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Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
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Jan 01, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 20th-century, adolescence, alabama-authors, coming-of-age, family-separation, fathers-and-sons, gothic-fiction, harper-lee, loss-of-innocence, love, new-orleans, sexuality, southern-gothic, southern-literature, truman-capote, 1936, archulus-persons, monroeville-alabama, yaddo-writers-colony
Recommended to Lawyer by: O.B. Emerson, Professor Emeritus, Dept. of English, University of Alabama
Recommended for: Anyone
Read from June 04 to 06, 2012 , read count: 2

Other Voices, Other Rooms: Capote's Swamp Baroque Concerto in Three Movements

Other Voices, Other Rooms was an attempt to exorcise demons, an unconscious, altogether intuitive attempt, for I was not aware, except for a few incidents and descriptions, of its being in any serious degree autobiographical. Rereading it now, I find such self-deception unpardonable.--Truman Capote, The Dogs Bark, New York, Random House, 1973


First Edition

Having just re-read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, I returned to Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote, her childhood friend. Truman Capote became a literary sensation at a much younger age with the publication of a number of short stories beginning in 1945. I first read Capote's debut novel for Professor O.B. Emerson's Southern Literature Class in 1973 at the University of Alabama. In the flurry of a hectic semester, Capote's first novel made little impression on me. My reaction is much different as I write this.

If you've ever questioned what Southern Gothic literature is, look no further than Other Voices, Other Rooms. All the elements are here: a journey from light to darkness, a former resort hotel crumbling into ruin as a result of local legends that guests abandoned their summers there after following others drowning in the lake on the hotel property, among other references to superstition and an unfolding spiral into the grotesque. In Capote, biographer Gerald Clarkesaid the novel surpassed Gothic and referred to it as "Swamp Baroque."

Thirteen Joel Harrison Knox is cast adrift when his mother dies. He and his mother were abandoned by his father, Edward Sansom when he was only a year old. While staying with relatives in New Orleans, Joel is shocked to receive a letter in spidery red ink on green stationery from his father, along with funds to travel to his home in Scully's Landing near Noon City, Alabama. Young Joel travels by train and bus to a small town that could easily pass for Monroeville, Alabama, or if you prefer, "Maycomb."

From Noon City, Joel is carried out to the family home by Jesus Fever, so ancient that most often he appears to be sleeping. However, Jesus' mule, John Brown is used to the journey and Joel finds himself without incident at Scully's Landing.

However, his father is nowhere to be seen. Rather, he meets his stepmother, Amy and her Cousin Randolph who actually owns the property. Randolph dominates Amy as he owns the house in which she and Joel's father live. Randolph's sexuality is subtly revealed through the progress of the novel. He frequently wears flowing kimonos with butterfly sleeves. He summons Joel to his room, naked but for a breakfast tray over his genital area. He is large, soft, and his skin glows with a pink flush whenever Joel is in his presence. He discusses love with Joel who does not understand him.

“The brain may take advice, but not the heart, and love, having no geography, knows no boundaries: weight and sink it deep, no matter, it will rise and find the surface: and why not? any love is natural and beautiful that lies within a person's nature; only hypocrites would hold a man responsible for what he loves, emotional illiterates and those of righteous envy, who, in their agitated concern, mistake so frequently the arrow pointing to heaven for the one that leads to hell. ”

At various times, Joel sees a woman appear at the windows of the home, dressed in a white gown, her hair falling in long curling ringlets. When Joel questions Amy and Randolph about the mysterious woman, Randolph ignores the question, while Amy asks, "Randolph, you haven't been..." which earns her a kick under the table and a slap from Randolph.

To Joel's dismay, he discovers his father is an invalid, unable to communicate, other than to drop a tennis ball when he needs attention. This is not what Joel had expected, although he had written to one of his friends that his father was tall, smoked a pipe and knew all about airplanes. Yes, there's a good deal in common between Joel and Dill Harris. Both bend the world to shape their hopes and expectations.

And, just as Capote served Harper Lee as model for Dill Harris, we find a young Harper Lee serving as model for Idabel Thompkins, a tomboy who refuses to wear girl's clothing, but would prefer to romp through the woods, swamps, fishing and skinny dipping. Idabel calls Joel "Sissybritches." Joel describes her more as boy than girl with a low and husky voice.

Joel has hair almost white, his face with delicate features. Capote describes him as to pretty to be a boy. Yet, on a fishing trip with Idabel, after she declares the catfish aren't biting, she produces a bar of Ivory and suggests they bathe together. Joel is shocked. Idabel is nonplussed.

“With an exceedingly contemptuous expression, Idabel drew up to her full height. "Son," she said, and spit between her fingers, "what you've got in your britches is no news to me, and no concern of mine: hell, I've fooled around with nobody but boys since first grade. I never think like I'm a girl; you've got to remember that, or we can't never be friends." For all its bravado, she made this declaration with a special and compelling innocence; and when she knocked one fist against the other, as, frowning, she did now, and said: "I want so much to be a boy: I would be a sailor, I would..." the quality of her futility was touching.”

As they bathe, Joel notices the beginning of a swell of her breasts. He notices the suggestion of a widening of the hips. However, when he is drawn to kiss her cheek, Idabell rebuffs him, telling him if he cannot respond to her as a brother, they cannot be friends.

Much remains to be revealed. Capote's novel is one of self discovery and the realization of one's sexual identity. He writes beautifully. Capote's use of language is lyrical, with sections that could easily be considered poetry as opposed to prose. Other Voices, Other Rooms is deeply introspective, exploring themes of the nature of love, isolation, and the search for family, which appears repeatedly in Capote's other works.

Capote's debut novel burst on the literary scene in 1948. Other works appearing that year were The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer and The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw. However, Other Voices, Other Rooms hit the best seller's list and quickly sold twenty-six thousand copies.


First Edition, Random House, New York, 1948

Reaction among literary critics in New York were largely unfavorable, with the exception of the review appearing in the New York Herald. Interestingly, reviews from Heartland America, extending down to Dallas, Texas, embraced Capote as an inspired writer for the coming generation.

The author's photograph on the back of the jacket attracted almost as much attention as the contents of the book. Harold Halma had taken the photograph in 1947. Per Wikipedia: "Walking on Fifth Avenue, Halma overheard two middle-aged women looking at a Capote blowup in the window of a bookstore. When one woman said, 'I'm telling you: he's just young,' the other woman responded, 'And I'm telling you, if he isn't young, he's dangerous!' Capote delighted in retelling this anecdote."


Author's photo on dust jacket back

However, the sultry, seductive photograph, almost overshadowed Capote's literary work. The photograph became the subject of criticism or ridicule, with Mad Magazine spoofing the portrait. Capote responded that the photograph had been a candid shot taken by Halma and that he had not posed for the picture which was patently untrue.

While Capote was young, only twenty-three at the time of the novel's publication, he was of no danger to the ladies Halma had overheard. Capote had been accepted to the Yaddo Colony for Writers in 1946. While there he became sexually involved with literary professor Harold Doughty. Capote fell out of that relationship into another with literary critic Newton Arvin, to whom Other Voices, Other Rooms Capote dedicated the novel.

This novel established for Capote the fame and celebrity he would seek throughout his life. A quest that ultimately destroyed him.


caricature from David Levine

Highly recommended. This is a 4.5 Star Read.
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Reading Progress

06/05/2012 page 113
49.0% ""I never cry," Joel lied.

She turned on her stomach, and, fingering moss, said with gentle matter of factness, "Well, I do. I cry sometimes. She looked at him earnestly. "But you don't ever tell anybody, hear?""
06/06/2012 page 178
77.0% ""He was grumpy enough to quarrel; that, of course, was a drawback in being dependent: he could never quarrel with Randolph, for anger seemed more unsafe than love: only those who know their own security can afford either."" 1 comment
03/21/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I thought about reading this after watching the same Harper Lee documentary that you saw. Truman did not come off so well in it did he?

Lawyer Steve wrote: "I thought about reading this after watching the same Harper Lee documentary that you saw. Truman did not come off so well in it did he?"

No, he did not. He was SO sure he would win the Pulitzer for In Cold Blood, I don't think he ever recovered from not receiving it. He excluded Harper Lee from his guest list for his "White Ball." The friendship dissolved. He lost most of his society friends with the publication of a segment of "Answered Prayers" was published in Esquire Magazine, which cast them in an unfavorable light. I think he turned into a mean little Pekingese of a man. Looking at photographs of Capote taken shortly before his death, he appears ancient. However, he was only 59 at the time of his death.

Greg Z Hi Mike, "Swamp Baroque"! How perfect. I'm reminded of an old Chinese saying, "Even the devil is afraid of feminine men."

Lawyer Greg wrote: "Hi Mike, "Swamp Baroque"! How perfect. I'm reminded of an old Chinese saying, "Even the devil is afraid of feminine men.""

Greg, thanks for reading. Your Chinese proverb is as perfect as Swamp Baroque. GRIN

message 5: by Hana (new)

Hana Mike, an excellent review. Thank you for filling in the back-story on Truman Capote and In Cold Blood. I tried to get into his novels once or twice in my youth but thought they were boring. Looks like I missed the good parts *grins*

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