Via the always interesting and inspiring Letters of Note, a site that I can’t recommend enough: A 1970 letter from the Naked Lunch deviant to the Breakfast at Tiffany’s / In Cold Blood author. Burroughs had a long-running ambient feud with Capote for various petty and legitimate reasons, but Burroughs seems to have been particularly incensed by Capote endorsing the idea that the police should be able to get results by any means necessary, legal or otherwise.
You can (and should!) read the whole thing, but the part that particularly impressed me was Burroughs’ curse on Capote for– as Burroughs saw it, anyway– misusing and squandering his talent. I would tend to agree that this is a cardinal sin of the talented, one that’s disappointingly often committed by precisely those successful writers, artists, film makers, musicians (etc.) who have reached the stage where they probably could put their foot down and take a stand, or gone beyond that to the stage where they needn’t compromise at all, but do it anyway. Unfortunately many of them get greedy, or complacent, or they start operating as autopilot pastiches of themselves, or paradoxically their success actually cuts them off from the place their talent originally sprung from.
Anyway, here’s Uncle Bill:
“You were granted an area for psychic development. It seemed for a while as if you would make good use of this grant. You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell (…) You have betrayed and sold out the talent that was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially withdrawn. Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished. Over and out. Are you tracking me? Know who I am? You know me, Truman. You have known me for a long time. This is my last visit.”
I don’t believe it’s literally gifted from some higher power, but I think there’s a deep truth here: that talent is not really yours because it only has meaning when it’s shared. And your talent comes with a toll that has to be paid properly and in full, otherwise you run the risk of losing it. Odd to find somebody as unsentimental, obtuse, antisocial and queer (in every possible and some impossible senses of the word) as Burroughs connecting in this accidental but profound way with Lewis Hyde’s occasionally drippy-Hippie but still important book on the value and necessity of creativity, The Gift.
If Burroughs’ letter truly was intended as a malediction then it worked because Capote did indeed “never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood” in the remaining decade-and-a-half that he lived. The waspishness that had formerly seemed funny or charming took a vicious, ungenerous wrong turn that left him with few friends or supporters. He wallowed in alcohol and pills, and he only managed a few more fragmentary bits of writing that were generally regarded as below par. He never finished writing another book.
Excellent post – always good to read one literary giant duking it out with another.
More a case of Bill running up to Truman, punching him hard in the nuts, then running away.
I’m actually laughing out loud! Brilliant.