Truman Capote’s early stories are filled with outsiders.
Given he made a career of sharing stories of outcasts with mass audiences, this is unsurprising.
First there was Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), Capote’s debut novel about a young, slightly effeminate boy who is sent to New Orleans to live with his father after the sudden death of his mother. There he meets a family of outcasts, including his mysterious room-bound father and a cross-dresser named Randolph.
Later came Capote’s best-known work of fiction, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). The elusive Holly Golightly, with her fabricated self-history and shallow exploits as a New York society figure, is one of Capote’s loneliest and most ephemeral characters.
And most significantly, there was Capote’s tour de force: In Cold Blood (1966), his so-called ‘nonfiction novel’ about a mysterious quadruple murder in Kansas. Capote wove fictional techniques into the real life story of the killers who murdered a Midwestern family, following the two men for a year after their crime and chronicling their imprisonment and eventual execution by electrocution. In Cold Blood reads less like a conventional true crime book than a pensive interrogation of masculinity, male kinship, and the lengths loneliness will push people to.
The recent publication of The Early Stories of Truman Capote – a collection of newly-discovered short stories from the archives of the New York Public Library – reveals the preoccupations of the adolescent Capote, drawn to drifters, exiles, and others living on society’s fringes. These short stories were written when Capote was between the ages of eleven and nineteen, attending school in New York and later working in the art department at the New Yorker.
In ‘Parting of the Way’, we meet a young homeless boy and his older male companion setting up camp in the forest. The pair are making their way to the boy’s mother’s house – having run away some months before, he now wants to return home to show he has made something of himself – with the $10 bill in his pocket all he needs to get him there. As you can imagine, the man gets greedy and tries to steal the money, before Capote offers readers an unusually redemptive end.
What this and other early stories like it demonstrate – and there are a number of them – is an interest in how individuals who are transient, or do not identify with their communities or family, form bonds with other people. The boy and man occupy various roles throughout the story – father and son, mentor and student, male friends – as Capote attempts to untangle the dynamics that characterise unconventional kinships.
In ‘Hilda’, an adolescent schoolgirl’s penchant for stealing from her peers is discovered by her headmaster. In a desperate attempt to explain to her superior why she did it, the schoolgirl pleads, ‘I don’t know how to tell you, because I don’t know myself.’ The story reads as an allegory of a girl’s valiant but desperate pursuit of attention, in a world that disempowers young women and silences their voices. It’s then no surprise that the principal is given the last word in the story.
Many of these stories were written during the high point of the early twentieth-century Southern Gothic movement, which was characterised by stories set in the American South, marked by eccentric characters, decaying landscapes, and other sinister, supernatural occurrences.
Capote was no doubt familiar with the likes of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the influence of these and other works in the Southern Gothic genre is clearly evident on his early stories.
Hence in ‘The Familiar Stranger’ and ‘The Moth in the Flame’, Capote crafts vivid vignettes of close encounters with ghosts of death and mysterious runaway spirits. Here, Capote shows his early talent for the craft of the short story. Despite their brevity – some only running five pages – these pieces offer readers eerie gothic tales and a uniquely Southern approach to life and death.
As Hilton Als writes in the book’s foreword, ‘By writing and working through, Capote, the spiritual waif as a child with no fixed address, found his focus, or perhaps, mission: to articulate all that which his circumstances and society had hitherto not described, especially transience, and those moments… that sealed people off, one from the other.’
Capote’s early stories offer an illuminating glimpse into the concerns that would follow him for the rest of his writing life. As a young queer boy growing up in the strictly religious and often unforgiving South, he used his position as an outsider to observe others on the margins. These early stories provide a telling – and precocious – template through which to read much of Capote’s later work, as we read of transients and drifters lost in a world where being alone is less an accident, than a chosen way of life.