Truman Capote’s childhood was as distinct as it was nomadic and lonely: his early years with his extended family in Monroeville, Alabama, shaped him as a writer, influencing the distinctive themes and aesthetic that later permeated his works. Capote’s early childhood was difficult, to put it mildly. When he was about 6 years old, his then-single mother deposited him in the care of elderly, distant cousins who, with the exception of Miss Sook—who inspired Holiday Memories—could be self-involved, emotionally removed, even cruel. Capote’s cousins were each invested in their own important worlds, spending their days working in the family business, running a farm, keeping house, entertaining guests, ensuring that their family had a respectable place in town.
Outside his busy, eccentric household was one additional character that helped shape Capote’s early years, however: the town of Monroeville, Alabama, itself. Much as it does for Capote’s childhood friend Harper E. Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird, the town serves as an entity unto itself with its own distinctive voice and tone.
[su_dropcap size=”5″]I[/su_dropcap]n 1930, when Truman went to live in Monroeville,
it was a small country town, scarcely more than a furrow between fields of corn and cotton. That year’s census listed 1,355 people, but even that tiny figure was probably exaggerated by local officials, who wanted a number big enough to qualify for a post office. There was not one paved street, and a row of oak trees grew right down the middle of Alabama Avenue. On hot summer days cars and horses kicked up red dust every time they passed by; when it rained that dust turned into mud. Without a map it was hard to know where the town began and the surrounded farmland ended. Yards were big, with two or three outbuildings, and most people kept chickens, some pigs, and at least one cow. The Faulks did not have a cow—Sook would not milk one—but they did raise chickens, and turkeys too, and every winter Bud would bring in from his farm a couple of hogs, which were soon sent to the smokehouse.
Everybody followed farmers’ hours, up by dawn, in bed by eight or nine. In the Faulk household, Sook and old Aunt Liza—all elderly blacks were called “aunt” or “uncle” by the white people they worked for—would start cooking breakfast, the big meal of the day, at five: ham, eggs, and pancakes, of course; but also, in an almost excessive display of the land’s bounty, fried chicken, pork chops, catfish, and squirrel, according to the season. Along with all that, there would be grits and gravy, black-eyed peas, collards (with corn bread to sop up the collard liquor), biscuits and homemade jams and preserves, pound cake, sweet milk, buttermilk, and coffee flavored with chicory. After that cockcrow banquet Jennie and Callie would walk down to their store, Bud would retire to his bedroom, and Sook would go on with her other domestic chores.
…Jennie and Callie came home for lunch, which was usually leftovers from breakfast, then came back again for an early supper, much of which had also been part of the early-morning feast. When dinner was over, everyone wandered out to the porch, which was the center of activity for most of the year; winters are short in southern Alabama and some years so mild they are scarcely noticed at all, fall merging into spring with only the briefest punctuation in between. After a while neighbors dropped by to gossip: talk was the chief form of entertainment, and everybody knew all there was to know about everybody else. Once a week Sook and Callie invited some friends to play a card game called rook. Sook, who was the best player on the street, would mix up a batch of divinity candy for the occasion and dance around in a fever of excitement all day. Jennie was the only one who remained aloof; card games, she said, were a damned-fool business. Her only passion was her garden. Her japonica bushes were a neighborhood landmark, and she guarded them as if they were her precious jewels, which to her way of thinking they were.
Even the Depression, which hit the South first and harder, did not alter that placid routine. There were more people for Sook to distribute hand-me-downs to, and “Hoover cars,” horse-drawn wagons with rubber tires scrapped off Model-Ts, were beginning to make an appearance. But money had never been as plentiful or as important in small towns like Monroeville as it had been in the cities, and its sudden disappearance mattered comparatively less. The Faulks were hurt by the hard times, but they never suffered real deprivation. There was, as always, an around-the-clock banquet in Sook’s kitchen.
Maegan Clearwood is Avant Bard’s Director of Audience Engagement and Resident Dramaturg. She recently completed a year as the Literary Associate at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, where she served as Assistant Dramaturg on Slaughterhouse-Five (music by Jed Feuer, book/lyrics by Adele Ahronheim) and End of Shift (by Jenny Connell-Davis). Favorite credits from her Olney Theater Center Dramaturgy Apprenticeship include I and You, The Piano Lesson, The Tempest, and Colossal. She studied drama and English at Washington College and is a proud Sophie Kerr Prize finalist, Association for Theatre in Higher Education Dramaturgy “Deb,” and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas member.