Harper Lee vs. Truman Capote: Round Two

capote vsI’ve been reading both Harper Lee and Truman Capote simultaneously this summer: To Kill a Mockingbird and Other Voices, Other Rooms.  It’s easy to argue that both books are based on the author’s childhoods; the authors who knew each other as children were life long friends.  Truman Capote is probably the basis for the character of Dill in Mockingbird; Harper Lee is certainly the basis for  Idabel Thomkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms.  Both books, are excellent.

Here’s where things stand at the halfway point through each:

Plot:  To Kill a Mockingbird is a very episodic novel but it has an underlying plot thread, the trial of Tom Robinson falsely accused of rape and the mystery of Boo Radley.  As the novel builds, so does the dramatic tension.  I can’t say that I find the book a page turner, but the plot does pull the reader along.

Other Voices, Other Rooms is not nearly as episodic as Mockingbird but it has much less dramatic tension.  It’s not quite a bildungsroman, not quite a character study.  The novel does have some dramatic tension growing from the main character’s position in a strange new town with a strange new family as he waits for someone to introduce him to his father or to explain what has happened to the father he never knew.

Point to Harper Lee.

  • Harper Lee: 1
  • Truman Capote: 0

Setting: The Finch family of To Kill a Mockingbird descended from landed gentry of Southern Alabama.  They still own the family property outside of Maycomb, the town where most of the story takes place, called Finch’s Landing.  The brief descriptions of Finch’s Landing make it sound like a nicer version of Skully’s Landing where Other Voices, Other Rooms takes place.

While Maycomb is certainly well drawn, most readers could draw a fairly accurate map of it by the end, many probably did after reading the book in middle school, Capote is better at evoking place.  Here he describes The Cloud Hotel, a formerly grand lakeside hotel now decaying into ruin where only the former stable boy, Little Sunshine remains:

Slowly old creek-slime, filtering through the limestone springs, had dyed the water an evil color; the lawns, the road, the paths all turned wild; the wide veranda caved in; the chimneys sank low in the swampy earth; storm-uprooted trees leaned against the porch; and water-snakes slithering across the strings made night-songs on the ballroom’s decaying piano  It was a terrible, strange-looking hotel. But Little Sunshine stayed on: it was his rightful home, he said, for if he went away, as he had once upon a time, other voices, other rooms, voices lost and clouded, strummed his dreams.

Ms. Lee certainly creates a wonderful setting in To Kill a Mockingbird but there’s nothing as evocative as music made by snakes crawling over the decaying strings of an abandoned piano in her book.

Point to Truman Capote.

  • Harper Lee: 1
  • Truman Capote 1

Character: Characters are a Battle Royale.  Both novels swarm with memorable characters.  Each is full of the eccentricity that typifies Southern novels.  Both understand what children are like and how children see the world.  Neither condescends.  Both give their characters, even many of the minor ones, the depth that makes them feel like real people to most readers.  Both have similar problems with the depiction of black characters.

Ms. Lee has the advantage of Gregory Peck, the great actor who played Atticus Finch in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Truman Capote has never been quite so lucky.  It’s difficult to judge whose characters are better drawn when I always see Gregory Peck as Atticus.  But since so many of the other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird have entered the collective consciousness, I giving this point to Harper Lee.

  • Harper Lee: 2
  • Truman Capote: 1

Writing: Both books are very well written.  To Kill a Mockingbird captures the way children speak, the way they understand the world around them.  Ms. Lee’s style is straightforward, almost economical.  Her dialogue is very good.  However, the closing scene of chapter nine is a clunker.  In this scene Atticus discusses Scout’s behavior and the up-coming difficulties his children will have to face once the trial starts with his brother Jack. The two are alone, but Atticus knows that Scout is hiding where she can hear everything they say.  The scene reeks of exposition.  Uncle Jack asks questions that are clearly devices the author is using to move her exposition along.  I was frankly surprised to find how false this scene rang.

Capotes is not interested in moving his story along they was Ms. Lee is.  His writing is much slower, but slower in a way that helps the reader feel the humidity.   Mr. Capote is a man in love with the poetry of the written word.  You can see that in the passage I quoted above.  He has a wonderful way of creating something that is both horrible and magical at once.  His main character is a lonely little boy who only wants someone to love him, but because he moves in a world so full of wonder I don’t know if I should pity him or envy him.  Some of both, I guess.  I also want to point out the word ‘strummed‘ in the passage above and how it makes memory a water-snake playing a song on a broken piano.  I love that.

Point to Mr. Capote.

  • Harper Lee: 2
  • Truman Capote 2

I’m just past the halfway point with each book, but I have a feeling it’s going to end up a tie.  I’m betting that most of you have read To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s worth a re-read, but I really hope you’ll consider Other Voices, Other Rooms.  It’s become a forgotten gem, but it’s a gem none-the-less.


4 thoughts on “Harper Lee vs. Truman Capote: Round Two

  1. I LOVE this comparison. I teach To Kill a Mockingbird to my 9th graders and I’m always talking about how Capote was the inspiration behind Dill in her book. I also always encourage them to read Capote so they can get the style of both authors. (He might be a more mature read though). This comparison reminded me why I love both books.

  2. So far I’d say Capote’s subject matter is perfectly fine for middle and high school. His writing is a higher reading level than Harper Lee’s and may prove difficult for some younger readers. I think you could use certain key chapters or passages, maybe one with Idabel or one with lots of information about Joel, and to compare the two writers/books.

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