On July 23, 1970, William S. Burroughs wrote Truman Capote a letter. “This is not a fan letter in the usual sense — unless you refer to ceiling fans in Panama.” Instead, Burroughs’s missive is a poison pen letter, blistering even by the high standards of New York literary circles. Of course, Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, was no stranger to feuds. He often traded witty, venomous barbs with the likes of Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. Yet Burroughs’s letter comes off as much darker and, with the benefit of hindsight, much more unnerving.
As Thom Robinson thoroughly details in his article for RealityStudio, the two had a long and complicated past filled with professional jealousy and personal disdain. They first met when Burroughs was a struggling writer and Capote was working as a copy boy at The New Yorker in the early 1940s. Burroughs was no doubt rankled by Capote’s meteoric rise to literary stardom just after the war, thanks to some highly-praised short stories that appeared in Harper’s Bazaar and other publications. Burroughs and his fellow Beat writers ridiculed Capote in their private letters. In a letter to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac described Capote’s work as “full of bull on every page.” When Kerouac’s On the Road was published, Capote dismissed the book by saying, “[it] isn’t writing at all — it’s typing.”
When Naked Lunch was finally released in America in 1962, three years after its publication in France, William S. Burroughs became a literary icon. (Hear Burroughs read Naked Lunch here.) At the same time, Capote was starting to develop a genre he called creative non-fiction, which would eventually culminate with In Cold Blood. When talking about his book in a 1968 interview with Playboy, Capote compared Burroughs’s writing with his own. In Cold Blood “is really the most avant-garde form of writing existent today […] creative fiction writing has gone as far as it can experimentally. […] Of course we have writers like William Burroughs, whose brand of verbal surface trivia is amusing and occasionally fascinating, but there’s no base for moving forward in that area.” At another point, Capote quipped, “Norman Mailer thinks [he] is a genius, which I think is ludicrous beyond words. I don’t think William Burroughs has an ounce of talent.”
So when Burroughs put pen to paper in 1970, he already had plenty of reasons to dislike Capote. In the letter, though, Burroughs’s ire was specifically directed at Capote’s dubious ethics in writing In Cold Blood, a book that Burroughs described as “a dull unreadable book which could have been written by any staff writer on The New Yorker.” (Note: You can read an early version of In Cold Blood in The New Yorker itself.)
The spine of In Cold Blood is the first-hand account of convicted killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Capote spent hours interviewing them and in the process grew close to them, especially Smith. In spite of this, Capote did little to help their defense. (This is the subject of not one but two movies, by the way, Capote and Infamous.) Critic Kenneth Tynan, in a scathing review for The Observer, cried foul. “For the first time an influential writer of the front rank has been placed in a position of privileged intimacy with criminals about to die, and–in my view–done less than he might have to save them,” he wrote. “An attempt to help (by supplying new psychiatric testimony) might easily have failed: what one misses is any sign that it was ever contemplated.” The fact of the matter was that the book worked better if they died. Though Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke argued that there was little that the writer could have done to save the two, he conceded that “Tynan was right when he suggested that Truman did not want to save them.”
Seemingly repulsed by Capote’s entire project, Burroughs took the Tynan’s critique one step further. He argued that Capote not only sold out his subjects but served as a mouthpiece for those in power.
I feel that [Tynan] was much too lenient. Your recent appearance before a senatorial committee on which occasion you spoke in favor of continuing the present police practice of extracting confessions by denying the accused the right of consulting consul prior to making a statement also came to my attention. In effect you were speaking in approval of standard police procedure: obtaining statements through brutality and duress, whereas an intelligent police force would rely on evidence rather than enforced confessions. […] You have placed your services at the disposal of interests who are turning America into a police state by the simple device of deliberately fostering the conditions that give rise to criminality and then demanding increased police powers and the retention of capital punishment to deal with the situation they have created.
For someone who had frequently been on the wrong end of the law and for someone who spent his life giving voice to the marginalized, this was an anathema. Burroughs then delivered a chilling, voodoo-style curse:
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.
Burroughs’ curse seemed to have worked. 1970 was the high-water mark of Capote’s career. He never wrote another novel after In Cold Blood, though he labored for years on a never completed book called Answered Prayers. He spent the rest of his life on a downward alcoholic spiral until his death in 1984.
You can read the entire letter, which is kept at the Burroughs Archive of the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, below:
July 23, 1970
My Dear Mr. Truman Capote
This is not a fan letter in the usual sense — unless you refer to ceiling fans in Panama. Rather call this a letter from “the reader” — vital statistics are not in capital letters — a selection from marginal notes on material submitted as all “writing” is submitted to this department. I have followed your literary development from its inception, conducting on behalf of the department I represent a series of inquiries as exhaustive as your own recent investigations in the sun flower state. I have interviewed all your characters beginning with Miriam — in her case withholding sugar over a period of several days proved sufficient inducement to render her quite communicative — I prefer to have all the facts at my disposal before taking action. Needless to say, I have read the recent exchange of genialities between Mr. Kenneth Tynan and yourself. I feel that he was much too lenient. Your recent appearance before a senatorial committee on which occasion you spoke in favor of continuing the present police practice of extracting confessions by denying the accused the right of consulting consul prior to making a statement also came to my attention. In effect you were speaking in approval of standard police procedure: obtaining statements through brutality and duress, whereas an intelligent police force would rely on evidence rather than enforced confessions. You further cheapened yourself by reiterating the banal argument that echoes through letters to the editor whenever the issue of capital punishment is raised: “Why all this sympathy for the murderer and none for his innocent victims?” I have in line of duty read all your published work. The early work was in some respects promising — I refer particularly to the short stories. 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 written a dull unreadable book which could have been written by any staff writer on the New Yorker — (an undercover reactionary periodical dedicated to the interests of vested American wealth). You have placed your services at the disposal of interests who are turning America into a police state by the simple device of deliberately fostering the conditions that give rise to criminality and then demanding increased police powers and the retention of capital punishment to deal with the situation they have created. 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.
The polaroids above were taken by Andy Warhol.
via: Flavorwire/Letters of Note/RealityStudio
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William S. Burroughs on the Art of Cut-up Writing
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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily.
No worse threat for a writer.
William’s drug addled brain is on full display in the ignorant , self absorbed comments aimed at a writer who was a god compared to the drivel mr. Burroughs’s farted out during his ” career . Jealous much ?
What a tool…Burroughs was 100%, dead on, as usual…in denial much, Russ, or is that Joan??
I’m very curious as to the events that may have created a backstory here. I mean, I know all the writers mentioned, and quite a few others, were extremely vitriolic toward one another for decades, but I just sense there might be some particulars that led to Burroughs’ outburst. Certainly if Gore Vidal were still alive, he’d be able to name the pretty boy,or stolen accolade or something that might have prompted this. That Panama fan line is strange, isn’t it?
I re-read In Cold Blood a few years ago. To me, Capote’s tragedy is that after all those years staggering onto talk shows stoned out of his mind telling us it might be the greatest book ever written in America, he wasn’t far wrong.
Alright, now. Labeling your favored writer as a “god” and ignoring the positive aspect of another’s work is indicative of your heavy bias. It’s almost as if you’re incapable of thinking for yourself, ignoring any dissent against things you prefer or agree with.
Any reasonable person would read this article and notice how “ignorant” and “self-absorbed” Capote’s statements were, as well.
I find it ironic for you to say “jealous much?” here, as your heaving, over-sentimental praise is obviously directed from a region of obsessive affection and fanboyism.
2 bitchy ink stained queens.
“In Cold Blood” is a sincere attempt to understand the crime and the criminals. Capote was way beyond his critics. So we are to criticize him for not trying to “save them”?…. May the critics be reminded that they were brutal killers that killed an entire family. The critics identify with the killers. They need to ask themselves why they do that.