Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Remembering Truman Capote

(Note: Benjamin Stein of the German book blog Turmsegler asked me to write something about Truman Capote on the anniversary of his death. Although a German version will follow, the original below is cross-posted to Turmsegler.)

Today is the yortsayt of Truman Capote—the twentieth-fifth anniversary of his death from “liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication,” as the Los Angeles County coroner dutifully reported—although yortsayt may not be the best word to use in connection with someone who once attacked “the Jewish Mafia in American letters” which “control[s] much of the literary scene” through “Jewish-dominated” publications that “make or break writers by advancing or withholding attention.”[1]

The provocation behind Capote’s rant is not immediately clear. Commentary, the most Jewish-dominated publication of them all, hardly withheld attention from In Cold Blood, devoting twenty-two hundred words to the book in its May 1966 issue. William Phillips, the reviewer, who also happened to edit the Partisan Review, another Jewish-dominated publication, even allowed that the book was “good in its own way,” although he went on to ask—“as in the old Jewish joke—whether In Cold Blood was good for literature.”[2] Maybe Capote could not take a Jewish joke. Or maybe, as Norman Podhoretz observed, he was too embarrassed to admit that Southern writers “were always praising each other in magazines they controlled, like the Kenyon Review and the Sewanee Review.”[3]

In Cold Blood is the book Capote is remembered for, which may be for the best. By 1966 his thin talent for fiction had given out. The four book-length volumes of fiction that preceded it—Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949), The Grass Harp (1951), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958)—were distinguished by style and really little else. The portrait of the maid in his first novel, released when he was just twenty-four, owes more to Miami Mouth in Ronald Firbank’s Prancing Nigger (1924), for example, than to anything in Capote’s experience of growing up in Monroeville, Alabama:

Tall, powerful, barefoot, graceful, soundless, Missouri Fever was like a supple black cat as she paraded serenely about the kitchen, the casual flow of her walk beautifully sensuous and haughty. She was slant-eyed, and darker than the charred stove; her crooked hair stood straight on end, as if she’d seen a ghost, and her lips were thick and purple. The length of her neck was something to ponder upon, for she was almost a freak, a human giraffe, and Joel recalled photos, which he’d scissored once from the pages of a National Geographic, of curious African ladies with countless silver chokers stretching their necks to improbable heights. Though she wore no silver bands, naturally, there was a sweat-stained polka dot bandanna, wrapped around the middle of her soaring neck. “Papadaddy and me’s countin on you for our [prayer] Service,” she said, after filling two coffee cups and mannishly straddling a chair at the table. “We got our own little place backa the garden, so you scoot over later on, and we’ll have us a real good ol time.”The style is bookish only in the sense of being derived entirely from books without much contact at all with a world outside. Yet Capote rarely alludes to other books and writers; his fiction does not enter into conversation with his literary predecessors; it simply mingles with them and dines from the same table. Early critics compared his writing to Faulkner’s, probably because both were Southern and self-taught. Faulkner himself, though, saw no similarity. “The few times I tried to read Truman Capote, I had to give up,” he said. “His literature makes me nervous.”

By the time Capote wrote In Cold Blood the mannered prose had become an afterthought. Consider, for instance, the way in which he negotiates the transition from the arrest of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith to their return to the seat of Finney County, Kansas, to stand trial:Among Garden City’s animals are two gray tomcats who are always together—think, dirty strays with strange and clever habits. The chief ceremony of their day is performed at twilight. First they trot the length of Main Street, stopping to scrutinize the engine grilles of parked automobiles, particularly those stationed in front of the two hotels, the Windsor and Warren, for these cars, usually the property of travelers from afar, often yield what the bony, methodical creatures are hunting: slaughtered birds—crows, chickens, and sparrows foolhardy enough to have flown into the path of oncoming motorists. Using their paws as though they are surgical instruments, the cats extract from the grilles every feathery particle. Having cruised Main Street, they invariably turn the corner at Main and Grant, then lope along toward Courthouse Square, another of their hunting grounds—and a highly promising one on the afternoon of Wednesday, January 6 [1960], for the area swarmed with Finney County vehicles that had brought to town part of the crowd populating the square.Aside from the risible implausibility of this passage, it raises the question of decorum or appropriateness. As Horace might have said—or at least his nineteenth-century translator—mass murder “disdains the vulgar vehicle of comic strains.”

I do realize that the flouting of decorum is among the signature achievements of literary modernism, but the use to which Capote puts it—the effect he is after—not only suggests what is morally questionable about the technique, but also reveals his larger purpose in In Cold Blood. The purpose is to distract attention in a confusion of close-up detail. In introducing the house that is the scene of the murders, for example, Capote writes:The house—for the most part designed by Mr. Clutter, who thereby proved himself a sensible and sedate, if not notably decorative, architect—had been built in 1948 for forty thousand dollars. (The resale value was now sixty thousand dollars.) Situated at the end of a long, lanelike driveway shaded by rows of Chinese elms, the handsome white house, standing on an ample lawn of groomed Bermuda grass, impressed [the town of] Holcomb; it was a place people pointed out. As for the interior, there were spongy displays of liver-colored carpet intermittently abolishing the glare of varnished, resounding floors; an immense modernistic living-room couch covered in nubby fabric interwoven with glittery strands of silver metal; a breakfast alcove featuring a banquette upholstered in blue-and-white plastic. This sort of furnishing was what Mr. and Mrs. Clutter liked, as did the majority of their acquaintances, whose houses, by and large, were similarly furnished.The effect is similar to that of a children’s TV-show set: everything is exaggerated and garishly colored (the magnification of detail imbues the objects with garishness even when their original colors were drab). And the condescension toward the tastes of the Clutters and “the majority of their acquaintances” is barely held in check. The victims of mass murder are represented in tones more appropriate to satire.

Capote reconstructs the Clutters’ last day alive, interweaving the narrative with a step-by-step account of the murderers’ progress toward Holcomb in a black 1949 Chevrolet, carefully recording Perry Smith’s vomiting in a gas-station toilet on their last stop two-and-a-half hours away, but stops short of the killing. Only after the fact—only after the Clutters have become corpses—does Capote carry on with the reconstruction of what happened. Two hundred and eighty five pages remain: eighty-three percent of In Cold Blood. The Clutters, whose taste was so common, disappear from view.

Although Capote glances at Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective Al Dewey, his overriding interest is in the killers—especially Perry Smith, the diminutive and probably homosexual convict who was, as William Phillips bluntly put it, “the more twisted of the two.” The crime writer J. J. Maloney is convinced that, during the course of his research on the book, Capote fell in love with Smith. What is obvious from the design and language of the book is his sympathy for Smith, which Capote intends the reader to share. Although he feels no remorse for the murder, saying that “nothing about it bothers me a bit,” Smith is represented as likable despite it all. Even the man to whom he confesses that he feels nothing whatever about murdering four people acknowledges, “Yes, I like you.” He is pathetically grateful for, as he says, “Somebody who cares about me a little bit.”

After listening to county attorney Logan Green’s final address to the jury, two reporters exchange words. An unnamed “young reporter from Oklahoma” says the summation was “rabble-rousing, brutal.” Richard Parr of the Kansas City Star scoffs:     “He was just telling the truth,” Parr said. “The truth can be brutal. To coin a phrase.”
     “But he didn’t have to hit that hard. It’s unfair.”
     “What’s unfair?”
     “The whole trial. These guys don’t stand a chance.”
     “Fat chance they gave [16-year-old] Nancy Clutter.”
     “Perry Smith. My God. He’s had such a rotten life—”
     Parr said, “Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood.”
     “Yeah, and how about hanging the bastard? That’s pretty goddam cold-blooded too.”
This exchange, which most likely never occurred—it is perhaps the only time that Capote does not provide the name of someone in the book—slyly redefines the meaning of the title. Those who seek justice for the murders of the Clutters are no less willing to kill in cold blood.

Capote’s purpose in In Cold Blood is to mitigate the evil of the Clutters’ killers. The only time the word is used is in a bitter reminiscence of his early life by Perry Smith:[M]y mother put me to stay in a Catholic orphanage. The one where the Black Widows were always at me. Hitting me. Because of wetting the bed. Which is one reason I have an aversion to nuns. And God. And religion. But later on I found there are people even more evil. Because, after a couple of months, they tossed me out of the orphanage, and she [his mother] put me some place worse. A children’s shelter operated by the Salvation Army. They hated me, too. For wetting the bed. And being half-Indian. There was this one nurse, she used to call me “nigger” and say there wasn’t any difference between niggers and Indians. Oh, Jesus, was she an Evil Bastard! Incarnate!Although it is often said that Capote’s lasting contribution to literature was his invention of the “non-fiction novel,” his true legacy is to make the use of the word evil as trashy as furniture covered in nubby fabric interwoven with glittery strands of silver metal. Thirty-seven years later, when Terry Eagleton sneered that since 9/11 the word evil has become an “invitation[] to shut down thought,” he was merely standing on Capote’s shoulders.[4] The chic collaboration with evil demands that it not be called by its proper name.

[1] Interview with Playboy (1968), in Truman Capote: Conversations, ed. M. Thomas Inge (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987), p. 158.

[2] William Phillips, “But Is It Good for Literature?” Commentary (May 1966): 77–80.

[3] Norman Podhoretz, Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 145.

[4] Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 223.


R/T said...

Here is what I said about your Capote essay to Frank Wilson at Books, Inq. (where he has linked your essay).

"I agree with you that D. G. Myers nailed it in his Truman Capote essay. Too many people have in the past spent too much time embracing the over-valued work of a very talented man who--as I see it--squandered his talent, wasted his life (on booze, drugs, and other indiscretions), and expended too much energy in bitter assaults upon others who did not deserve his kind of vitriol. I recall his bizarre appearances and behaviors on late night television talk shows (in the 70s and 80s(?), and the recollections make me cringe because even then I recognized a self-destructive talent on his way to an ignoble end."

Benjamin Stein said...

It took some time, but finally the English version of my response is online here: "Literature and Morality".