October 2004

John Detrixhe

nonfiction

Too Brief a Treat edited by Gerald Clarke

Too Brief a Treat, the letters of Truman Capote, is a catalogue of Capote's correspondence with friends and lovers, with family and editors, exchanges that range from pithy telegrams to serialized conversations. Treat spans forty-six years of Capote letters, which editor Gerald Clarke has broken into four chronological sections. Though short on technical writerly details, the letters give a sense of what it is was like to be a writer when, as Thomas Malone said in The New Yorker (September 13, 2004), "nearly every American slick magazine gave space to serious short fiction."

Capote raced through the ranks of American writers, but his letters demonstrate a man often concerned not so much with the literati’s work, but with whom they were sleeping, such as in this letter to Donald Windham (November 2, 1962):

"Oh, yes, Jerry [Jared French] is still in the wicked city. He writes Jack quite frequently. Jack won't tell me what he says because he (Jack) says I'm a gossip (?!!!). But I think Jerry is supporting a family (or, rather, Margaret [French] is) -- and sleeping with the father of it. One of those situations."

Still, Treat is more historical in nature than tabloid. Clarke has presented the letters as they were written; nothing has been removed or shortened. Clarke corrected what reasonably appeared to be typographical errors, and he used his brackets and "[sic]" as sparingly as his editorial sensibilities would allow. As Clarke says, "In no sense have I attempted to sanitize the letter [...]" And even when Clarke's marks make a dent on the prose, Capote's voice and energy find their way through the transcription.

Capote's zest for gossip was pointed, for the most part, outward, for there are few details about his own love life. During Capote’s most productive years his companion and lover was writer Jack Dunphy, and since they were in nearly constant contact -- often expatriated in the likes of Switzerland, Spain and Sicily -- there are few letters to Dunphy. Even in Cacpote’s final years of Studio 54 and rehabilitation clinics, Dunphy remained his most reliable friend.

The letters contained in the first two sections -- "The Exhuberant Years: A Merlin in Alabama and a Puck in New York" and "The Years of Adventure: Off to See the World" -- exhibit a vigor that resonates in nearly every sentence, as evidenced in this letter to Andrew Lyndon from Paris (June 29, 1948):

"I have learned to ride a motorcycle, and so go scooting all over the place; the fact is, I'm going on it to Venice, presumably leaving Thursday: rather like crossing the Atlantic on a housboat, yes? But I don't know, I feel not too well this week [...]"

It is almost a Holly Golightly sort of playfulness, perhaps immature but still charming from the boy who grew up in Monroeville, Alabama. And though Capote's letters, especially in the early years, read as a list of awards won, places traveled, stories published, and people met, it is easy to forgive Capote for keeping score because one senses that, despite his ambition, Capote was as amazed as anyone else at his success.

A notable lull in Capote’s excitement occurred when Random House -- more precisely Robert Linscott, Bennett Cerf, and Robert Haas -- expressed disappointment with a portion of The Grass Harp. Capote's response is captured in a letter to Robert Linscott (June 27, 1951): "I cannot endure it that all of you think my book a failure; I am stricken by such an overpowering trinity of opinion. The vagueness of the criticism makes me feel even more helpless."

In his letters Capote was not necessarily arrogant, but he was indeed confident, making it all the more moving to imagine him so humbled by his Random House editors. But in an ultimately triumphant turn, upon reviewing the proofs, Capote sent a telegram to Bennett Cerf instructing him to leave the book as is. A wise choice according to Clarke, for the critics sided with Capote. Evidence, as Clarke often points out, that among Capote's greatest strengths as a writer was his ability to critically review his own work, always recognizing the duds among the firecrackers.

The third section, "Four Murders and a Ball in Black and White," is a collection of letters written during what was arguably the apex of Capote’s career. Most of the correspondence concerns Capote’s writing of In Cold Blood, the story of the Clutter family murder in Kansas. Capote, accompanied by childhood friend Harper Lee, did his research in Garden City and Holcomb, Kansas, where he met Alvin Dewey, the detective leading the Clutter case, and his wife Mary.

Capote relied extensively on the Deweys as a resource, and in return they were showered with letters and special accesses that Capote’s fame could provide. In a few of these letters Capote discussed writing with Alvin and Mary Dewey’s son, Alvin III, and Capote gave the young man a teaching of "what real writing is all about." His advice and tutoring was neither profound nor radical -- just the basics of good writing (July 30, 1964):

“However, you go out of your way to find an odd or long word, where a simpler one would do. Most beginning writers do this -- apparently under the impression that good writing is fancy writing. It isn’t. Strive for simplicity -- the plain, everyday word is usually the best. It is how you arrange them that counts.”

The letters in this section are especially rewarding because they give the reader a sense of Capote as not just the butterfly, but also as the working writer. At that time he was an artist doing some of his best work at the height of his abilities.

The last section, "Prayers Answered and Unanswered," is sad and relatively short. During Capote’s final decades, he had affairs that didn't last, worked on projects that were abandoned, and spent time in and out of rehabilitation clinics. Clarke points out that Capote had come to rely on phone calls, and the letters recovered from this time are few; much of the written correspondence consists of postcards and telegrams.

Capote's voice is recognizable in these final letters, but they are stripped, barely a whisper compared to correspondence written in earlier years. It is as if Capote was meant to live in the time of airmail and telegrams, when telephone calls meant a mile's hike into the nearest town. As communication became more convenient, it seems Capote's life became increasingly difficult to control. He died in 1984.

Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote edited by Gerald Clarke
Random House
ISBN: 0375501339
470 Pages