NOVEMBER 26, 2015
DEEP WITHIN THE ARCHIVES of the New York Public Library, a researcher unearthed the manuscript pages of what have now been collected as The Early Stories of Truman Capote. Written during his teen and young adult years, this slim new volume provides readers an opportunity to reencounter the Capote we know: the queer native son whose deft artistry catapulted him from a miserable, migratory childhood to the glittering cocktail parties of mid-century cosmopolitan society. I have often wondered if Capote’s work and life, both in their original forms and as filmic adaptations, continue to fascinate us in no small part because his personal story is the most American of narratives. Capote himself enacted the classic tragic storyline: yearning after a dream so animating and powerful that once it’s possessed, the entire world suddenly seems less malleable, less pregnant with promise. Early Stories brings us back to the beginning of Capote’s journey, well before the drugged and boozed dissipation that led to his death from liver cancer in the 1980s. These stories demonstrate their clearest value in the opportunity to glimpse Capote before success and celebrity took its toll. These are blueprints of the august, confident, and delightfully acerbic writer-to-come.
The Early Stories are clearly sketches, unfinished studies of day-to-day dramas, and of the quotidian suffering of women and children that inflect the tapestry of small-town life. Capote’s later signature style, his witty and acerbic view on the dizzying world of shifting fortunes, is not yet visible. These stories inevitably lack the verve and sparkle that characterize the later works, just as the characters lack the dynamism that would define, for instance, the barely containable figure of Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly. None of the characters who pass through this collection have Holly’s campy (and scampy) sensibility or her simultaneous icy worldliness and deep compassion. Her fearless embrace of otherness and callous disregard for the normative — one of her best lines is “People couldn’t help but think I must be a bit of a dyke myself. And of course I am. Everyone is: a bit. So what?” — could really only be written by a Capote who had already let go of the fears that keep gay youth bound to the normative world of their birth.
For those of us who found in Capote’s words some sense of kinship, a queer uncle of sorts, the Early Stories offers a chance to recognize the familiar isolation and yearning that defined our own late teenage years — not only the sense that we were different, but that we suffered along with others and that suffering mattered. Gay youth, and certainly the gay youth of Capote’s era, orient themselves in the world through a complex encounter with the men and women whose experiences seem to model, in partial and always incomplete ways, their own. Nearly all of these short pieces focus on the experience of characters navigating love, loss, belonging, and difference in ways that articulate a queer struggle for recognition and identity mapped underneath those tales.
The collection embraces the outcast and marginalized. The omniscient consciousness that looms over these stories observes with tenderness the loneliness and social isolation of its characters — the jilted woman, the homesick black cook, the socially ostracized widow, the betrayed friend, the schoolgirl passing for white at a segregated school. These moments recall a famous image from Capote’s childhood: afternoons stolen up in a tree, where he and Harper Lee ran to escape the world and write their own stories. That kind of escape resounds with my own gay childhood, one spent vouchsafing my time alone so I could observe the world around me and discern my place within it. Such observation from the safe perch of a tree or sequestered in a bedroom helps to secure a sense of self that will be able to make connection in a world that might otherwise read as hostile. In Early Stories, connections are forged by recognizing the alienation of others as versions of our own.
Take for instance, the queer register of “Hilda,” a school-day vignette about a good girl haunted by a secret: she’s a rather unambitious, petty thief. Hilda’s secret threatens to spoil the carefully crafted image of respectability and discipline she projects to her teachers, her family and her community:
Somewhere in the back of her mind there was a vague fear. She had a feeling that she knew what it was the principal wanted to see her for — but no, that couldn’t be it — no one knew, no one even suspected. She was Hilda Weber — hard working, studious, shy, and unassuming. No one knew. How could they?
The burden of Hilda’s secret and the omnipresent fear of being exposed is, of course, the very image of the gay child. Such a valence could hardly escape any gay reader or anyone familiar with queer readings of Willa Cather’s fiction. Cather, who was one of Capote’s favorite authors, peopled her stories with precocious, intelligent boys from the plains, haunted by a deep strangeness and affinity that they cannot name. It is perhaps in those portraits that Capote may have recognized his own gay experience, just as a certain generation of gay readers may see their primal fears transcribed into Hilda’s anxiety.
When Hilda’s secret is revealed, she pleads desperately with her perplexed interlocutor: “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you why I stole those things — it’s just that I don’t know how to tell you, because I don’t know myself.” The locker in which Hilda secrets away her spoils is also the closet into which she shuts up the unknowability of her desire. This desire, of course, ultimately threatens the social world in which she anxiously circulates. Capote allows Hilda to escape. She runs “faster and faster […] to get as far as away as she could,” managing to swipe the principal’s gold key chain in the process. What Hilda ultimately thieves from authority is its sense of control. In her determination to thwart the reach and discipline of authority, Hilda’s escape is the utopian dream of the gay youth whose consciousness haunts the story.
Early Stories reaches the peak of its queer longing in the stories that touch on abandonment, rejection, and betrayal. In “If I Forget You,” a teenage girl waits against reason for a boy who promises to take her away from the banality of small-town life. When her white knight doesn’t show, she opts for temporal suspension over defeat, committing to “stay[ing] out here in the night where she could breathe and smell and touch it,” longing for a future which “seemed so palpable to her that she could feel its texture like fine blue satin.” The female protagonist of “The Moth in the Flame” turns over her best friend, guilty of murdering her abusive husband, to the masculine authority that subjugates them both. The heartbroken note of the fugitive’s plea — “Em, don’t let them take me. I don’t want them to catch me. I don’t want to die; I want to live, they’ve done this to me, they’ve made me the way I am” — is mirrored in the guilty silence that shrouds the protagonist after her betrayal. Such scenes in Early Stories offer bitter testimony that power conspires to turn us against even those with whom we might imagine a natural solidarity. These minor traumas reach their crescendo in the cry of a rare male protagonist, a friendless child who longs only to love and be loved in return: “My mother and father don’t love me — no one loves me — leastwise no one you know.” These lives are sad lives, to be sure, but buried within their melancholy is the longing for a world that might embrace them with open arms.
The stories’ identification with outcasts also critiques the racism that divided white from black in Capote’s youth, as it does, albeit in altered forms, in our day. In “Louise,” the title character is the “Queen Bee” of “Miss Burke’s Academy for Young Ladies.” Ethel, a jealous classmate, exposes Louise’s carefully hidden mixed-race heritage, exploiting the Academy’s segregationist policy in order to oust her social rival. The narrator eventually reveals how segregation (and the racial inequality it seeks to protect) becomes the very “dynamite” that threatens to destroy the world shared by Louise, her accuser, and the other girls at school. Even as the characters ultimately succumb to segregation — Louise is expelled from school — they hold out the possibility of transformation:
When Ethel had gone, Miss Burke lay there on the sofa remembering, with horrible clarity, all the things Louise had said in her defense. What difference did it make? She did not look colored. She was as clever and as charming as any of the other girls — better educated than most. She was so happy here; was not America a democracy?
This recognition of injustice is rendered in all of its ambivalence, and in ways that still speak to our own contemporary politics. For Miss Burke, race continues to play a part in some quasi-natural social hierarchy. However, in her confrontation with the lived realities of that vague notion, she actually begins to articulate the social construction of race. In this way, Capote’s characters begin to challenge the very stereotypes that keep an oppressive system in place.
This is not to say that the young gay narrative consciousness of these stories doesn’t make missteps. In coming into its own orientation in the world, it rubs against the identities and struggles of the racial and gendered others. “Lucy” for example, features a black female protagonist, whose childhood trauma of racial violence propels her North while family struggles to call her back to the South. The narrator, caught between idolization and fetishization, portrays Lucy as “a colored woman who could really cook” and “seemed to have a natural intelligence not formed by books” that renders her “a child of the earth with a deep understanding and compassion for all that lived.” This appeal to a primitivist conception of black femininity as authentic or “natural,” fostering a “deep” reservoir of “understanding and compassion” reveals the intractable and too-often uninterrogated racist fantasies palpating at the heart of white liberal feeling. At the same time, the story astutely avoids invading Lucy’s interiority and speaking for her on the page. Lucy and the child narrator bond over “a great deal of poetry,” connected not through form or aesthetics but rather through “the sound of the words, and occasionally the sentiment behind them.” The poetry reveals Lucy’s homesickness and, in due fashion, the unlocatable, unthinkable homesickness of the narrator for whom home is not enough. Indeed, the narrator’s own “sentiment,” with all its politically problematic echoes, finally appears in the reflection of “a tear gleaming in the exquisite blackness of those negro eyes.” In other words, the white gay youth might glimpse his own inarticulable pain in the struggle he thinks he sees in the eyes of another. This white gay self emerges at the site of an encounter with an other who cannot be fully known, but who might be felt as a comrade, as a fellow sufferer.
In such moments, Early Stories offers a compelling invitation to think about the political and cultural consciousness that informs Capote’s life and work. As critic Thomas Fahy has observed, critics tend to be too concerned with the “biographical Capote” — the star and ingénue who flitted from one glamorous milieu to the next — at the expense of recognizing “a writer deeply engaged with the social anxieties surrounding race relations, gender, sexuality, communism, capitalist culture, the atomic age, poverty, and delinquency” in the mid-century period. Early Stories reveals that at least a few of those issues were percolating in the author’s brain even from his earliest attempts at literature. Ultimately, this collection gives us a pre-Capote Capote: here’s a lonely and sensitive Truman groping his way through the world with an acuity and longing that would only be sharpened in the years to come.