Genre of the Week: A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

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Photo taken in December 2014

When learning about American culture and literature, there is a canon of authors, whose most popular books, in the eyes of non-native speakers of English, are highly recommended to read. One of the authors mentioned in this canon is Truman Capote. When looking at his life in general, it was marred by family crises while growing up, mental illness and drugs and alcohol. All of them contributed to his downfall and untimely death in 1984. He was a sad person but one who looked for the truth in writing, no matter how painful. This was seen in his most prized work, In Cold Blood, published in 1965 and based on a true story about a family murder in Kansas, and his collaboration with his best friend, Harper Lee, who later became famous for her two major works, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, the latter of which was published in July 2015, seven months before her death.

Yet even though he started writing at the age of eleven, not all of his works were of doom and gloom. Many of them were based on his positive experiences and memories as a child, as well as some creative ideas based on stories of others.

While Breakfast at Tiffany’s (published in 1958) is the most popular Truman Capote story on the European side of the ocean, he wrote a Christmas memoir based on the tradition of fruitcake for family, friends and neighbors. Entitled A Christmas Memory and published in 1956 as part of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s Short Story Trilogy and NovelLa, the story focuses on a close bond between the narrator named Buddy and his cousin, both of whom are living in a house with several other relatives who don’t care much about them.

The setting is in late November in the 1930s,  when the two embark on a journey to pick nuts, dried fruit and later, whisky, flour, sugar and butter to make a total of 31 loaves of a traditional fruitcake. Getting the ingredients wasn’t easy, as they had collected barely enough money from their odd jobs just to get the basics from the store. They had a hand-me-down baby carriage to haul the dried fruit and nuts and were accompanied by the cousin’s dog, Queenie.

Despite the adversity and the lack of attention that the other relatives had towards the two cousins, whose age difference spans two generations, the main themes of this holiday classic deal with creativity and closeness. Creativity because despite their lack of resources, they found fashionable ways of creating presents with whatever nature gave them. This was seen as the two made kites for each other and they went kite-flying as they were celebrating with relatives. It also showed as the two found and trimmed the Christmas tree for the family, much to their dismay, as Capote wrote.

It also showed in Buddy’s distaste for materialistic items as he received a dress shirt, writing set and a year’s subscription of a religion magazine. The lack of taste in religion and family morals reflected Capote’s life, as drugs, alcohol, homosexuality and self-liberation were themes in his life, those that even the Pope would have disapproved of.  The cousin was a bit more content with her gift of a woolen sweater. But their gifts toward each other- the fruit cake and the kites represent the other theme in this book. While the relatives never really cared much for Buddy and his cousin, the two made sure they kept their bond to the very end. The kites served as this symbolic theme, especially in the end, when the older cousin succumbed to dementia but not before Buddy was forced to live with other relatives after that memorable Christmas. This segment runs parallel to Capote’s childhood, for his mother had two separate divorces while he grew up, and he had a close attachment to a distant relative, who ensured that he salvaged the rest of his early days before he moved on as a writer.

If there was a main idea in this book, it would be this: Christmas is not just about finding creative ways to showing love and appreciation, it’s about closeness and how you care about the other one. It matters not what you think the person should have but it matters how much love and appreciation you have towards the other one, especially when you listen to the other’s stories and wishes in life. These two traits seems to be missing in today’s world, yet when reading Capote’s book, the Files’ Genre of the Week for the holiday season, you will see why, with every tradition, ritual and creativity presented in the story. This goes well beyond the fruit cake, the kites and the Christmas tree.

Like In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, A Christmas Memory was later adapted to film several times. However the oldest one seen below is the closest to the book. Have a look at it and compare it to the book and the other films that have surpassed it over the years. What is the same? What is different?  Enjoy! 🙂

 

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