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Mon March 7, 2005
Too Brief a Treat
This collection of letters from Truman Capote shows another side of the Alabama native who achieved national acclaim through his short stories and novels. A more personal look at Capote's "raw material" including rare literary criticisms as well as notes from his extensive travels.
By Don Noble
A letter from a friend is a treat. If the letter is short, it is ?too brief a treat.?
This volume of letters by Truman Capote to friends is a pleasure to read, especially if you like reading letters, which I do. Letters are the raw material of biography and autobiography. They give the reader the most direct and unfiltered look at the state of mind of the writer at a particular moment.
Here we have Capote traveling and at home, sometimes upset, sometimes happy, but not the on-stage, clever, bitchy, sometimes drunk and stoned Truman persona of The Johnny Carson Show.
Like all of us, he changed from decade to decade. The first letter in the book, 1936, is touching. His parents have divorced; his mother has remarried. Truman has been legally adopted, and Truman at 12 years old writes from boarding school, St. John?s Military Academy, no less, to his father, Arch Persons: ?As you know my name was changed from Persons to Capote and I would appreciate it if in the future you would address me as Truman Capote as everyone knows me by that name.?
Capote, on the basis of a few sensational short stories, became fairly famous and affluent by 1950. Most of each year, from the years 1949 to 1965, he spent in Europe, in Taormina, Sicily, on the Greek island of Paros, in Paris, and in Verbier, Switzerland, where he bought a condo. People who live abroad are often prolific letter writers, eager for the news from home.
Capote wrote plaintively to the poet John Malcolm Brennan, ?Why haven?t you answered my letter? I only write letters so that I will get them: please put this on a paying basis.?
We also learn from these letters what Capote was reading, and, since he never wrote reviews or criticism, what he liked. The answer is: not much. Capote really has consistent praise for only two writers, Harper Lee and William Styron. To Kill a Mockingbird was ?delightful??of course he was in it, as Dill?and Styron?s Set This House on Fire was ?brave? and ?artistically first-rate.?
But what he didn?t like is more amusing. On Faulkner: ?Did you read that when he arrived in Sweden, he listed his profession as farmer? I?m not so sure he was wrong.? On Shirley Ann Grau: ?Miss Grau is a bore.? On Robert Penn Warren?s The Cave: ?Oh, it is so dull, and so self-conscious.? On the work of James Baldwin: ?I loathe Jimmy?s fiction. It is crudely written.? And, after reading Clock without Hands, by Carson McCullers, who had been a literary model for him: ?Now I understand the phrase shockingly bad.?
Through the early 1960s, many of the letters concerned In Cold Blood, either seeking information for the book or venting Capote?s hopes and frustrations as the murderers? executions were delayed, thus preventing publication.
Of Alabama, Capote wrote little, but he did keep up some: He learns in October of 1950 ?the most appalling news: my cousin Gordon Persons has been elected Governor of Alabama?he is a mush head, believe me. What is America coming to??
To the writer William Goyen he gives this vacation advice: ?I?d advise you strongly against the Gulf Coast. I?ve lived in nearly all those little towns along the coast. They are flat, ugly as tin roofs; the water is grey soup, the beaches are filthy and so are the people.?
As readers of the Clarke biography know, Capote had the same ?partner,? novelist Jack Dunphy, for over 25 years. Since Jack and Truman were almost always together, there are very few letters to Jack. Clarke ends the volume, however, with Truman tired, addicted, ill, telegramming to the one person who owned a piece of his heart, Jack, about to fly from Switzerland: ?miss you need you cable when can I expect you Love Truman.?
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.