One of the cardinal rules of writing is never to read the comments. For every thoughtful critic, there are three more who didn’t read past the headline; for every valid call-out, there are five more calling the writer an “evil, bitter, barren, ugly, POS Liberal hag.” But it appears no one warned young Truman Capote not to engage, as evidenced by a letter he wrote to a reader in 1945 that accused her of failing to understand a short story he published in a magazine. Truly, bb, I feel you. (NOTE TO JEZEBEL COMMENTERS: I tend not to follow this advice and read your posts, & some of you are very lovely even when you are angry with me, so hi! To the mean ones: I’M WATCHING YOU.)
The New York Times published a fun Sunday piece about the letter, which was recently dug up by one Susan Akers while she was going through some of her late mother’s effects. Apparently, Akers’ mother—then a Wellesley College junior named Katherine Warner, had sent then 20-year-old Capote a letter (a modern day comment!) asking him to explain his short story, “Miriam,” which was published in the June 1945 issue of Mademoiselle. “Miriam” won an O. Henry Award the following year, but it seems Warner had some questions about it, prompting Capote to fire off a fairly curmudgeonly response.
“Thank you for your rather distressing, but certainly very amusing letter. But frankly, the exact nature of your query is a little baffling,” Capote wrote, before proceeding, in a very long paragraph, to explain what I can only assume Warner missed in the plot. He concluded, “I don’t suppose I get the six white roses, but thanks all the same. Does this leave you as confused as ever? Sorry.”
You can read the whole thing (typewriter typos and all) over at the Times’ website. I have not read “Miriam” or Warner’s original letter, but my takeaway from Capote’s response is that he was kind of a dick. I mean, congratulations on the O. Henry Award, ghost of Capote, but I read In Cold Blood in college and hated it! Perhaps I was just very drunk on Everclear at the time, but still. We all have our own tastes.
Meanwhile, Capote biographer Gerald Clarke told the Times “Miriam” was the story that jumpstarted Capote’s career, which makes his letter to Warner all the more noteworthy, since it was probably the last time Capote was un-famous enough to correspond with the plebes. “ I think it’s charming that he sat down to write the letter,” Clarke said. “I’m not sure how many fiction writers would do that. Fiction writers don’t like to explain their stories.”
I’m not sure how charmed Warner was when she got Capote’s letter (with her last name misspelled, no less), but perhaps she got a kick out of it when he got famous, or, better, held a grudge against him until her dying day.