Reader’s Corner: When Burroughs Wrote to Capote

Poloroids of William S. Burroughs and Truman Capote, taken by Andy Warhol.

The last few years have seen a continuing Truman Capote renaissance, with two competing movies on how he wrote In Cold Blood, and new Modern Library editions of Breakfast at Tiffany’sComplete Stories, and Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Next to all the celebration, though, there is also a reexamination of Capote both as crime writer (many of In Cold Blood‘s assertions having now been brought into question or completely debunked) and as a fictionalist.

capotestoriesMichael Bourne has a perceptive take on Capote’s sad legacy at The Millions. His viewpoint on the the early promise and sparkle of Capote’s (calling him “American literature’s beautiful child”) that later fizzled out in self-parody (much as the man himself seemed to), has the man’s legacy dead to rights.

More curiously damning is this letter that Capote received in 1970 from William S. Burroughs (included in the letters collection Rub Out the Words and dug up by the good people at Letters of Note). The two men may have shared a few things—being openly gay writers in a much more homophobic time and possessed of a certain aristocratic disdain—but it’s clear that Old Bull Lee had little but contempt for Capote, then still being showered in praise for In Cold Blood, while the murderous surrealist from St. Louis toiled away on the margins:

…I have in line of duty read all your published work. The early work was in some respects promising—I refer particularly to the short stories. You were granted an area for psychic development. It seemed for a while as if you would make good use of this grant. You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell. You have written a dull unreadable book which could have been written by any staff writer on the New Yorker—(an undercover reactionary periodical dedicated to the interests of vested American wealth)…

You have betrayed and sold out the talent that was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially withdrawn. Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished. Over and out. Are you tracking me? Know who I am? You know me, Truman. You have known me for a long time. This is my last visit.

It was prophetic. Capote never finished another book after In Cold Blood. He dabbled with Answered Prayers for almost two decades but never finished it.

Note also this line from Burroughs, which evinces a surprising attitude of creative romanticism from the old buzzard: “You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell.” This is a warning that should be given to every young writer about their gift: Use it well and wisely when you have the chance, because the world doesn’t look kindly on those who squander such things.

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