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  • Scott Carter Cooper

Capote Spoke

On some level the question has always been, is his work more style over substance, or does he have any lasting literary merit?

For the past two or three years I’ve been wandering through mid-century writers, primarily, but not exclusively men.  There are reasons for this that are beyond the scope of this little blog post, but the short and dirty summation thus far is that James Baldwin is the only soaring genius in the lot.  Mailer is a superior novelist to Vidal, who is an excellent essayist.  For the stage, no one really touches Williams, but Hellman comes closer than just about anyone, and Simon hasn’t always aged very well, but from a purely technical standpoint, not to mention box office power, he really can’t be beat.

Truman Capote tried his hand at stage and screen work with only middling results.  His towering achievement of In Cold Blood is a masterful work.  It’s a page turner that forces the reader to consider existential questions.  It is worthy of the praise it’s received and deserves its place in the American canon.  The second Capote work of note is Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a charming work, frequently underrated and dismissed as a trifle when, even by today’s standards is a progressive, modern work of literature.  For a stylistic spectrum of achievement, no one surpasses Truman Capote.

Capote’s earliest works are charming, if a bit self-conscious and worthy of all the speculative promise works like Other Voices, Other Rooms received, but they are clearly immature works; sprouts that, if properly cultivated, could produce a forest of genius.  Ultimately that promise was only partially achieved.

In 1968 the film version of In Cold Blood was released.  I have not seen it.  However because the book was so widely read and praised, the film received much attention.  Part of the media blitz included an interview with Truman Capote in Playboy.  The piece is notable for a couple of reasons.

First is the depth and seriousness of the interview.  I’ve read my share of celebrity profiles, and in the modern era they are highly curated and sanitized for corporate consumption.  All celebrities today are someone else’s asset and cannot be damaged by a poorly constructed comment.  I estimate this Eric Norden interview weigh in at roughly 15,000 words – more than fifty pages in book form.  Not even in online versions of any topic will often find so much text on any subject, much less a literary profile.  And in a “men’s” magazine?  It’s almost unfathomable, but there were undoubtedly men who read Playboy for the articles.

But what’s most significant is Capote’s tone.  Truman Capote Conversations is a collection of interviews done throughout Capote’s career.  First coming into the public arena in 1948, Capote’s interviews tended to be breezy – even with the likes of Gloria Steinem, who up until that point in the collection gives us the most in-depth look into Capote the man, Capote the artist.  There’s a flippancy in his responses and you can feel the charm wafting from the page.

The Playboy interview starts on a different tone entirely.  Twenty years into his career, there’s an inkling that Capote senses the highest mountain is already behind him.  This is not the first time he alludes to a novel by the title of Answered Prayers, but even in 1968 there is a sense that it’s really not much more than an idea, perhaps even just a talking point for an interview that he ultimately knows he’ll never really deliver.  And of course the world had changed significantly.  The Cold War.  Vietnam.  What must have felt like an unending string of political assassinations.  Robert Kennedy was still alive and toying with the idea of a presidential run.  The Zapruder film had not yet been made public and Ronald Reagan was just beginning to become a possible political contender.

All of that is to say that a change in tone is probably inevitable.  Middle age will do that to a person.  And yet, even allowing for the clarity of hindsight, there’s more than a hint of resignation in the voice of this Capote.  At first I attributed that to editorial control.  But as the interview goes on, it’s clear that Truman is taking the world more seriously.  Although history has proved some of his opinions to be simply wrong, much of what he says is as modern as Holly Golightly.  The man was truly a genius.

But apart from the stylistic changes, what strikes me with depressing clout is just how little has changed in the last fifty years.  The racial divide is a sharp as ever.  The generational divide, and the hope Capote places in the youth of the day is as relevant, and nearly the same as today.  I was particularly surprised to find Capote and I hold very similar views on a number of topics.  I think I would have enjoyed Capote’s company, and I’m absolutely certain he’d have found me a complete bore.

Which raises a question that I’ve been playing with for a little while now.  At 28 I was asked why I didn’t write.  The answer, to me, was quite simple.  I not only had nothing to say, I didn’t have the capacity to say it.  Capote bloomed at 23, and by 43 his best work was nearly a decade behind him.  I didn’t sprout until 43 and I have no discernable success to show for nearly two decades of work.  At 43, Capote was already signaling exhaustion, and hinting at depletion.  At 61, I feel as if I’m just getting started, and that my best work is just being born.

Is talent directly connected to youth?  God, I hope not.  And yet, as old age hobbles into view on the horizon, I do not feel the exhaustion that Capote felt.  I’m filled with the same hope and expectations that I had at 23, but with more skill, stamina, patience and stability that I had at that age, and I find myself asking are these thoughts and feelings a fair assessment, or are they the early whimpers of delusion and dementia?  Of course only time will tell, but if it is an early dementia, I’m going to ride the sunny feelings of hope and not worry too much about the rest.

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