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Truman Capote

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English Literature

Truman Capote was one of the most iconic American novelists of the 20th century, as well known for his lifestyle and flamboyant mannerisms as he was for his novels. With a versatile career as an author, playwright, screenwriter and actor, his literary style ranged from an early take on Southern Gothic to Comedy and his later True Crime approach.

Truman Capote: education and early life

Truman Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons on September 30, 1924, in New Orleans, Louisiana. His parents were Ellie May aka Nina and 'Arch' Persons. His early family life was one of ongoing parental neglect and abandonment. After his parents' divorce in 1928, he was mostly raised by maternal relatives in Monroeville, Alabama.

It was in Monroeville that a young Harper Lee befriended Capote. They were an unusual pair, linked by their childhood love of books. Lee was the tomboy daughter of a local lawyer, while Capote was small, delicate, and often bullied for being effeminate. Lee referred to Capote as 'a pocket Merlin' for his tininess, as well as his inventive ways. Both writers would become world famous in their adult lives, with Lee writing To Kill A Mockingbird (1960).

Capote was an early reader, having taught himself to read by age 5. While many children in his neighbourhood played outside after school, young Capote wrote for three hours every day. His first short story, 'Old Mrs. Busybody' was submitted to a children’s writing competition while he still lived in Monroeville.

In 1936, he moved to well-heeled Park Avenue, New York City, to live with his mother and her new book-keeper husband, José García Capote. Garcia Capote formally adopted and gave his name to a young Capote.

Capote was later moved from the private Trinity College on the Upper West Side to St. Joseph Military Academy, where he was bullied. The family then moved again to Greenwich Connecticut in 1939, and he attended Greenwich High School, contributing to the schools’ literary journal, The Green Witch.

The family moved back to New York in 1941, where Capote finished his formal education at the private Franklin School in 1942.

Truman Capote: novels and career

While still at Franklin, Capote began working for The New Yorker. He worked there for 2 years until he offended the poet Robert Frost and was unceremoniously fired. Undeterred, he began making a name for himself as a short story writer, getting published in magazines like The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, Harper’s Magazine, and also The New Yorker. By 1946, he had won his first O. Henry award.

Truman Capote, Southern Gothic era, Studysmarter

A young Truman Capote. Wikicommons

His first novel and bestseller was Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). This Southern Gothic coming of age novel follows the semi-autobiographical story of 13-year-old Joel Harrison Knox, who comes to terms with his homosexuality. The novel caused much controversy for its queer-themed content.

Homosexuality was still effectively illegal at the time. The cover's Harold Halma photograph of Capote also caused a stir for what was viewed as his suggestive pose and expression. Andy Warhol, a long term Capote fan, cited the photograph as being a major influence on his younger self, as well as his future style.

Andy Warhol was a famous artist of the 1960s Pop Art movement. Have you ever seen the iconic, giant prints of Campbell's Tomato Soup or the multi coloured portraits of Elvis or Marilyn Monroe? These are the works of Warhol and his 'factory'.

Pop Art reduced the barriers between high art and commercial design, also challenging the Modernist ideal of the sole genius artist creating a unique piece of art.

Southern Gothic was originally considered a slightly insulting term but has come to define a genre that features irrational, macabre thought processes, highlights the repression of historical realities and uses dark humour. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) was probably one of the first Southern Gothic authors while William Faulkner (1897–1962) is one of the most well-known.

Critics approved of his writing and the publicity was good for sales, so the novel firmly established Capote as a well-known novelist. It was followed by another successful novel, A Tree of Night and Other Stories, in 1949 and the nonfiction, The Muses are Heard, in 1956.

The height of Capote's fame came after the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). As a comedy of manners, it was a detour from his previous work of Southern Gothic and non-fiction travel writing. His other hugely famous work is the True Crime novel, In Cold Blood (1966). As both are very famous and very different from any previous Capote works, these two books are worth looking at in a little more detail.

A comedy of manners is a type of largely realistic yet satirical comedy that pokes fun at artificially constructed social norms. Other works of this genre that you may know are Jane Austen's Emma (1815) and Noel Cowards Design for Living (1932).

Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958)

Deceptively light and fluffy, this novel tells the sometimes salacious tales of Holly Golightly, whose real name is Lulamae Barnes. A flawed heroine, Holly is a mixture of naivety and knowingness. She is also often selfish, derogatory, and even what could be referred to as immoral in her quest to survive in post-war New York and then Argentina.

As a literary fiction style comedy of manners, the novel is far removed from the Southern Gothic style of Capote’s earlier work. Despite its surface appearances, for its time, the work is pretty daring in its exploration of Holly’s less than perfect life and largely unromantic character. Capote portrays her actions and circumstances unflinchingly but also with compassion and understanding.

Unusually, he makes use of a circular plot structure. Breakfast at Tiffany's begins and ends with the narrator wondering where Holly is and what she is up to.

With more somber themes of isolation, transience, and confinement mixed with those of the different types of love, freedom, and dreams, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is considered a modern mainstream classic. It was made into a major Hollywood film starring Audrey Hepburn, much to Capote’s disappointment. He had wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Holly and was highly critical of the film when it was released.

Truman Capote: In Cold Blood (1966)

Another stylistic deviation from Capote’s original direction, In Cold Blood is a True Crime novel about the murders of the Clutter family at River Valley Farm in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959.

Herb and Bonnie Clutter, as well as two of their children, Nancy and Kenyon were killed on November 15th. Two criminals drove 400 miles to rob them of a nonexistent $10,000, that was apparently hidden in a safe. The ex convicts, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock discovered that there was no safe, murdered the family and made off with $40.

Capote traveled from New York to interview the townspeople and the murderers for his book. Harper Lee came along as his 'assistant' but ended up crucially bridging the gap between the conservative, Middle American small townsfolk and the big city, openly gay Capote.

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” - In Cold Blood, Chapter 1.

Another contrast or culture clash is reflected in Capote's portrayal of the America depicted by Mr. Cutter’s settled, moral dependability and the America of the rootless, criminal characters, Smith and Hickock. Capote’s close analysis of Perry Smith drew much admiration from some critics and also from author Norman Mailer. Even within one character, Capote's focus on contrasts is continued. Perry, depicted as a rounded and complex character, seemingly shows tenderness by putting a pillow under Kenyan’s head to make him comfortable, only to shoot him moments later. Both murderers were eventually hanged, with Capote staying in contact until the very end.

In Cold Blood was a runaway success. It made Capote into a household name and a wealthy man. Often considered by critics as one of the first works of New Journalism, In Cold Blood has also been critiqued for opportunistically creating facts and events that never actually happened.

Since its publication, In Cold Blood has been made into three major films and spawned an ongoing macabre form of tourism for the town of Holcomb.

New Journalism is a movement that features a form of modern narrative non-fiction developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Characterised by a more subjective perspective rather than traditional journalistic objectivity, the authors immersed themselves in the story.

Other famous authors of the genre include Tom Wolfe (1930 -2018), Hunter S. Thompson (1937 - 2005) and Norman Mailer (1923- 2007). Hunter S Thompson then went on to create Gonzo Journalism, which interestingly lacked any objectivity whatsoever.

True Crime is a much debated genre. While many critics believe that Capote helped to create the modern version, some claim that the genre dates back to the Renaissance. A few critics think that the original English language true crime book dates back to the 1600s. It was then that John Reynolds’ wrote the sensationalist best seller, The Triumphe of God’s Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sinn of Murther (1635).

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood premier, Studysmarter

Capote at the premier of In Cold Blood. Wikicommons

Truman Capote: the final years

After the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote spiralled downwards into a life of drug and alcohol dependency. He lost many long-term friends from Harper Lee to his group of society 'swans' after a series of tell-all publications and interviews that broke trusted confidences. His life partner, author Jack Dunphy, stuck by him but they lived largely separate lives in separate homes. After a 14 year hiatus, Capote's last book of short stories, Music for Chameleons, was published in 1980. It spent 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was a critical success.

Truman Capote died in Bel Air, Los Angeles on August 25th, 1984 from liver disease exacerbated by his drug intake. Despite Capote's flawed and often controversial life, he overcame a difficult childhood to become regarded as a seminal American author of the 20th century.

Truman Capote - Key takeaways

  • Truman Capote's works are broad in genre ranging from Southern Gothic to Comedy Of Manners, Non-fiction travel writing, and True Crime or New Journalism.
  • His most famous works are Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood.
  • He had an almost life-long friendship with To Kill a Mockingbird author, Harper Lee, who helped him with interviews and research for In Cold Blood.
  • He was both hugely popular and yet also controversial in his day due to his open homosexuality, his extravagant lifestyle and his drug and alcohol abuse. For most of his lifetime, homosexuality was illegal in America.
  • His works Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood have been adapted into several award winning movies that are regarded as classics.

Truman Capote

Truman Capote was cremated and his ashes given to his partner, Jack Dunphy. His ashes and those of Dunphy are scattered at Crooked Pond, Long Island, New York. 


It is also claimed that some of his ashes were sold at auction.

New Orleans, Louisiana.

Truman Capote is most famous for his works In Cold Blood (1966) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958).

Truman Capote died from liver disease.

He helped to create a movement called New Journalism and his works have been adapted into numerous multi award winning films and plays.


His short stories won numerous awards and he successfully wrote in a wide range of genres.

Final Truman Capote Quiz

Question

What was the first genre that Truman Capote wrote in?

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Answer

Southern Gothic.

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Question

What genre is Breakfast at Tiffany's?

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Answer

Comedy of manners.

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Question

What genre is In Cold Blood?

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Answer

True Crime or New Journalism.

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Question

Who was Truman Capote's childhood friend?

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Answer

Harper Lee

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Question

Which are Truman Capote's most well known works?

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Answer

Breakfast at Tiffany's

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Question

What was Truman Capote's first novel?

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Answer

Other Voices, Other Rooms

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Question

What are some themes from Breakfast at Tiffany's?

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Answer

Transience

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Question

What genre did Truman Capote help to create?

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Answer

New Journalism

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Question

Which famous Pop Art artist did Truman Capote inspire?

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Answer

Andy Warhol

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Question

Which actress did Truman Capote want to play Holly Golightly?

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Answer

Marilyn Monroe

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