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literature

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Capote, Truman (1924-1984)  

Truman Capote's fiction and autobiographical works helped establish what might be called the quintessential homosexual writing style of the 1950s and 1960s.

Capote was born Truman Steckfus Persons on September 30, 1924, in New Orleans. As his biographer, Gerald Clarke, reports, Capote's parents were mismatched, and Capote began a childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, with a batch of eccentric relatives he would later immortalize in his writing.

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His story "Miriam," published in Mademoiselle in 1945, launched Capote, whose reputation was further enhanced by the publication of "A Tree of Night" in Harper's Bazaar that same year.

Capote's career after that was one of triumph and sorrow, with many feeling that he peaked with In Cold Blood, published as a book in 1966 after publication in The New Yorker. Although Capote did produce some good writing in the following years, alcoholism and other problems ruined both his art and life, and he died on August 25, 1984, just before turning sixty.

Capote's writing, especially his fiction and more direct autobiographical work, helped establish what might be called the quintessential homosexual writing style of the period, with clear links to the work of Tennessee Williams, for example. That style was at once closeted, in that it seldom dealt with overt homosexuality, and uncloseted, because its code for homosexual interpretations was so easily seen though.

The basis for that style can be found in the emphasis on his southern background in such works as his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), The Grass Harp (1951), A Christmas Memory (1966), and others; his attention to older women characters; his defining through his works what passed for a certain kind of "sensitivity" at the time (for example, the primacy given to feelings and emotions over action); and finally, his own effeminate, southern manner on television talk shows of the 1960s and 1970s, characterized by his wit, barbs, and outright insults before alcohol befuddled what was once a wonderful mind.

Perhaps the most clear example of Capote's homosexual sensibility is in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958). As Clarke points out, the novel's heroine, Holly Golightly, was an amalgamation of the quirky, beautiful, socially ambitious women that Capote knew and idolized. With her wretched background followed by a progress to New York, Holly's life seemed also to reflect the desires of many homosexual men to escape to the big city for freedom. Yet, she was undeniably a woman, not a disguised drag queen, à la Auntie Mame.

Capote's ability to turn the oppressively inaccurate assumptions about gay men into art is but one area in which he has been seriously underappreciated. Capote's women characters are not gay men's fantasies about being women. Rather, Capote shows where the concerns and emotional needs of women and gay men intersect.

Capote was also involved to varying degrees in film, most successfully with his screenplay for The Innocents, as well as the musical theater, with the failure House of Flowers. (Breakfast at Tiffany's was adapted by others for the musical stage, becoming one of the most fabled disasters in Broadway history.)

His finest work of journalism is The Muses Are Heard (1956), an account of a largely black company touring the Soviet Union with Porgy and Bess. As Clarke claims, the book reflects Capote's bitchy, lunchtime conversation mode at its best; the book is a perfect blending of a certain kind of gay sensibility with the reporting of a major cultural event that is not without humor.

After In Cold Blood, Capote's writing declined in quality as his notoriety increased. Most disastrously for him and his art was the publication in Esquire of a section from his unfinished novel Answered Prayers, in which he turned on all the friends who had helped make him and whom he had helped make.

What we have of the novel is misogynistic, mean-spirited, and cruel; Capote became in life and prose the caricature that critics had unfairly labeled him before. The years prior to his death were unfortunate in the extreme, artistically and personally, as he destroyed what he had built for himself and his art.

Because Capote made himself a subject of much of his own writing, and sold that self through television as much as if not more than in his prose, his life deserves as much attention as his writing. Gerald Clarke's superb biography, Capote, shows how homophobia and being homosexual shaped Capote and his work.

As "obvious" as any homosexual can be, Capote struggled all of his life to find a place for himself in the world, battling homophobia from childhood through his most famous years. His writing reflects clearly his attempts to understand and contain the hostile world in which he found himself. As Clarke makes clear, Capote used on purpose his persona as a nonthreatening homosexual to charm the people of Kansas, and the killers themselves, to get material for In Cold Blood.

For his time, Capote was a cultural icon of homosexuality, if by no means the only one or the only famous one, and of a certain kind of homosexual who might be called a cultural darling. Clearly, the tragedy of Capote's later life and his failure to produce any major, substantial work after In Cold Blood came from his anger at the role he and his well-placed friends had established for him.

That he had embraced that role--possibly he felt it was the only one he could have--in no way lessened his self-hatred. The fury absent from any of the early autobiographical novels or stories exploded finally in Answered Prayers (and in his television interviews): The result was his destruction. Thus, Capote's own life stands as a work as interesting and informative as any he wrote, indicated in some measure by Jay Presson Allen's play, Tru (1990), which gave Broadway star Robert Morse a triumphant role as Capote.

Capote is a writer of importance but the greatness in art that he sought eluded him. He might have become the major social critic of his generation--a kind of Henry James of the 1950s and 1960s--if he had not self-destructed. Yet, Capote's triumph over homophobia so that he could have a life and produce major writing took an enormous amount of strength.

When an understanding of his life is combined with the careful appreciation of his work that is yet to come, Capote will no doubt emerge as a hero of gay liberation in the middle years of the twentieth century as well as a fine writer of a certain kind of gay literature whose value we are in danger of losing sight of.

Thomas Dukes

     

 
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Truman Capote in 1959.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Allen, Jay Presson. Tru. Unpublished play. 1990.

Clarke, Gerald. Capote. New York: Ballantine, 1988.

Garson, Helen. Truman Capote. New York: Ungar, 1980.

_____. Truman Capote: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

Nance, William L. The Worlds of Truman Capote. New York: Stein and Day, 1970.

Plimpton, George. Truman Capote. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Reed, Terry. Truman Capote. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Dukes, Thomas  
    Entry Title: Capote, Truman  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 20, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/capote_t.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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