When Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story A Christmas Memory was first published in 1956, the 32-year-old author was reaching his peak as both a celebrity and writer. Although his notorious public reputation would eventually overshadow his critical and popular talents as a writer, these early days of his career established him as one of the most innovative, seminal authors of his generation.
Capote’s journey to literary notoriety was a difficult one. He was born on September 30, 1924, to Lillie Mae and Arch Persons in New Orleans, and his early years quickly turned sour. His mother, a small-town beauty without the patience or maturity to care for her son, often left Capote to fend for himself, eventually—after her marriage fully dissolved—in the care of distant relatives in Monroeville, Alabama.
Although Capote’s feelings of abandonment would haunt him the rest of his life, there were glimmers of happiness in his childhood. He, his elderly cousin Miss Sook, and his tomboyish friend Harper Lee spent many happy hours together, giving young Capote the tools and inspiration that would eventually spark his fictional work.
Capote was sent back to live with his mother and her new husband in New York City in 1932, but it was hardly the joyful family reunion he hoped for. His mother was preoccupied with her new life, and she was determined to “cure” Capote of his effeminate, sensitive personality. Private school and later military school failed to offer solace, either; Capote was frequently bullied for his diminutive size; and unchallenged by his classes, he had little interest in proving himself academically. His enrollment in Greenwich High School, however, finally gave him the outlet necessary for spurring his artistic talents.
The young writer
Although he wasn’t encouraged to pursue his writing talents as a young child, Capote was always a storyteller. He taught himself to read by watching over the shoulder of his older relatives and reading with his cousin Sook, and he was often the leader of his childhood adventures with Harper Lee. During these early years especially, writing was a sanctuary: “I began writing really sort of seriously when I was about eleven. I say seriously in the sense that like other kids go home and practice the violin or the piano or whatever, I used to go home from school every day, and I would write for about three hours. I was obsessed by it.” It wasn’t until adolescence, when he was encouraged by a Greenwich High School English teacher, that Capote determined to pursue writing as his vocation.
As a teen, Capote secured his first job as a copyboy for The New Yorker. After he was fired for walking out on a Robert Frost reading, Capote pursued his writing full-time, publishing several short stories while working on his first novel. It wasn’t until he returned to his Monroeville roots, however, that his first full-length work came to be; while staying at his childhood home to focus on his novel—then a New York City social commentary called Summer Crossing—Capote was inspired to write a totally different story, a coming-of-age novel about a lonely and effeminate young boy who travels to Alabama to meet his father. Published in 1948 when Capote was only 24 years old, Other Voices, Other Rooms was an instant success—but it spurred as much controversy as it did praise, both for its homosexual coming-of-age undertones and the supposedly erotically charged photograph of Capote on the book jacket.
Capote’s literary success gave him access to the biggest names in film, literature, and celebrity. His striking behavior and voice, as well as outspoken personality and love for the spotlight, quickly made him one of the most popular figures in the literary scene.
He followed the success of Other Voices, Other Rooms with a collection of short stories, A Tree of Light, published in 1949. Not one to stay out of the public eye for long, Capote’s travel essays were put out in book form in 1950 as Local Color, and his much-anticipated second novel, The Grass Harp, was released in the fall of 1951.
Capote’s personal life also took a successful turn after meeting author Jack Dunphy, who was 10 years his senior, in 1948. They spent many of their early years traveling abroad while working on their respective writing projects. Even in Capote’s later years, when addiction took toxic control over his life and he was unable to sustain a close, constant relationship, Dunphy continued to support his partner. Capote was brazenly outspoken about his homosexuality, and although he was never a direct advocate for the early gay rights movement, his openness was monumental for the time.
A Christmas Memory
Amid this whirlwind of fame and success, Capote published A Christmas Memory in 1956. He wrote this story right on the cusp of some of his most seminal works of literature and nonfiction—Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (published in 1965, although he started working on the book in 1959)—after he had already published Other Voices, Other Rooms and The Grass Harp, also very autobiographical.
In Cold Blood would artfully combine fiction and journalism and revolutionize both fields. Although it became his most significant work, the subsequent fame eventually led to a downward spiral for Capote, who was as intoxicated by celebrity as he was by drugs and alcohol. In later years, the literary brilliance of his writing faded next to his controversial public persona—even now, more than 30 years after his death, his legacy speaks less to his role as one of America’s finest prose stylists than it does his fame for being famous.
The tension between artist and celebrity makes A Christmas Memory especially intriguing. There is virtually no firsthand information about the process behind or inspiration for A Christmas Memory, so one can only speculate as to why Capote felt a need to return to his roots in such an honest, heartfelt way. It is a nostalgic, surprisingly innocent reminder of the child who would eventually become a notorious household name, and poses challenging questions about the nature of memory and what truly defines a human being.
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.