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Chapter 2 A Tree of Night and Other Stories Truman Capote hoped his part-time job at the New Yorker would put him on the path to becoming a published author, and in rather unexpected ways it did. The magazine hired him in 1942—along with a variety of sketchy assistants who were “either old and decrepit, thieves, or whistlers”—only as an act of desperation (Clarke 70). Most of the staff had left because of the war, and the New Yorker needed the help. At any other time someone with Capote’s flamboyance, childlike appearance, high-pitched voice, and writerly aspirations would never have been considered. Not only did his demeanor run counter to the image of a typical copyboy, who was expected to be invisible and silent, but his submissions to the fiction department also irritated editors, who did not view employees as potential writers. It is not surprising that they rejected all of Capote’s work. The young upstart did not become discouraged, however. He continued to write as often as he could and increasingly desired more time to dedicate to his craft—a wish that the New Yorker inadvertently granted in the summer of 1944. While attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, Capote overstated his position with the magazine and was given a front-row seat at Robert Frost’s poetry reading. Capote decided to attend despite having just contracted the flu, and shortly into the event he felt too lightheaded and nauseated to stay.1 He tried to leave quietly, but Frost took immediate offence: “Well, if that’s what the representative of The New Yorker thinks of my reading, I shall stop” (quoted in Clarke 76). He then threw his book at Capote. After the New Yorker received several angry letters, including one from Frost, Capote was fired. His termination provided just the opportunity he was looking for. Capote returned to Monroeville, Alabama, and the town brought back such vivid childhood memories that he set aside Summer Crossing, his manuscript a tree of night and other stories 17 about a seventeen-year-old girl in New York, and began Other Voices, Other Rooms. He also drafted several short stories—a genre he later described as his “great love.”2 In January 1945 Capote left Alabama for New Orleans, where he rented a room in the heart of the French Quarter and continued to polish his short fiction. Capote drank in the city’s vibrant nightlife. The jazz-filled streets pulsed with tourists and soldiers on leave. He rode the streetcars and tried to make extra money as a painter—though, as Capote himself admitted, his paintings were awful. After a few months he returned to New York with a suitcase full of manuscripts. He wasted no time before marching into the office of Mademoiselle with a short story. When the receptionist asked for his contact information, Capote explained that he would simply wait while someone read it. The magazine’s fiction editor sent his assistant Rita Smith to meet the boy. She liked “The Walls Are Cold” enough to recommend it for publication, but the senior editor disagreed. Nevertheless her enthusiastic response inspired Capote to return with “My Side of the Matter,” which he had recently sold to Story magazine. Smith greatly admired this work as well, and she asked to see more. Soon after Capote gave her a copy of “Miriam,” Mademoiselle accepted it for the June 1945 issue. This publication began a domino effect of opportunity for Capote. When the fiction editor at Harper’s Bazaar read “Miriam,” she sought out the young writer for a story, and the magazine published “A Tree of Night” in October 1945. Two months later “Jug of Silver” appeared in Mademoiselle, and Harper’s Bazaar included “Headless Hawk” in the November 1946 issue—the same year Capote received an O. Henry Award for “Miriam.” Most of these stories, along with a few others composed in 1947 and 1948, would comprise his first collection, A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949). Capote’s collection portrays individuals, like the decade of the 1940s itself , as fragmented—torn between security and fear, communal engagement and isolationism, public and private identity. The end of World War II certainly produced a sense of relief, but almost immediately the country seemed to face even greater threats with the global spread of communism and the realities of the atomic age. As the historian William S. Graebner has argued, “To be...


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