Why is it so difficult to sustain a literary career in America? Joyce proposed that Ireland is an old sow who devours her young; America sometimes seems to resemble a meat-packing corporation that bloats its animals with hormones and chemical hype before slitting their throats. ‘There are no second acts in American lives,’ said F. Scott Fitzgerald, archetype of the American artist betrayed by the Judas kiss of fame, his early work overpraised, he himself declared a has-been just as he was achieving mastery. No one understood the process better than the author of The Great Gatsby, certainly not his fair-weather friend Hemingway, who tried to bluff his way into a venerable old age. Dos Passos became more invisible and more cranky with each book he published after the USA trilogy. Of the stars of the class of 1918, only William Faulkner survived gracefully, protected by a thick cloak of obscurity until the very end.
The class of ’45, those writers who attained majority, or at least draft age, during the Second World War, is more difficult to assess: they are closer to us, and still writing in some cases. We often find the work overshadowed by the personae, and by the gossip-column melodrama of the lives. These writers started to publish just as television was beginning to erode the writer’s authority, even as it increased the visibility of a select and adept few, made them household words in households where the Bible and The Joy of Cooking constituted the library.
As a boy, I became acquainted with Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal and Truman Capote as talk-show guests. The TV screen was their boxing-ring. Literally so, on occasion, for Mailer, who had studied his Hemingway. Vidal was the sophisticate – dry, erudite, condescending to an America which he visited semi-annually from Italy. And then there was Capote, camping it up for the rubes, a high-voiced jester doing his épater la booboisie. Another, antithetical, species of American fame comes from this generation: Salinger’s Zen retreat. The author of Catcher in the Rye headed for the hills, becoming more famous with each book he failed to publish, each interview he failed to tape, each Tonight Show he failed to appear on. If this had been a strategy, it would have been a brilliant one, though hardly palatable to any but the most reticent souls, such as Thomas Pynchon.
Mailer and Capote, more than anyone else, used television and the popular press to create personae in a culture where art objects and ideas are considered indigestible except in a solution of strong personality. Mailer married extensively, stabbed one of his wives, ran for mayor, made movies, taunted feminists, advocated street crime and graffiti. Glass in hand, Capote was photographed with every shipping tycoon and movie star of his era. They were competing with Hollywood, and they knew it. And they were competing with the previous generation.
The giant legend of Hemingway, for all the holes that would be shot in it, established a measure of fame, of sheer presence on the national landscape, that called for a response from the American writer of large ambitions. He showed how a writer was to capture the attention of a society that didn’t read. What an ambitious young writer in 1948 could be counted on not to notice was the way in which Hemingway had already become a prisoner of his own legend. Mailer actually appropriated the old man’s metaphor of writing as an on-going pugilistic competition with great writers of the past, and declared himself a contender for Hemingway’s title. Capote’s idiom was that of the precious marginal artist; he seemed merely to want to steal the show by throwing roses into the ring, or mimicking the combatants behind their backs. Capote told friends that Hemingway wrote him a nasty letter upon the publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms, his first novel.
Capote became as famous as any American writer of his generation, and for the last twenty years of his short life bragged about the ‘big book’ – his Recherche du Temps Perdu – which would reserve a seat at the grown-up table of literature. Scattered chapters were published in which few saw greatness, but that book seems to have been hopelessly unfinished at the time of his death. In Capote’s case, we may be forgiven for asking if the fame didn’t far outstrip the promise, and if his was rather less a major talent dissipated than a minor gift cleverly marketed. Taking the generous view of Capote’s talent and importance after the publication of his first book, Cyril Connolly predicted his martyrdom at the hands of a frightened and envious America. Capote’s was an alien kind of perception, but Connolly overstates its danger. And he is generous in his assessment of the degree to which books are taken seriously in America. Philip Roth, a notable survivor from a slightly later generation, suggests, in the course of one of this fresh instalment of Paris Review interviews,that the USA is a society where, for a writer, ‘everything goes and nothing matters.’ Far from being destroyed, he proposes, writers are ignored, though their party antics and feuds may be retailed. A recent news item from the New York Times, on a libel suit against Sylvia Plath’s estate concerning her novel The Bell Jar, would seem to support Roth’s view:
As Judge Keeton selected the members of the jury he asked each if he or she had read the novel. None of the original 16 members had heard of it ... The judge also asked the jurors if any of them were reading any book. Only one said he was – Richard Wright’s Native Son. When it came down to cutting the jurors to eight, the one person who said he was a book reader was discharged.
Perhaps this is why some of our writers, given the chance, become performing seals.
John Malcolm Brinnin met Capote before his first novel was published and remained close to the novelist for many years,increasingly concerned about the extent to which his friend was cultivating his fame at the expense of his art. Brinnin had sponsored Dylan Thomas’s crazed tours of America, and written a searing book about their association: the fate of the Welsh poet eventually seemed to him to bear a dark resemblance to Capote’s.
In one of their many conversations on this subject, Brinnin cited the example of Gertrude Stein, about whom he was then writing, as a pure artist who felt compromised by her fame. Capote retorted:
Who except pedants knew about her until she made herself famous? It wasn’t the work that did it ... Can you honestly say you know anyone who’s read Tender Buttons through? The thing that made her famous was the story of the work and all that went with it.
It seems to me that Capote is right about this, and that the observation is also relevant to the careers of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who actually were, and are, read. The images of the adventurer and the playboy are part of the texture of the novels and stories.
Looking at Capote’s work, as opposed to the story of his eighteen-carat social life, one has a sense of inverted horse and cart. Pace Connolly, what was potentially threatening to the sound sleep of the nation – the homo-erotic doppelgänger shadow of the male buddy-system in American literature and pop culture – is fairly well veiled in Capote the novelist, as opposed to Capote the celebrity, and is most prominent in his first book of all. Other Voices, Other Rooms reads, from a distance of thirty years, like an exotic but tame hybrid – a cross, roughly speaking, between Huck Finn and The Portrait of Dorian Gray. It is the story of a sensitive young boy, recently bereft of his mother, who goes off to a gloomy, mysterious old house to live with the father who abandoned him many years before. He falls in love with a tomboy in preparation for the discovery of his true nature in his feelings for his flamboyantly homosexual cousin. The book must have been scandalous at the time, although many readers were probably more baffled than offended, left behind in the kudzu thickets of the prose. Other Voices demonstrates a gift for atmospherics and somnambulant rhythms which seem mimetic of a certain shimmering moment of adolescence – the tremulous brink of sexual awakening. It was perhaps important to the development of an underdeveloped culture in being one of the first products of a homo-erotic sensibility to be injected – so far as any serious novel ever is – into the cultural mainstream, largely as a result of Capote’s shrewd gift for self-promotion.
Capote’s gifts as a stylist and storyteller are more accessible in his second novel – novella, really – The Grass Harp, and in his early stories. Like his debut, The Grass Harp concerns the childhood of a sensitive Southern male orphan transplanted to a claustrophobic household of women: but Capote seems to have chosen to make the boy a representative figure, rather than a special case.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, another novella, finds Capote moving north, toward adulthood, and streamlining his prose for the fast streets of New York. It is the story of Holly Golightly, who is not quite a call-girl – a wised-up innocent from the heartland who almost takes New York by the short hairs. It is quite perfect in its way (and, with a minimum of translation, made a nice movie with Audrey Hepburn), though the model for Capote’s make-herself-up-as-she-goes-along American girl is almost certainly the creation of an English writer – Christopher Isherwood’s superb Sally Bowles. Holly’s casual attitude towards sex raised eyebrows in 1958. But then this was the time when Allen Ginsberg published Howl, which seems closer to the beast that Connolly was describing than does any fictional creation of Capote’s.
If Capote had stopped here, rather than one book later, his claim on our attention would by now have worn thin. But just as it seemed that he could do anything but surprise, he published In Cold Blood: a book in which he succeeds for the first time in holding a mirror up to the Caliban in the American soul. And if it is easy to dismiss a writer who becomes locked in the narrow columns of his own press clippings, it becomes harder to dismiss Capote when we see him grow in a single leap so far beyond what we would have expected of him. This big, gritty tale of murder on the bleak Midwestern plains seems anomalous in relation to the lyrical exotica which constituted his previous achievement. Capote created a durable hybrid by applying the methods of fiction – 19th-century realistic fiction, as opposed to the fractious strategies of Modernism – to the investigation of a mass murder. He called the book a non-fiction novel; less felicitously, he dubbed the method ‘faction’. The result was a hyper-realistic narrative which projected readers into the minds of victims and killers alike, and put them in the awkward position of understanding the unforgivable.
In Cold Blood raises uncomfortable questions about exploitation, voyeurism, the romanticising of crime. Some see Capote as a carrion bird, an accessory after the fact. But we do not have to claim Dostoevskian stature for him to suggest that no subject is more compelling. The book was to prove very influential, prompting a revaluation of the borders between journalism and fiction and inspiring, among others, Mailer and Tom Wolfe. It gave a push to the notion that the pale artifices of fiction were irrelevant to the Sixties. The novel was declared dead. In Cold Blood, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, The Armies of the Night, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – these books, as much as Slaughterhouse-Five and Portnoy’s Complaint, were the Sixties equivalents of The Naked and the Dead, On the Road and Lie down in darkness. These ‘non-fiction novels’ seem to stand in for the big novels of the Sixties that never got written. The hype and jive of the New Journalism has fallen away, and the novel has shown itself one of the most durable vessels since the Grecian urn: but these works remain worthy of our consideration.
Neither Capote nor Mailer could shake their allegiance to the idea of the Great American Novel, their sense that fiction was important. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies the two of them huffed and puffed about their big books – gargantuan, encyclopedic novels. Capote’s was to be called Answered Prayers. It was to be Proustian in scale and in subject-matter, a massive chronicle of the international jet set from 1940 to 1965, and it was to combine the techniques of fiction and journalism. Capote’s descriptions and progress reports excited much interest: who better qualified to describe the life of the rich and famous, a subject generally handled only by hack writers dealing in wish-fulfilment?
From an increasing distance, Brinnin watched him as he seemed to become court jester to the new high society, the friend of Mick and Bianca, Jackie and Ari, Liz and Dick, Johnny’s television guest, talking more and more about his friends and their parties and less and less about his work. Eventually Capote brings the party on-stage, appearing drunk and disorderly on television and on lecture tours. Among the many names he drops are those of masters like Flaubert and Proust, company in which he does not belong. An interview given near the end of his life, reprinted in Charles Ruas’s Conversation with American Writers,presents a sorry Capote, puffing a recent half-million dollar movie sale, expounding the great virtues of cocaine as an aid to composition, urging Ruas to try it, bragging about his drug connection.
Most cocaine has been cut ... this cocaine is 94 per cent pure. Most people have never tasted in their life cocaine that was more than 70 per cent pure. It’s the rarest thing in the world and the most expensive, I might add.
Brinnin’s affectionate portrait, weighted toward the younger Capote, gives us some idea of the charm and force of his personality and comes as a welcome relief to those of us familiar only with the boozy performing seal. There are insights here into how he managed to seduce America. But for all of Brinnin’s good will, the book has the shape of a cautionary tale. He traces the are of an artist devoured by his own fame – a monstrous species of autonomous and self-sustaining fame which keeps growing long after the soil has been depleted, like a mutant, rootless plant that requires nothing but constant exposure to light.