Boundless Hearts in a Nightmare World: Queer Sentimentalism and Southern Gothicism in Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms

Article excerpt

In the 1941 article, "The Gothic South," Louise Bogan declares, "The definite Gothic quality which characterizes so much of the work of writers from the American South has puzzled critics."(1) In addition to puzzling the critics, however, the ascription of the Southern gothic label to their writings has often puzzled, if not insulted, the Southern writers themselves. In response to Alice Walker's question whether she had ever been called a gothic writer, Eudora Welty replied, "They better not call me that! Yes, I have been, though. Inevitably, because I'm a Southerner. I've never had anybody call me that to my face."(2) Though perhaps not taking such offense at the ascription of a gothic style, Flannery O'Connor likewise believed that some critics both too quickly link the Southern with the gothic and apply the term grotesque to Southern literature when it is not appropriate: she humorously commented that "I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic."(3) Paradoxically, a review of the critical literature about these authors and other Southern writers confirms Bogan's characterization of the literature rather than Welty's and O'Connor's. The assumption of a Southern gothic style is virtually the sine qua non of a critical analysis of Southern literature.(4)

Another author who has often been dubbed a Southern gothicist is Truman Capote. Reading his Other Voices, Other Rooms in opposition to this background of grotesque critical interpretation,(5) I believe, offers an alternate reading of the novel in which certain characters are not interpreted merely as freakish aberrations and grotesque incarnations but as poignant and sympathetic representations of humanity. My goal is to liberate the text from a reductive critical past in order to begin a process of reinterpretation both of Capote's novel and of other Southern writings which have been too casually labeled "gothic" without sufficient analysis of how the gothic tropes interplay with other literary traditions. Specifically, I argue that Capote employs gothicism in tandem with sentimentalism. Though the gothic and the sentimental may appear to be radically discrete literary traditions, Capote merges them to great effect in Other Voices, Other Rooms both to create a hybrid style of gothic sentimentalism in which gothic terror and sentimental pathos combine to solicit the reader's sympathy for the characters, and to bring out the theme that love in any form must be cherished.(6) More specifically, one can see that Capote has created a sentimental novel designed to bring his readers into a sympathetic relationship with the protagonist as this character moves through the nightmare world in which he lives and learns, by so doing, to accept his homosexuality. Rather than merely offering a parade of grotesques and freaks to shock the reader, the didactically sentimental thematics of Other Voices, Other Rooms urge the novel's audience to a better understanding and deeper acceptance of homosexuality through a groundbreaking treatment of adolescent gay identity.

The Gothic Elements

Certainly, I do not want to minimize the gothic elements of the text in my argument that Capote is writing within the sentimental tradition. For example, the landscape of Other Voices, Other Rooms is indeed fully gothic in its terror. Capote isolates his characters in the principal setting of the novel, a secluded Southern mansion, and the name of this ancestral manor, Skully's Landing, is itself evocative of death, bones, and decay. The novel begins with the adolescent protagonist, Joel Harrison Knox, traveling from New Orleans to the Landing in order to live with his father after his mother's death, and the descriptions of the landscape through which he travels foreshadow the deterioration which he finds upon his arrival: Capote describes the swamp lands which Joel passes through as "filled with luminous green logs that shine under the dark marsh water like drowned corpses. …