Truman Capote's Southern Years: Stories from a Monroeville Cousin, by Marianne M. Moates

Apr 20, 2009

In tiny Monroeville, Alabama, population about 1,400, in the 1920s and '30s, Nelle Harper Lee and Truman Capote were friends and next-door neighbors.

In tiny Monroeville, Alabama, population about 1,400, in the 1920s and '30s, Nelle Harper Lee and Truman Capote were friends and next-door neighbors. They played together, spun fantasies together, shared a typewriter given by Lee's father, wrote stories together and dreamed of what they would be when they grew up. They both wanted to be rich and famous writers and, amazingly enough, they both succeeded.

As time has passed, the world is still avidly buying and reading To Kill a Mockingbird, apparently at the rate of about three million copies a year, but in spite of the recent Charles Shields biography, Mockingbird, people are not that much interested in Lee's private life, for which she is grateful. Capote, on the other hand, I suspect, has fewer and fewer readers, excepting In Cold Blood and A Christmas Memory. Few, I think, are reading Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Grass Harp, Other Voices, Other Rooms, or even his very good reportage as in The Muses Are Heard.

But though Capote's work may be less read, interest in his flamboyant life has, if anything, increased.

Recently there were two biographical feature films of Capote, a full-length biography in 1989 by Gerald Clark, and an oral history/biography in 1997 by George Plimpton.

We want to know every detail of his life, especially how this odd fellow became that way.

His childhood is an obvious place to look, and we are grateful to have this volume by Moates back in print.

Moates lived in Monroeville for several years beginning in 1961. She met Capote on visits, but did not know him well. She did become friendly with his cousin Jennings Faulk Carter, three years younger?Truman's and Jennings' mothers were sisters?and prevailed on him to tape record a series of memories of the childhood he and Truman and Lee shared.

Moates transcribed, edited, and polished these memories into the present book.
A volume like this has assets and liabilities.

All memoir is naturally subject to the vagaries of memory. Did Carter get it right? Had he in his sixties forgotten crucial elements, or exaggerated others? Does he have an ax to grind? All this notwithstanding, this is a first-hand account, by a participant in the action, and all literary historians wish we had more of them. There is an immediacy in Carter's telling. Truman was not a mythical figure to him but rather the injured, spoiled, flawed but brilliant buddy he played with every day.
Much of what Carter tells us we already knew.

Capote was abandoned in Monroeville by his feckless father and selfish mother, Lily Mae Faulk. He was little, prissily dressed, articulate, brilliant, read a lot, wrote constantly in a notebook in his self-conscious apprenticeship to a career in writing. The odd Faulk clan gave him a home, but it was the simple Sook, immortalized in A Christmas Memory, who really nurtured the unhappy boy. An incident I had not heard of before was the painful crisis that occurred when Capote visited in 1944 at age 20 and Sook turned her back on him. Now her beloved Truman was grown, and she did not know how to relate to adults.

We also see Capote as more than mischievous. He was an imp, a little devil, unforgiving of slights, real and imagined, and not always kind. Carter tells of Capote ruining a wedding, attempting theft of bales of cotton, sneakily taking nude film of a local girl he was conning with talk of an acting career. Capote had a cold streak of malice he exercised on lovers later in life. When he was done with them, they were discarded, without a twitch of regret.

Capote was a fascinating character, sui generis, and there will be many more biographies of him, I am sure. It is entertaining and useful to have this firsthand account available once again.