It must have taken some nerve to write a sympathetic portrayal of a gay man in 1948. Even more nerve to do so in your first novel.
Truman Capote had a lot of nerve.
Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote’s first novel, can be read as a bildungsroman–the story of the artist as a young man–if we read the main character Joel Harrison Knox as autobiographical. We’re introduced to Joel in the opening pages through the eyes of Sam Radclif, a local man who drives the young Joel to Noon City where the book takes place.
Radclif eyed the boy oer the rim of his beer glass, nor caring much for the looks of him. He had his notions of what a “real” boy should look like, and this kid somehow offended them. He was too pretty, too delicate and fair-skinned; each of his features was shaped with a sensitive accuracy, and a girlish tenderness softened his eyes, which were brown and very large his brown hair, cut short, was streaked with pure yellow strands. A kind of tired, imploring expression masked his thin face, and there was an unyouthful sag about his shoulders. He wore long, wrinkled white linen breeches, a limp blue shirt, the collar of which was open at the throat, and rather scuffed tan shoes.
If there was any doubt that the author was describing himself, it was dispelled by the photo on the back of the original book jacket which I have included above. In its day, this picture was considered somewhat scandalous. This cover photo, this characterization, were both took a lot of nerve–in the sense that they were both offensive to a wide swath of American society and they there were both brave acts. It was still a crime to be gay in America in 1948. Capote is all but openly declaring himself a felon here.
Late in the novel Joel’s uncle Randolf tells Joel the story of his one true love affair, which was with a man called Pepe. Throughout the novel, Randolf has been described as a feminine character who lives with a few people in the crumbling, isolated mansion that once was his family’s plantation manor. We suspect that he is the woman Joel sometimes sees through the upper floor window of a nearby hotel. (The description of the hotel, as well as everything else in the novel, is wonderful. See my comments on it here.) Pepe came to Noon City with his girlfriend, Dolores, and it is she who first recognizes that Randolf has fallen in love with him. Randolf describes the scene when she confronts him about Pepe:
Afterwards, and though at first I was careful not to show the quality of my feelings, Dolores understood intuitively what had happened: “Strange how long it takes us to discover ourselves; I’ve known since I first saw you,” she said, adding, “I do not think, though, that he is the one for you; I’ve known too many Pepes: love him if you will, it will come to nothing.” 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.
This is a strong defense of same-sex attraction, a bold declaration for 1948. Point a man away from the man he loves, tell him this will lead him to heaven, and you have put him in hell by denying him the one he loves. And it’s your fault, not his. You are the hypocrite, the illiterate. Today, many gay men would find the characterization of Randolf as problematic and many African-Americans would find the characterization of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. As troublesome as I found it.
It’s anyones guess how long Truman Capote’s standing among American novelists will last. To be honest, I don’t think his long-range chances are very good. He is not mentioned as a pioneer in the struggle for Gay and Lesbian equality much either. Towards the end, he made himself into a comical figure, too much like the character of Randolf, a character many gay men now find regrettable. I think this is too bad. Characters like Randolf and Joel, men like Truman Capote, for all their perceived faults lived life as themselves at a time when doing so was not just illegal but a physically dangerous thing to do.
I’ve been reading Other Voices, Other Rooms in tandem with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird this summer. (For details see here.) Now than I’m done with both I should express an opinion, one way or another, since that is what I set out to do in the first place. Reluctantly, I have to say that To Kill a Mockingbird is the better book. Reluctant because I had some problems with To Kill a Mockingbird (see here) and because I liked Other Voices Other Rooms much more. And Mr. Capote is the clear underdog here. Other Voices Other Rooms has already faded almost as much as the buildings in Noon City where the novel takes place, while To Kill a Mockingbird has become a classroom staple.
You can’t go wrong with either novel as far as I’m concerned.