Capote: the writer and his disguises

One of the retrospectives on Truman Capote identified him for our convenient reference as ''the flamboyant author and talk-show personality.'' Even the most respectful notices did not fail to recall the dust jacket on his first novel, 36 years ago. ''Other Voices, Other Rooms'' - a slight, precious portrait of a proverbially sensitive child - was soon forgotten. The photograph of Capote at 23, looking more like 17, staring out at the reader from under his bangs as he lay in a hammock, became as permanent a part of literary Americana as the photograph of Ernest Hemingway with one foot on the African lion he had just shot.

To the Capote-reappraisers, the implication is clear. Capote, like Hemingway, became a celebrity first and a writer second, and more's the pity.

The chroniclers of 20th-century American literary history are moralizers second to none when it comes to the subject of wasted talent. Capote's passing provides an occasion to challenge their favorite myth - that there are no second acts to the lives of American writers.

Let us ask ourselves first: How many books, or even magazine articles, went unwritten because Truman Capote chatted it up with Dick Cavett or Johnny Carson two or three times a year? So much fuss is made of Capote, the ''talk-show personality,'' that one might imagine him being dragged away from his desk every night to spill into a microphone words that otherwise would have gone on paper. Surely Henry James wasted far more time every week on London dinner parties than Capote devoted to television, yet nobody has ever accused James of ''talking away'' his novels.

A second question we ought to take seriously: Did success, even without the talk shows, spoil Truman Capote? All that money from ''Breakfast at Tiffany's'' and ''In Cold Blood.'' All those gossipy friendships with Gloria Vanderbilt and the Jet Set.

We might as well ask: Did failure and loneliness spoil Herman Melville? Certainly Tolstoy was a celebrity, and Goethe was a social lion, and Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were the idols of Athens, and they survived. On the other hand, fleeing the talk-shows has not worked out terribly well for J. D. Salinger.

Writers, like most other people, can find any number of ways to fail. Too much acceptance. Too much rejection. Too much money. Too little money. Isolation can cut off a writer from material. Never being alone can prevent a writer from using the material at hand.

Most human achievement - that of writers included - occurs in spite of.... The only truly pertinent question is: Did Truman Capote get on paper a fair amount of what was in him, in spite of ...?

He wanted to be the Great American Novelist. Didn't everybody? Like his contemporaries Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and James Baldwin, he was better as a journalist than as a writer of fiction. He actually got more of himself into his journalism - his orphaned sense of being lost in a world of perfumed evil and exotic rot, like magnolias gone bad. In the end, a child's passion for innocence shone through.

Like Mark Twain, Capote invented his legend as part of his writing equipment. Readers whose taste runs to the self-effacement of T. S. Eliot may not have liked Capote's simper and strut. But the possibility ought to be allowed that if Capote had not proposed himself to himself as an insolent little genius, he might never have found the courage to write.

Capote's self-exploitation would have been tragic only if he was a great writer. He was not. He had a lot of trouble thinking up subjects once he got away from his fantasies of Southern childhood. But if he did not always know what to say, he certainly knew how to say it. He produced second-tier writing with a great elegance of style. He did what he could do very well. Do we on the sidelines, with our tyrannical ideas of what a writer should be, have the right to ask for more?

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