter. It was then that Miss Belle came walking slowly down the opposite side of the street. . . .
I saw her many times afterwards, but that first vision, almost like a dream, will always remain the clearest—Miss Belle, walking soundlessly down the street, little clouds of red dust rising about her feet as she disappeared into the dusk.
We will return to that Negress and Capote’s relationship to blackness throughout the early part of his career in a moment. For now, let’s treat this Negress as a real figment of the author’s time and place of origin, a kind of painful literary artifact or black “shadow,” as Toni Morrison has it, who took many forms in novels by white Depression-era heavy hitters such as Hemingway and Faulkner and Capote’s much-admired Willa Cather. When she appears in “Miss Belle Rankin,” Capote’s clearly different narrator distances himself from her by calling attention to her “drawling negro laughter,” and being easily spooked: at least whiteness saves him from that. 1941’s “Lucy” is told from another young male protagonist’s point of view. This time, though, he’s looking to identify with a black woman who’s treated as property. Capote writes: “Lucy was really the outgrowth of my mother’s love for Southern cooking. I was spending the summer in the South when my mother wrote my aunt and asked her to find her a colored woman who could really cook and would be willing to come to New York. After canvassing the territory, Lucy was the result.” Lucy is lively, and loves show business as much as her young white companion does. As a matter of fact, she loves to imitate those singers—Ethel Waters among them—who delight them both. But is Lucy—and maybe Ethel—performing a kind of female Negro behavior that’s delightful because it’s familiar? Lucy is never herself because Capote does not give her a self. Still, there is yearning for some kind of character, a soul and body to go along with what the young writer is really examining, which also happens to be one of his great themes: outsiderness. More than Lucy’s race there is her Southernness in a cold climate—a climate that the narrator, clearly a lonely boy the way Capote, the only child of an alcoholic mother, was a lonely boy, identifies with. Still, Lucy’s creator cannot make her real because his own feelings of difference are not real to himself—he wants to get a handle on them. (In his 1979 story, Capote writes of his 1932 self: “I had a secret, something that was bothering me, something that was really worrying me very much, something I was afraid to tell anybody, anybody—I couldn’t imagine what their reaction would be, it was such an odd thing that was worrying me, that had been worrying me for almost two years.” Capote wanted to be a girl. And after he confesses it to someone he thinks might help him achieve that goal, she laughs.) In “Lucy” and elsewhere, sentiment caulks his sharp, original vision; Lucy belongs to Capote’s desire to belong to a community, both literary and actual: when he wrote the piece he could not give up the white world just yet; he could not forsake the majority for the isolation that comes with being an artist. “Traffic West” was a step in the right direction or a preview of his mature style. Composed of a series of short scenes, the piece is a kind of mystery story about faith and the law. It begins:
Four chairs and a table. On the table, paper—in the chairs, men. Windows above the street. On the street, people—against the window, rain. This was, perhaps, an abstraction, a painted picture only, but the people, innocent, unsuspecting, moved below, and the rain fell wet on the window. For the men stirred not, the legal, precise document, on the table moved not.
Capote’s cinematic eye—the movies influenced him as much as books and conversation did—was sharpened as he produced these apprentice works, and their value, essentially, is watching where pieces like “Traffic West” led him, technically speaking. Certainly that story was the apprentice work he needed to write to get to “Miriam,” an amazing tale about a disenfranchised older woman living in an alienating New York covered in snow. (Capote published “Miriam” when he was just twenty.) And, of course, stories like “Miriam” led to other cinema-inspired narratives like 1950’s “A Diamond Guitar,” which, in turn, presages the themes Capote explored so brilliantly in “In Cold Blood,” and in his 1979 piece “Then It All Came Down,” about Charles Manson’s associate Bobby Beausoleil. On and on. By writing and working through, Capote, the spiritual waif as a child with no real fixed address, found his focus, or perhaps, mission: to articulate all that which his circumstances and society had hitherto not described, especially transience, and those moments of heterosexual love or closeted, silent homoeroticism, that sealed people off, one from the other. In the intermittently touching “If I Forget You,” a woman waits for love, or love’s illusions, despite the reality of a situation. The piece is subjective; thwarted love always is. Capote further explores missed chances and forsaken love from a woman’s point of view in “The Familiar Stranger.” In it an elderly white woman named Nannie dreams she has a male visitor who is at once solicitous and menacing in the way that sex can sometimes feel. Like the first-person narrator in Katherine Anne Porter’s masterly 1930 story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” Nannie’s hardness—her voice of complaint—is the result of having been rejected, fooled by love, and the vulnerability it requires. Nannie’s resulting skepticism spills out into the world—her world, being, in sum, her black retainer, Beulah.
Beulah is always there—supportive, sympathetic—and yet she has no face, no body: she is a feeling, not a person. Here again Capote fails his talent when it comes to race; Beulah is not a creation based on truth but the fiction of race, what a black woman is, or stands for. Urgently we look past Beulah to other Capote works for his brilliant sense of reality in fiction, that which gives the work its peculiar resonance. When Capote began publishing his nonfiction writing in the mid- to late 1940s, fiction writers rarely if ever crossed over into journalism—it was considered a lesser form, despite its importance to early masters of the English novel, such as Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens, both of whom had started off as reporters. (Defoe’s vexing and profound “Robinson Crusoe” was partly inspired by an explorer’s journal, and Dickens’s 1853 masterpiece “Bleak House” alternates subjective first-person narration with third-person journalistic-like reports about English law and society.) In short, it was rare for a modern writer of fiction to give up its relative freedoms for journalism’s strictures, but I think Capote always loved the tension inherent in cheating the truth. He always wanted to elevate reality above the flatness of facts. (In his first novel, 1948’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” the book’s protagonist, Joel Harrison Knox, recognizes that impulse in himself. When the black servant Missouri catches Joel in a lie, she says, “You is a gret big story.” Capote then goes on to write: “Somehow, spinning the tale, Joel had believed every word.”) Later, in 1972’s “Self-Portrait,” we have this:
Q: Are you a truthful person?
A: As a writer—yes, I think so. Privately—well, that is a matter of opinion; some of my friends think that when relating an event or piece of news, I am inclined to alter and overelaborate. Myself, I just call it making something “come alive.” In other words, a form of art. Art and truth are not necessarily compatible bedfellows.
In his wonderful early nonfiction books—1950’s “Local Color” and 1956’s strange and hilarious “The Muses Are Heard,” which covers a troupe of black actors in communist-era Moscow performing “Porgy and Bess,” and the Russians sometimes-racist reaction to the performers—the writer used factual events as a jumping-off point to aid in his musings about outsiders. Most of his subsequent nonfiction work would be about outsiders, too—all those drifters and proles trying to make it in unfamiliar worlds. In “Swamp Terror” and “Mill Store,” both from the early 1940s, the backwoods worlds Capote draws are political in shape. Each tale takes place in worlds limited by machismo and poverty and the confusion and shame that each can bring about. These pieces are the “shadow” of “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” which can best be read as a report from the emotional and racial terrain that helped form him. (Capote said that the book ended the first phase of his life as a writer. It is also a landmark in “out” literature. Essentially the novel asks what’s different. In one scene Knox listens as a young girl goes on and on about her butch sister’s desire to be a farmer. “What’s wrong with that?” Joel asks. Indeed, what is wrong with that? Or any of it?) In “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” a work of high Southern Gothic symbolism and drama, we meet Missouri, or Zoo, as she is sometimes called. Unlike her literary predecessors she is not content to live in the shadows while emptying bedpans and listening to quarrelsome white folk in Capote’s house of the sick. But Zoo can’t break free; she’s stopped in freedom’s tracks by the machismo, ignorance, and brutality the author vividly describes in “Swamp Terror” and “Mill Store”: After Zoo runs off, she’s forced to return to her former life. There, Joel asks her if she managed to make it up North and see snow. Zoo shouts: “There ain’t none. Hit’s all a lotta foolery, snow and such: that sin! It’s everywhere! … Is a nigger sun, an’ my soul, it’s black.” She’s been raped and burned, and her attackers were white. Despite the fact that Capote said he was not a political person (“I’ve never voted. Though, if invited, I suppose I might join almost anyone’s protest parade: Anti-war, Free Angela, Gay Liberation, Ladies’ Lib, etc.”), politics was always part of his life because his soul was queer and he had to survive, which means being aware of how to use your difference, and why. As an artist, Truman Capote treated truth as a metaphor he could hide behind, the better to expose himself in a world not exactly congenial to a Southern-born queen with a high voice who once said to a disapproving truck driver: “What are you looking at? I wouldn’t kiss you for a dollar.” In so doing, he gave his readers, queer and not queer, license to imagine his real self in a real situation—in Kansas, researching “In Cold Blood”—while watching the TV because it’s interesting to think about him maybe taking in news reports from the time, like that story about those four black girls in Alabama, one of his home states, blown to bits in a church by racism and maleficence, and maybe wondering how, as the author of 1958’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” he could have written of Holly Golightly, the book’s star, asking for a cigarette and then saying: “I don’t mean you, O.J. You’re such a slob. You always nigger-lip.” Capote’s best fiction is true to his queerness, and it’s weakest when he fails to throw off the mores of the only gay male model he probably knew when he was growing up in Louisiana and Alabama: a melancholy, arch, mired-in-nostalgia-and-honeysuckle queen named Cousin Randolph, who “understands” Zoo because her reality doesn’t interfere with his narcissism—at least he wasn’t that. By writing in and of his times, Capote transcended both by becoming an artist, one who presaged our time by delineating the truth to be had in fabrication.
This essay serves as the foreword to “The Early Stories of Truman Capote,” out later this month from Random House.