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Chapter 4 The Grass Harp As children in rural Alabama, Truman Capote and Nelle Harper Lee often escaped to the tree house in her backyard, climbing up the chocolate-colored bark and disappearing for hours at a time. This place, Clarke notes, “became their fortress against the world, a leafy refuge where they read and acted out scenes from their favorite books” (22). The young Capote needed respite not only from town bullies but also from lingering doubts about the affection of his parents, who had left him with Lillie Mae’s relatives in the summer of 1930. As a result Jennie, Callie, and Nanny Rumbley (“Sook”) Faulk became the boy’s family for the next two years; along with Harper Lee’s tree house, they would inspire a number of his works, including The Grass Harp (1951). Though The Grass Harp begins as a nostalgic meditation on self-discovery and love, it gradually becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of social conformity and materialism. The narrative opens with the protagonist, Collin Fenwick, recalling his teenage years with the Talbo family. Verena, a composite of Jennie and Callie Faulk, is matriarch of the house and arguably of the town. Her successful businesses have made her its wealthiest inhabitant , and she has clearly used this money to influence local politics. Dolly, “a delicate happening” (11) and clear stand-in for Sook, possesses a childlike innocence, a quality Capote emphasizes through her passion for the color pink and sweets. Her closest friend, Catherine Creek, claims to be Indian (instead of African American), has no teeth (rendering her speech virtually indecipherable), and possesses a truculent nature (as illustrated by her fearless resistance to whites). She lives in a shed on the property, making Capote’s homage to Anna unmistakable.1 The central conflict involves Dolly’s dropsy cure, an enigmatic gypsy medicine that she brews once a year in the backyard 62 Understanding truman capote and sells to mail-order customers throughout the state. Once Verena realizes its potential profitability, she decides to mass-market the product. She purchases an abandoned factory, gets involved with a shady business partner named Morris Ritz, and demands that Dolly disclose her secret formula in order to begin production. Dolly refuses, and later that night she runs away with Collin and Catherine to take up residence in a nearby tree house on the outskirts of town. This setting links their arboreal retreat to the central image of the novel: the grass harp. To get to the tree, the group must walk through the high Indian grasses that sing in the wind—grasses that remember the lives of the dead and whisper their stories like notes strummed on a harp. Two others join their escapade: a tough, free-spirited teenager named Riley Henderson; and the philosophical Charlie Cool, a retired judge. The tree becomes a place where the group abandons social mores; they smoke, drink, and tell stories late into the night. Most important, they reveal hidden truths about themselves here. It becomes a space where, as Judge Cool explains, “five fools in a tree [are] free to find out who [they] truly are” (41). Meanwhile, Morris Ritz proves to be a con man, stealing thousands of dollars from Verena and skipping town. After discovering the extent of her losses, Verena commands the sheriff to remove the tree dwellers by force. When the police and an armed posse approach the tree at the end of the novel, the ensuing melee concludes with someone shooting Riley, shattering his shoulder and rendering him temporarily unconscious. The remaining mavericks descend from the chinaberry tree and resume a mundane existence in town. Dolly gives up her burgeoning romance with Judge Cool to reclaim her pink room and dies shortly thereafter from a stroke. Riley, who has previously admitted his emotional detachment from girls, gets married and becomes a prominent figure in the community. Collin abandons his deepening affection for Riley and leaves town to pursue a law degree. From his adult reflections on his childhood, however, it seems clear that his place in the establishment has brought him neither happiness nor a sense of belonging. Like many Jazz Age expatriates, Capote often wrote his best work about American life when he was overseas; he composed this novel between June 1950 and May 1951 in Taormina, Sicily. He may have been thousands of miles away from his beloved New York, but he never lost touch with happenings at home. He corresponded daily...


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