Summer Crossing by Truman Capote (Part of the Capote Readathon)

This post is part of the Summer Capote Readathon with The Literary Sisters. Have you read Summer Crossing?

I’m glad I’ve never had to be in the position of Alan Schwartz, Truman Capote’s friend and lawyer. In his Afterword to Summer Crossing he explains that in his will Capote “left everything including his literary properties to a trust of which he insisted [Alan] be the sole trustee.” Since his death in 1984, Schwartz has made many decisions about the “publication and other exploitation” of Capote’s work, all over the world. One such decision was whether or not to publish Capote’s last work, Answered Prayers. In the mid-1970s Capote sold four chapters to Esquire magazine, and this promptly caused an outrage in society as many of those who knew him recognised themselves in the grotesque characters and events. Nevertheless Schwartz, and Capote’s friend and editor Joe Fox, agreed that the chapters should be published as a book, in 1987.

The publication of Summer Crossing was also problematic, but thankfully for different reasons. As with Answered Prayers, Capote left no instructions or expressed any desire for it to be published – but the thing with Summer Crossing was that no one had known it even existed until Schwartz got a call from Sotheby’s saying that what looked like a manuscript had been found in some of Capote’s papers that were being auctioned. So what should they do?  Once examined it was clear that Capote had written Summer Crossing before his first published novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms – and he had never tried to get it published himself. Would he have wanted them to publish it? Schwartz, Fox, and other of Capote’s friends wrestled with the question; but the quality of the book convinced them that they should publish it. And I am very glad they did.

2006 Modern Library edition
2006 Modern Library edition

Summer Crossing is in some ways a classic coming-of-age story, but tinged with the dark, knowing edge that Capote adds to almost all of his stories. Grady McNeil is only seventeen, and her parents agree to leave her alone in New York while they go away for the summer. “There’s nothing to change the spirit like a summer crossing” declares Grady’s mother, referring to their voyage across the Atlantic; but of course there is also the crossing that Grady will take, from a moody teenager with a secret boyfriend, to a young women battling with the biggest decisions of her life – and the consequences.

As usual Capote’s language is one of the stand-out features of this story, and small moments are again and again made painfully beautiful. Grady brings her boyfriend, Clyde, to the family’s city apartment, alone, for the first time.

In the McNeil apartment it was as if a vast snow had fallen, hushing the great formal rooms and shrouding the furniture in frosty drifts: velvet and needlework, the fine patinas and the perishable gilt, all were spook-white in their coverings against the grime of summer. Somewhere far-off in this gloom of snow and drawn draperies a telephone was ringing.

At once we have an image of the apartment, and its feel as a setting, but we also have a sense of the feeling of intrusion and secrecy as Grady brings Clyde to her family’s home. While her mother is obsessed with her ‘debut’, getting a dress made in Paris, Grady has brought home a working class Jewish boy, someone she is not supposed to be with – someone her mother would never approve of. By bringing him to the apartment she has crossed a line, and brought their two worlds together. In doing this she creates a new world for the two of them, for the summer, one that it would be almost impossible to reconcile with the rest of their lives. This is her summer crossing – a voyage, a journey from one place to another that will “change the spirit”.

Though Grady at first relishes her freedom and enjoys taking advantage of being left to her own devices for the summer, she soon gets carried away by her own recklessness and makes decisions, and acts, purely based on her feelings. Perhaps Capote is trying to demonstrate the truly unknowable nature of adult life when you are only seventeen, and how easy it is to be swept away into a world, no matter what your age. We are of course reminded of Holly Golightly in Grady’s desire for glamour and love, but also in her fragility and her failure to make herself happy. In a way she is a precursor to Holly, a less developed idea of the same character; but she is also a fully formed, completely separate person with her own motivations and desires. Capote creates her as his beautiful, tragic, girl, and he cruelly toys with her right to the end of the story – which, I think it is safe to say, does not end as you might expect. For this is Truman Capote, not a rom-com or a teenage romance. The darkness will always come through, and here is beautifully measured and constructed, to devastating effect.

Published by Random House in 2005, and by Modern Library in 2006.

You can read Kirsty’s post here.

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