In my weekly book review for “Contentions,” Commentary‘s group blog, I discuss a new collection called Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote. If you didn’t read past the jump, you won’t have seen the following:
Capote makes the following nostalgic claim in a 1959 essay about Louis Armstrong: “I met him when I was four, that would be around 1928, and he, a hard-plump and belligerently happy brown Buddha, was playing aboard a pleasure steamer that paddled between New Orleans and St. Louis….The Satch, he was good to me, he told me I had talent, that I ought to be in vaudeville; he gave me a bamboo cane and a straw boater with a peppermint headband; and every night from the stand announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, now we’re going to present you one of America’s nice kids, he’s going to do a little tap dance.’ Afterward I passed among the passengers, collecting in my hat nickels and dimes.”
As the Brits say, no doubt this is true, but the fact is that “the Satch” stopped playing on New Orleans excursion boats in 1921, three years before Capote was born. It seems that the author of In Cold Blood was fabricating material long before the reliability of his most successful and admired book was challenged by those in a position to know. William Shawn wouldn’t have liked that one bit.
I might stick that into my Armstrong biography as a footnote, but just in case I don’t, I wanted to pass it on. It is, of course, no secret that Truman Capote was a near-chronic fabulist. Even so, I didn’t expect to encounter so unabashed and outrageous an example of Capote’s penchant for rolling his own.
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Speaking of now-deceased New Yorker editors, I hear from Supermaud that the Library of America will be bringing out a William Maxwell collection called Early Novels & Stories on January 10. I regret to say that I’ve never written a word about Maxwell, though he’s popped up more than once in this space. He happens, however, to be one of my favorite American writers, and I hope that the publication of this volume (which contains, among other things, the exquisite 1945 novel The Folded Leaf) will bring him some of the posthumous recognition he deserves.
If I had to guess, though, I’d say that Maxwell fits into much the same category as Elaine Dundy. As I wrote in my introduction to the recent paperback reissue of Dundy’s The Dud Avocado,
It is the destiny of some good novels to be perpetually rediscovered, and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, I fear, is one of them. Like William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf or James Gould Cozzens’s Guard of Honor, it bobs to the surface every decade or so, at which time somebody writes an essay about how good it is and somebody else clamors for it to be returned to print, followed in short order by the usual slow retreat into the shadows. In a better-regulated society, of course, the authors of such books would be properly esteemed, and on rare occasions one of them does contrive to clamber into the pantheon–Dawn Powell, the doyenne of oft-rediscovered authors, finally made it into the Library of America in 2001–but in the normal course of things, such triumphs are as rare as an honest stump speech.
What is it about some artists and works of art that keeps them from winning wider recognition, intelligible and accessible though they may be? I posted on this subject back in 2004, but I invite further speculation, since the question is of permanent interest.
Maud? OGIC? Carrie? Anyone?