How Truman Capote Captures the Zeitgeist of America in the 1950s and 1960s
Yoko Ono once described the 1960’s as an era of release from the conventional bonds of society. To understand fully the rejection of society in the 1960’s, one must also evaluate society of the 1950’s. Truman Capote not only captures the essence of the 1960’s rejection of society in his novels Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood; he highlights the positive and negative aspects of 50’s and 60’s culture. In doing so, he provides readers of today with a valuable insight into an era of change that encompassed politics, popular culture, and presumed “high” art such as Capote’s novels.
In an era that recalls the post World War I economic boom of the 1920’s, America enjoyed an unexpected period of prosperity after the Second World War in the 1950’. The gross national product increased by $100 million in just 10 years; as a result people below 40 on average tended to spend more and save less. A de facto pent up consumer demand stimulated capital in big businesses, and high wages along with low unemployment rates allowed for a large middle class to grow. This thriving capitalist economy lent itself well to the average family, as William Levitt’s suburban neighborhoods grew, and families moved into homes with low mortgages and job opportunities only a train ride away . Veterans benefitted from the G.I. bill, which built 11 of the 13 million houses built in the 50’s, and employed thousands of veterans. The suburban family became standard, as one in five families moved to a suburban neighborhood. and many pursued a materialistic buying fervor. American author Vance Packard wrote in his bestseller, The Hidden Persuaders, “The cosmetic manufacturers are not selling lanolin, they are selling homes..we no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality. We no longer buy an auto, we buy prestige.” Americans believed that through purchasing goods, they might become more attractive, well rounded, intelligent, and so forth. Manufacturers simply marketed goods to an internal market. Americans could not get enough of American produced cars, televisions,food, beauty products, and other goods that they believed would benefit them. Along with growing materialism, this type of advertising also created an era of conservative ideals. The amount of families with television sets grew from 20% to 90% during the 1950’s, and television shows such as the Dick Van Dyke Show portrayed idealized versions of society that created a uniform culture throughout America. Popular television shows depicted “ideal” suburban families; mothers were housewives and children were obedient and respectful. Women were urged to stop working and become an ideal housewife;Women’s rights advocate described the suburbs as “burying women alive” in her book The Feminine Mystique. Dissatisfaction in women’s roles in families and suburban conformity in general led to the rebellious nature of individuals in the 1960’s.
Truman Capote’s Holiday Golightly epitomizes the 1950s consumer, who chased fulfilment through unconventional means. While Holly doesn’t strive to acquire material wealth, she reflects the materialism of the 1950s in the sense that she attempted to fill fleeting relationships and voids in her life with idealistic dreams. “The average personality reshapes frequently, every few years even our bodies undergo a complete overhaul…here were two people who never would. That is what Mildred Grossman had in common with Holly Golightly. They would never change because they’d been given their character too soon…the one had splurged herself into a top-heavy realist, the other a lopsided romantic. I imagined them in a restaurant of the future, Mildred still studying the menu for its nutritional values, Holy still gluttonous for everything on it” (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 46). Holly replaces her deceased parents by marrying the man who took care of her, Doc Golightly: “You never saw a more pitiful something,” Doc describes “Ribs sticking out everywhere…Story was: their mother died of the TB, and their papa done the same…She didn’t have to lift a finger, ‘cept to eat a piece of pie” (Tiffany’s, 55). After her parents died, she ran off and found Doc, who gave her the care she lacked. Old enough to be her father, Doc acts as a parental figure in cooking and caring for her. Holly also asks the narrator if he minded that she called him Fred- the name of her brother who is away serving in the army (Tiffany’s,15). Rather than creating new relationships with Doc or the narrator, she simply fills old roles in her life. Holly advised “never love a wild thing…If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky (Tiffany’s, 59). It is evident that she fearful of losing loved ones, so instead she boxes people in her life into a role. When asked if she really loved Rusty, she responded “you can make yourself love anybody” (Tiffany’s, 33). Her unsatisfiable appetite for fulfillment through alternate methods reflects the 1950s tendency reach happiness through unconventional means. Furthermore, In Cold Blood embodies the benefits of a seemingly ideal conservative family. Although Alvin Dewey’s wife, Marie, holds a menial job as a secretary, she makes sure every day to have coffee and dinner ready when her tired husband returns from work. When the reader hears Marie talk, it’s either to ask how Alvin is, or tell him how she is feeling scared after the Murders. She maintains freedom through a job, but Alvin Dewey returns home knowing his wife’s first priority caring for her family, as dinner is always ready to go.
The Dewey family, much like the wholesome Clutter family held a strong morally pure standard through religion; “A belief in God and the rituals surrounding that belief-Church every sunday, grace before meals, prayers before bed-were an important part of the Deweys’ existence. ‘I don’t see how anyone can sit down to table without wanting to bless it,’ Mrs Dewey once said” (In Cold Blood, 105). However, unlike the Deweys, Bonnie Clutter is sickly, and fails as her duty as a housewife, leaving her feeling useless and depressed. “Yet to this day she regretted not having completed the course and received her diploma—’just to prove’—as she had told a friend, ‘that I once succeeded at something.’ Instead, she had met and married Herb’” (In Cold Blood, 29). Bonnie is unable to feel pride in herself because she is unable to achieve on her own. Insead, she fulfills her female destiny and becomes a wife. However, Bonnie isn’t able to cook or care for Herb, a “defect” that makes her feel useless. Bonnie hides in the shadow of her husband, a “‘joiner,’ a ‘born leader’ (In Cold Blood, 27). “On the advice of a doctor, who had thought the experience would aid her to regain ‘a sense of adequacy and usefulness,’ [Bonnie] had taken a job as a file clerk at the Y.W.C.A. Her husband, entirely sympathetic, had encouraged the adventure, but she liked it too well, so much that it seemed to her unchristian, and the sense of guilt she in consequence developed ultimately outweighed the experiment’s therapeutic value” (In Cold Blood, 28). Striving to achieve self-fulfilment has the opposite effects on Bonnie, as she is unable to feel content because she has no role. She is neither a self-sufficient woman, nor a successful housewife. Bonnie avoids attempting to be the housewife she isn’t able to be in fear of “made a mistake…What if Herb should be displeased?” (In Cold Blood, 28). She lacks confidence and is often depressed because she knows she will never be happy, but more importantly, she can’t be the perfect housewife to make her husband happy.
While Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood reflect qualities of the 1950’s, they more prominently reject conformist society, a trait that is popular in the 1960’s. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, published in 1958, and In Cold Blood, published in 1965, captured the zeitgeist of the 1960’s more than the 1950’s. While on the surface, both main characters, and both books as a whole spoke to the materialism of the 1950’s, the true essence of the books are the rejection of society a la 1960’s America. Postwar births flourished, creating a generation of people, appropriately called “ baby boomers”. This group of 76 million individuals were teenagers during the 1960’s, and after growing up in such a prosperous era, they grew up to be a generally idealistic group. As trust in the establishment- government, money, adults, and authority- declined, youths focused on rejecting, rather than merely abandoning the status quo of society. This rebellion against moral tradition was called counter culture, and spontaneity, along with a lack of inhibitions became important virtues to counter culture. Popular mottos such as “If it feels good, do it” and songs lyrics like “Do It ’Til You’re Satisfied (Whatever it Is)” sung by BT Express asserted the notion that individuals should act upon instinctual desires first, and think through consequences second. Freedom in the 1960’s exploded, as individuals were encouraged to shed their psychological restraints. With this freedom came the deterioration of society’s regard for both social norms and laws. The drugs that were so popular with counter culture baby boomers, such as LSD and marijuana, were psychedelics that allowed one to escape the binds of the world. Counter culture baby boomers believed that by using drugs, they were altering society by blurring the moral line between right and wrong. Adults targeted drugs as the gateway to social and moral deterioration of the United States, but drugs were just a means of expressing counter culture, the true source of this “deterioration.” LSD was just one of many illegal routes to counter culture in the 60’s. These individuals who felt distrust in the government harbored no guilt in breaking the law, and crime rates increased by over 450,000 cases. Although hippie culture was founded on the virtues of peace and love, Counter culture encouraged a disregard for rules. Pop culture glamorized violence, which led into an indulgence of crime. The Who famously destroyed their instruments on stage at the end of every concert, which would seem innocent, if it weren’t for the drummer Keith Moon, who also destroyed hotel rooms, and guitarist Pete Townshend, who beat up his wife, girlfriend, and daughter, and threatened to do the same to the keyboardist of the Faces for dating his ex-wife. This single example doesn’t explain why crime so drastically increased, but it certainly sheds light on how violent behavior in pop culture can quickly transition to violent crime. Pete Townshend eventually hit his body guard with his car, killing him, before overdosing on drugs. Because of the financially secure status of a large amount of Americans, television sets, radios, and concert tickets were easily obtained, and this toxic behavior was seen by many.The Grateful Dead, a rock band known for their use of hallucinogens on stage, gained fame for their support of counter culture in drug use and rejection of materialism through song lyrics. However, this drug use led to their demise, as 4 band members died, 3 of which as a result of substance abuse; the lead singer, Jerry Garcia overdosed and slipped into a coma in 1986 after leaving rehabilitation only a year earlier, then dying in 1995 after numerous overdoses. While the 1960’s counterculture was a response to the ills of the 1950’s, both had their obvious drawbacks.
Capote explores these pros and cons of counter culture ideas in his novels. Holly Golightly became a heroine for readers of the 1960’s; although she would be regarded conventionally as immoral, she displays positive qualities. To readers, Holly is the epitome of liberal mindset toward women in the 1960’s, in regards to both sexuality and their role in society. Truman Capote revealed to Playboy Magazine that Holly was a symbol of America’s modern female; she was idolized, despite her flaws, because she was multi-dimensional. A seemingly shallow party girl, Holly has men literally breaking down her door. Her main means of income are less than moral: she survives on “trips to the powder room,” or prostitution (“‘The next time a girl wants a little powder-room change…take my advice, darling: don’t giver her twenty cents’” (Tiffany’s, 12)), and visits to her admirer Sally Tomato in jail. Holly plans to marry Rusty for his money, and she steals Mag’s fiancée, José. However, these flaws only reinstates the idea that a modern woman is entitled to this immoral behavior just as much as a man. She tells the narrator “I don’t mean I’d mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule…but if it happens, I’d like to have my ego tagging along. I still want to be me when I wake up” (Tiffany’s, 31). This self-sufficient liberation that Holly enjoys reflects the counterculture ideal of reflection from life as a housewife, but also encourages the reader to think like a counter culture individual himself. Endearing statements such as this one, and heartwarming stories of how Holly loses her brother in the war bring dimension to Holly’s character, which allows the reader to avoid judging Holly for her flaws.
Similarly, readers sympathize with murderer Perry especially, through detailed description of his background and psyche, which brings a personal connections with one of the men who committed heinous murderers. Perry was exposed to hunger, racism, violence between his parents, and adultery growing up. Growing up, he often got in trouble, blaming this on having “no rule or discipline, or anyone to show me right from wrong” (In Cold Blood, 274). Perry regards himself as an intellectual, “You think I like myself? Oh, the man I could have been! But that bastard never gave me a chance. [My father] wouldn’t let me go to school. O.K. O.K. I was a bad kid. But the time came I begged to go to school. I happen to have a brilliant mind. In case you don’t know. A brilliant mind and talent plus. But no education, because he didn’t want me to learn anything, only how to tote and carry for him. Dumb. Ignorant. That’s the way he wanted me to be… Every damn one of you got an education. Everybody but me. And I hate you, all of you—Dad and everybody” (In Cold Blood, 185) he harbors resentment towards his upbringing, and the reader sees how his lashing out and tendencies towards violence are the product of neglect. Still, Perry brutally murdered four people, and considered killing more; after learning the truck driver he plans to kill has five kids he simply thinks to himself “ too bad”. Perry’s sister doesn’t fall for the facade, claiming “He can seem so warmhearted and sympathetic. Gentle. He cries so easily. Sometimes music sets him off, and when he was a little boy he used to cry because he thought the sunset was so beautiful. Or the moon. Oh, he can fool you. He can make you feel so sorry for him (In Cold Blood,182)” Yes, he has extremely violent tendencies, but Perry is psychologically damaged. In some aspects, he is not to blame for his actions, and the reader feels sympathy for the misunderstood murder.
Capote became very close friends with Perry in particular, and after both Dick and Perry’s deaths, he claimed “If [Dick] had been given $10,000, perhaps he might have settled into some small business. But I don’t think so. He had a very natural criminal instinct towards everything. He was oriented towards stealing from the beginning. On the other hand, I think Perry could have been an entirely different person. I really do. His life had been so incredibly abysmal that I don’t see what chance he had as a little child except to steal and run wild. Of course, you could say that his brother, with exactly the same background, went ahead and became the head of his class. What does it matter that he later killed himself. No, it’s there–it’s the fact that the brother did kill himself, in spite of his success, that shows how really awry the background of the Smiths’ lives were. Terrifying. Perry had extraordinary qualities, but they just weren’t channeled properly to put it mildly. He was a really a talented boy in a limited way–he had genuine sensitivity–and, as I’ve said, when he talked about himself as an artist, he wasn’t really joking at all” (Plimpton). The liberated mindset of readers allowed for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood’s success; despite moral character flaws in main characters Holly and Perry, readers find themselves looking past the taboo actions of a prostitute and murderers. Capote revealed again to George Plimpton from The New York Times “I’ve been staggered by the letters I’ve received…The letters are not fan letters. They’re from people deeply concerned about what it is I’ve written about…It has struck them because there is something so awfully inevitable about what is going to happen: the people in the book are completely beyond their own control. For example, Perry wasn’t an evil person. If he’d had any chance in life, things would have been different. But every illusion he’d ever had, well, they all evaporated, so that on that night he was so full of self-hatred and self-pity that I think he would have killed somebody.” Despite the conventional negative traits and actions they exhibit, Capote’s characters are regarded with sympathy by readers. William Goyen praises in a New York Times book review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s “the notable Capote talent for catching the off-beat nature of people,” (Goyen), revealing how the realistic highs and lows in his characters create a bond with readers.
Truman Capote’s work in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood are completely different styles of writing; one a novel, the other a journalistic “nonfiction novel,” according to Capote. However, the two share a mutual critical and complimentary analyzation of both conservatism in the 50’s and counterculture in the 60’s. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood capture the essence of the 1960’s in the sense that they both create a paradox of 1950’s and 1960’s culture, a trait that in itself captures the freed nature of the 1960’s.
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