Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote
"Your letter was too brief a treat, but a treat all the same; there
is only one excitement to my day, and that is when the postman
comes." So wrote the author who sometimes waited an hour for the
best word to come to mind when engaged in concocting a novel, yet
spun off letters to friends and colleagues like cotton candy.
Truman Capote, to whom fame came early and lasted long, called all
of his correspondents by such adorations as "precious baby, darling
child." To almost anyone he was likely to say, "much love, little
blue eyes" or "I miss you 24 hours of the day" or "a thousand
kisses, precious." It seemed that nearly everyone he wrote to was
his darling, his love, and wanted showering with kisses.
Not that he couldn't be cutting and catty, though always with
gentility, at least on paper: "I'm afraid he's set fire to too many
bridges"; "he's furious because anyone other than himself is here"
(of W.H. Auden); and, of Jimmy (James) Baldwin, "his essays are at
least intelligent, though they almost invariably end on a fakely
hopeful, hymn-singing note."
Of his early work on IN COLD BLOOD he wrote, "This is my last
attempt at reportage." Like almost every writer, he wanted to know
what the critics were really thinking and get copies of all his
reviews. He managed to sound both humble and very puffy when
referring to his successes, and terribly anxious about the fate of
pieces in progress.
A collection of so very many letters (for that is all the book is)
can start to feel water-logged after a while. It's a good thing to
recall that posterity will not necessarily be fascinated by one's
complaints about the cold, the prices of goods in foreign cities,
or the antics of one's pets (and Truman had many). We would all
make our letters more artistic and succinct if we imagined that
they'd be read generations hence.
So we can speculate on two forking probabilities. One: that Capote
well knew that his words would be taken for gemstones ages from now
and wrote with the cagey casualness of the omniscient observer.
Two: that Capote never imagined for an instant that anyone would
collect his letters to friends and place them on the altar of
memory for the entire world to see.
I prefer the second alternative, because I like thinking of Capote
as a natural, sweet-hearted man, who showed his artistic brilliance
to the public but saved his syrup and a touch of spice for his
TOO BRIEF A TREAT is a book for fans of the genre and of the
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott, author of WITH IT: A Year on the Carnival Trail on January 23, 2011