I spotted a gorgeous US edition of The Early Stories of Truman Capote in Fopp, and could not resist picking it up. As one of my favourite authors, I have been wanting this collection since I first learnt of its publication, which followed the rediscovery of a lot of Capote’s juvenilia in the New York Public Library’s archives. It collects together ‘the early fiction of one of the nation’s most celebrated writers… as he takes his first bold steps into the canon of American literature.’ They ‘provide an unparalleled look at Truman Capote writing in his teens and early twenties’. Many of the stories were published for the first time between 1940 and 1941.
The edition which I read featured a foreword by Hilton Als, a writer at the New Yorker magazine. He begins by focusing upon a moment in 1963, in which Truman Capote was in Kansas, conducting his research for In Cold Blood. Als writes: ‘He’s almost forty and he’s been a writer for nearly as long as he’s been alive. Words, stories, tales – he’s been at it since he was a child, growing up in Louisiana and rural Alabama and then Connecticut and New York – a citizen formed by a divided world and opposing cultures: in his native South there was segregation, and, up north, at least talk of assimilation. In both places there was his intractable queerness. And the queerness of being a writer.’ He goes on to note that ‘Capote’s cinematic eye – the movies influenced him as much as books and conversation did – was sharpened as he produced these apprentice works.’ Als also remarks upon Capote’s fascination with outsiders, believing himself to be one too.
The collection is short, spanning less than 170 pages, but over a dozen relatively brief pieces have been included. Throughout, Capote is more focused on people than plot, but things do happen in each of the stories. Indeed, the blurb writes that in his early work, it is evident that ‘Capote’s powers of empathy [are] developing as he depicts his characters struggling at the margins of their known worlds.’ For the most part, his early efforts have a tremendously effective pace to them.
The stories here take into account many different themes: ‘crime and violence; of racism and injustice; of poverty and despair. And there are tales of generosity and tenderness; compassion and connection; wit and wonder.’ There are moments of comedy in some of these stories, and shades of tragedy in others. Whilst there was less about race in the book than I was expecting, it is possible to identify Capote’s later influences and interests in this collection.
The stories here are not overly simplistic, but they perhaps err a little, on the whole, on the matter-of-fact, and are less descriptive than his later work tends to be. As in the books of Capote’s written when he was more mature, however, I found that he has an uncanny ability to evoke both place and character by mentioning just a few details. In ‘Parting of the Way’, for instance, he describe his protagonist like so: ‘Jake’s flaming red hair framed his head, his eyebrows looked like hors, his muscles bulged and were threatening; his overalls were faded and ragged, and his toes stuck out through pieces of shoes.’ Of Jake’s companion Tim, very much the antithesis, Capote writes: ‘His thin shoulders drooped from the strain, and his gaunt features stood out with protruding bones. His eyes were weak but sympathetic; his rose-bud mouth puckered slightly as he went about his labor.’ Although many of the stories did not mention the specific geographic location in which they were set, each holds certain allusions to Capote’s Deep South.
In his tales, Capote’s characters have a lot of variance to them, hailing as they do from different walks of life – from the aforementioned downtrodden Tim in ‘Parting of the Ways’, to the privileged protagonist of ‘Hilda’, who is troubled in an entirely different way. He is adept throughout at setting scenes, particularly when they involve impoverishment. As in his later work, Capote has a real knack here for capturing his characters. In ‘This is for Jamie’, Capote describes the typical Sunday morning for his young protagonist: ‘Teddy ran along the paved paths of the park with a wild exuberance. He was an Indian, a detective, a robber-baron, a fairy-tale Prince, he was an angel, he was going to escape from the thieves through the bush – and most of ask he was happy and he had two whole hours to himself.’
The authorial voice here is recognisably Capote’s, but I did find it possible to identify echoes of other works and influences as I was reading. The opening of ‘Miss Belle Rankin’ reminded me somewhat of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, beginning as it does: ‘I was eight the first time I saw Miss Belle Rankin. It was a hot August day. The sun was waning in the scarlet-streaked day, and the heat was rising dry and vibrant from the earth.’ I did find it atmospheric at times, particularly within this story. Capote writes: ‘The room was cold when she awoke and long tears of ice hung on the eaves of the roof. She shuddered a little as she looked about at the drabness. With an effort she slipped from beneath the gay colored scrap quilt.’ Later in the story, Capote’s descriptions become darker and more tense: ‘It was quite dark when Miss Belle started climbing up the hill towards home. Dark came quickly on these winter days. It came so suddenly today that it frightened her at first. There was no glaring sunset, only the pearl grayness of the sky deepening into rich black.’ There are other beautiful, evocative touches to be found within The Early Stories of Truman Capote. In ‘If I Forget You’, for example, he writes: ‘She wanted to stay out here in the night where she could breathe and smell and touch it. It seemed so palpable to her that she could feel its texture like fine blue satin.’
I found it fascinating, having read all of Capote’s other fiction, and a large chunk of his non-fiction, to see his growth as an author from these earliest efforts. Some of the stories in this collection perhaps end a little abruptly, but actually, I did not mind this. I found that the majority of the tales tended to finish at just the right time, leaving a sense of intrigue in their wake. The Early Stories of Truman Capote is rather a quick read, but it offers much to mull over. For juvenilia, some of it certainly feels quite accomplished. There perhaps is not the polish to the majority of the pieces here, but they are certainly interesting precursors. Regardless, Capote manages to capture a great deal in this collection, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys his later work.