Emerging Genius: The Early Stories of Truman Capote

They say the brightest stars shine too vibrantly to sustain. The most beautiful of creative talents dwindle too soon. Perhaps great artists are prone to exiting the stage before the audience is ready for their curtain call. Isn’t it so that when presented with mind boggling talent, no matter the duration of their stay, the world becomes a lesser place without their magnificent beauty piercing our hearts and minds?

It’s always a solemn day when a vastly creative mind is silenced forever by the inevitable end of life, and despite knowing that everything good ends at some point or another, it still seams rather unfair when someone so talented is no longer able to inspire and enrich the lives of countless others.

Truman Capote was born in New Orleans in 1924. He passed away in Los Angeles in 1984. He was just 59 years old. He was one of the most well-known and respected writers of the twentieth century. It may be surprising to note that Capote’s publishing career spanned from the age 21 to a year before his death, but during that almost forty year window, he only produced a handful of full length works. He broke onto the literary scene with the controversial and luminous novel Other Voices, Other Rooms at the tender age of 23. It’s arguable that Capote peaked at an age when many writers don’t even know that they are writers yet. From there, Capote published another novel, The Grass Harp at 27, and soon after, one of his other best known books, the novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And 40, he single-handedly changed longform journalism with his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood in 1965. The book detailed the murders of the Herbert Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. Along the way, Capote published several short stories, a play, screenplay, television film, essays, and an art and photography book, but in the latter years of life, Capote was rather dormant. Riddled by addiction and psychological illness, Capote tragically lost his way.

His three seminal works: his debut novel, novella, and nonfiction novel were strong enough to catapult him into the upper echelon of twentieth century fiction writers. Perhaps Capote was better known for his social status, a frequent partier and member of the New York literary community. He was as much as a celebrity as any writer of the time. He spoke with a distinct accent and a breadth of knowledge that was simply astonishing. To listen to Capote talk is to peer into the mind of an obviously brilliant yet slightly troubled man. He was only five foot three inches tall, but his personality was much larger. Anyone who has seen the biopic starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman knows that Capote demanded the attention of any room, regardless of age, socioeconomics or geographic region.

I would argue that Capote was a better writer at 23 than any other writer of the twentieth century at that same age. It can also be said that Other Voices, Other Rooms is one of the most controversial novels of the time. Capote was homosexual and at that time, aspects like the risqué jacket cover and the sexual connotations within the text stirred attention in both negative and positive ways. Regardless of public opinion, the writing was exquisite. But how does a writer develop such a command of the English language, such an impressive grasp on sentence structure and imagery, without working towards that for their whole life?

Truman Capote wasn’t an average writer. He didn’t start writing seriously in his twenties or thirties like most writers. Today, a young writer is often someone under the age of forty. By the time Capote was forty he released his most memorable work, and was unfortunately on the decline.

Capote stated that he started writing seriously at the age of 11. Other kids went home and played sports or practiced instruments while Capote practiced his craft for three hours a day. He was obsessed with becoming a better writer. And thirty years after his death, readers can now look into the mind of the young writer working towards his eventual spot in literary history.

The Early Stories of Truman Capote is a slim work comprised of fourteen stories written when he was an adolescent to a young man. The exact dates of some of these stories are unknown, but it is feasible to assume that a number of these were written before he was legally an adult. For fans of Capote, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these stories deal with small town characters in personal turmoil. They are interior looks into the hearts and minds of regular folks going through ordinary scenarios.

Capote was a writer of realistic fiction. He turned the mundanities of life into vivid portraits exemplifying all of the tiny beauties and grotesque points of daily events. These stories are no different. What is most interesting about these early stories is that they are remarkably well written. No, they do not have the same flair and vice grip on storytelling that Capote captured as he matured, but they are solid, fully rendered glimpses into what the writer would become.

The key here is potential. Capote shows more potential under twenty than many writers show in their thirties, forties or even later. As always, Capote writes female characters in a way that many male authors are incapable of doing, with stunning accuracy and a keen eye for the modes of relaying gender differences and idiosyncrasies.

Capote fills short sentences with an abundance of deceptive detail. From describing a woman selling candies in “Mill Store” to the parting of a young lover in “If I Forget You,” Capote turns snapshots into moving pictures, frame by frame images that are entirely realized in readers’ minds. He writes terse sentences with a startling command of the English language, and it is very apparent how this young writer ended up changing the landscape of detail oriented nonfiction narratives less than twenty-five years later.

It’s hard to complain about the quality of his fiction given his age when most of these stories were written, but the one thing that is missing is staying power. Yes, the stories are insightful and well written, but their emotional depth doesn’t quite strike deep enough to resonate further than a pondering afterthought. It would be a disservice to call these tales forgettable, yet, when discussing the work of Truman Capote, they are less than memorable when compared to his most impressive output.

While this is by no means one of the best short story collections of the year, it is one of the most important, if only for the trajectory it inspired. For aspiring fiction writers and Capote enthusiasts, The Early Stories of Truman Capote is a worthwhile addition to your personal library. Displaying still-boiling genius, it doesn’t quite fizzle over into classic Capote magic, but it provides the side of the mountain that Capote scaled to reach the tip of the volcano.

Call it a coming-of-age story of a real life writer. Capote’s peak was reached at an already young age so it shouldn’t be surprising that his early work is still incredibly wrought and brimming with talent. And if it was possible to compare the teenage scribblings of other greats to Capote, it would be difficult to find a writer as strong as young Truman Capote. The Early Stories of Truman Capote may not be the most polished or entertaining piece of fiction you will read this year, but it’s certainly one that should not be overlooked. Truman Capote is a literary legend, and the word genius is overused, but I dare anyone to read these stories and describe it as anything but the emergence of true creative genius.

Steven Petite

About Steven Petite

Steven Petite received his Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Cleveland State University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Publishing Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. His journalism has appeared in Playboy, Huffington Post, Crixeo, Ranker, New York Game Critics Circle, and others. His fiction has appeared in Cigale Literary Magazine. He can be reached at stevenpetite@gmail.com.