The Early Stories of Truman Capote

By Truman Capote

(Random House, $25, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Happy New Year, everyone!

As the year ends, let’s look back as well as forward, at some recently rediscovered work by one of America’s finest writers and most original characters, Truman Capote, who died at age 60 in 1984, leaving behind some of America’s most admired books, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Grass Harp, and the reportorial classic, In Cold Blood. Capote was born in New Orleans, lived for a time in Alabama, where his close friend was Harper Lee, and went on to hobnob with, and occasionally write about (with some unpleasant repercussions) the very rich, very famous and very powerful. He won the O. Henry Memorial Short Story Prize twice and was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Hilton Als, who wrote the forward to this collection, is a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker who also writes for The New York Review of Books.

What is this book about?

Here are 14 short pieces, all written when the author was between 11 and 20 years old, before Capote achieved fame and fortune. They had been stored in the archives of the New York Public Library, all but forgotten, but were re-discovered and collected in this book. In them, a boy chases a convict into the woods, a prep school girl encounters jealousies, a young hobo is robbed by an older man and two society women plan something far more complicated – and cruel – than another game of bridge.  The lead characters are outsiders, typical for Capote, and the stories are set mostly in the South, but also in New York, where Capote eventually made his home. Together they offer an intimate look at a talent that would fully bloom later in the author’s life.

Why you’ll like it:

Even though they are not as good as his mature work, these stories show how his voice and vision as a writer took root and foreshadow his later flowering. As did his later work, they show Capote’s empathy for outsiders – as he himself was as a gay man coming of age in the Deep South long before acceptance was even considered to be a possibility. The stories deal with dark subjects, such as racism, violence, murder and jealousy, but Capote also displays the compassion and appreciation for the oddballs among us that we see in his later work. This book offers a rare opportunity to see how a writer sets out on the path to brilliance.

What others are saying:

“[Capote’s early] stories are special. Not just because they give a glimpse of an author finding his voice; or for the traces of his masterpieces. But also because they stand in their own right as lovely vignettes of the lives of the lonely, broken and troubled. . . . If you consider they were written when he was a child—aged between eleven and nineteen—then they become breathtaking in their precocity, craftsmanship, simplicity and the tenderness he became renowned for.”—The Independent (U.K.)

Library Journal says: “Discovered as manuscript pages in the New York Public Library Archives, often with Capote’s edits clearly in place, these ten-plus stories were written when Capote was a teenager and young man and will shed light on his subsequent work while remaining sharply observed pleasures in their own right. The settings seesaw from the rural South to sophisticated 1940s New York, and the characters range from a teenage girl awaiting a date to a little boy who finds his dream dog in Central Park to sadder-but-wiser types making their way in the urban jungle.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Gathering of the great American prose stylist’s earliest pieces, published for the first time. Some of those pieces are very far from Park Avenue. In the first, a teenage Capote serves up an odd vignette concerning a young hobo and his older, wizened friend of the road. “Ma an’ them don’t know I been bummin’ around the country for the last two years; they think I’m a traveling salesman,” the youngster says, just before the older man helps himself to a ten-spot his companion has been guarding against the day that he can wash up, buy a suit, and head home. The moment of their parting is worthy of de Maupassant. So it is, too, when Capote, Alabaman by upbringing if not inclination, turns in another Southern-fried piece, this one involving a gaggle of kids, a snakebite, and a chicken or three. “The ulcers were burning like mad from the poison,” Capote writes in a fine closing, “and she felt sick all over when she thought of what she had done.” Capote might have become another Flannery O’Connor had he stuck to his home turf, but instead he relocated to New York, and several of the later stories here reflect that change of venue. Now his characters are more urbane and decidedly more privileged: “The girl had had excellent letters from the Petite Ecole in France and the Mantone Academy in Switzerland.” Excellent letters or no, the story in question marks what will become a typical Capote ploy, a scenario of roiling jealousies and intrigue under a superficially calm cover. Another reveals Capote’s trademark strangeness, too: “It’s one thing to lose a leg,” harrumphs one character, “but it’s too much to lose an election because of someone else’s stupidity.” Amputations, petty larceny, and noblesse oblige: it’s all of a piece, and all that’s missing are the chameleons. Students of both Capote and the short story will find this instructive and entertaining—and, if somewhat unformed still, very readable all the same.”

Publishers Weekly’s far less generous review says: “This volume collects 14 tales that Capote wrote during his teens and 20s; most of them are set in his native South, and most are previously unpublished. At their underwhelming best, they reveal his adept ear for Southern vernacular and make a good attempt at atmosphere, though suffering from adjectival overkill. Early on, Capote’s imagination conjured Southern gothic dramas. An escaped convict with “cold, calculating, insane eyes” pleads for help in “The Moth in the Flame.” “Miss Belle Rankin,” considered “a witch,” is a starving old woman who dies under a japonica tree she refused to sell. The stories are earnest but predictable efforts. And though Capote was adept at posing imaginative scenarios, he seems incapable of producing satisfying endings. Thin characterization and inept narrative development in “Swamp Terror” (two boys get lost in a swamp while an escaped convict is on the loose) and in “Kindred Spirits” (two society matrons plan murder) mark them as puerile efforts. “If I Forget You,” a sentimental story about a girl in love with a man who is leaving town is a vignette without depth, and another, “This Is in Jamie,” a would-be tearjerker in which a little boy receives the dog he desires from a dead child’s father, falls flat. “Traffic West” is a facile version of the novella The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a story popular during Capote’s youth. These stories will be of interest mainly as a budding writer’s efforts to master the techniques of his craft.”

When is it available?

This book is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Park branch.

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