Poetry Madness

Monday, December 24th, 2001


A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, & the Thanksgiving Visitor (Modern Library)

by Truman Capote

In Memory of Affections Deep and True

A review by C. P. Farley

Truman Capote was a world-class braggart. So it is natural to take with a grain of salt his boast that he had written (to paraphrase) one story that is as good as any in the language, "A Christmas Memory." Nonetheless, the claim wasn't entirely without foundation. I won't speculate on the story's position in the literary canon, but it would certainly be difficult to name a more effective or affecting piece of writing. Perhaps this is because "A Christmas Memory" is a perfectly distilled expression of the deepest affection Truman knew in his turbulent life.

Truman Streckfus Persons was born to parents who neither wanted a child nor were willing to take care of one. At a very young age, he was left in the care of relatives, which in his case meant a group of aging eccentrics living in the Alabama countryside. In many ways, Truman was lucky. Though he bore the scars of this abandonment throughout his life, it was also during this period that he enjoyed the care and friendship of his aging spinster cousin, Miss Sook Faulk. In Gerald Clarke’s excellent Capote: A Biography, he describes Sook as "Somewhat stout, with white hair cropped close to her head, she was so childlike that she was thought to be retarded by many people; in fact she was merely so shy and unworldly as sometimes to appear simpleminded." (Clarke also recounts Sook’s morphine addiction, which Capote neglects to mention.)

Sook was a true innocent, constitutionally unsuited for the adult world. Though Truman was a child and Sook in her sixties, they were perfectly matched companions. For Truman, Sook was both parent and best friend at a time when he sorely needed both. But the relatives responsible for little Truman were made uncomfortable by the strong bond between the two, so their relationship was cut short. Truman was sent away to hated military school and never saw his friend again before her death a few years later in 1936.

Truman, of course, went on to become a famous author and friend to some of the most powerful people in the world. But the memory of simple, loving Sook remained with him, inspiring much of his most charming fiction. Sook was the model for Dolly Talbo in The Grass Harp, which is clearly based on Capote's years in Monroeville. The dedication to this novella reads: "For Miss Sook Faulk. In memory of affections deep and true." This would make a suitable subtitle for the three stories collected in the Modern Library's Truman Capote: "A Christmas Memory," "One Christmas," & "The Thanksgiving Visitor." Taken together, these three stories constitute a touching eulogy of Truman's beloved Sook and their short-lived friendship.

"A Christmas Memory" recounts Sook and Truman's efforts one year to get ready for the holiday. They gather the ingredients to make a huge batch of whiskey-soaked, pecan-filled fruitcakes, which they send out as gifts to people who've struck their fancy: President Roosevelt, a couple of Baptist missionaries to Borneo, a bus driver, the knife grinder who comes through town twice a year, and so on. The two then cut and decorate a Christmas tree and plot their gifts. The story ends when Truman, now away at school, receives word of his friend's death.

It's difficult to define just how this simple, nostalgic story works so well. Like a bungee jumper, Capote flirts with disaster, but by keeping just enough distance between himself and his material he prevents the story from falling into sentimentality. The result is extraordinarily moving. During the height of his fame, Capote loved to read "A Christmas Memory" to the enormous audiences that would come out to hear him read and bring several thousand people simultaneously to tears.

Capote didn't always turn this trick to equal success. "One Christmas," which takes place during the same period, relates a trip Truman was forced to make from Monroeville to New Orleans to visit his father. The two are virtual strangers, and Truman resents being taken away from Sook at Christmas. Naturally, the trip ends in disaster. Though there is much to admire in the story, Truman doesn't create the distance between storyteller and story that makes "A Christmas Memory" work so well. The piece feels too personal, as though it were motivated by bitterness or revenge, and is far less engaging.

The final story in the collection, though, "The Thanksgiving Visitor," provides a wonderful sequel to "A Christmas Memory." Truman, a very effeminate boy, is being terrorized at school by a vicious bully named Odd Henderson. Truman is distraught, unsure what to do. So he confides in Sook. But she is not capable of believing that anyone could be fundamentally meanspirited and decides to bring Truman and his tormentor together. To Truman's horror, she invites Odd to Thanksgiving dinner. What results is, again, disaster.

As a boy, Truman lived next door to Harper Lee, and the two remained close friends and collaborators throughout their lives. There has even been speculation that Truman not only helped edit To Kill a Mockingbird, but actually wrote much of the book. This is no doubt mere rumor, but there is a similarity between Lee's great novel and "The Thanksgiving Visitor." Odd Henderson is reminiscent of Mr. Ewell, though he turns out to be far more sympathetic, and Truman, in his emotional confusion, bears some resemblance to Scout. But it is honest, decent Sook, who has the moral authority to inform every aspect of this story like Atticus Finch. And it is the intimate detail with which Capote recreates the character of his friend that lifts this story out of the realm of anecdote and into the realm of art.

Truman's Sook may have been simpleminded, but she was not simple. In the stories in which she appears, Sook is the character who best understands the essentials of life. This may explain why Truman Capote kept returning to her over and over as a fictional character. Or perhaps it is because, as Sook says in "The Thanksgiving Visitor," "I won't be here forever, Buddy. Nor will you....But...Lord willing, you'll be here long after I've gone. And as long as you remember me, then we'll always be together."

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