Capote and Literary Criticism
Truman Capote continues to support writers from beyond the grave with the largest cash prize for literary criticism in his name.
In 1994, the Truman Capote Estate announced the establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust during a breakfast at Tiffany’s in New York City. The creation of the trust was stipulated in Capote’s will, and the annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin reflects the author’s concern for the health of literary criticism in the English language. Arvin was a friend and lover of Capote—he dedicated Other Voices, Other Rooms to him—but Arvin’s academic career at Smith College was destroyed in the late 1940s when his homosexuality was exposed. He’s remembered for his works on Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville and Longfellow.
Each year, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop gives the $30,000 award—the largest annual cash prize in English-language literary criticism—to an author who has written a book in the past four years. The 2016 winner is Kevin Birmingham, a Harvard instructor responsible for The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. His book, which details Joyce’s struggle to publish Ulysses, was chosen by a panel that included Joyce Carol Oates, who has judged the award for several years.
No story about Capote would be complete without a bit of drama, and Oates remarked via Twitter in 2013 that it was ironic she was a judge for the award “when Capote in a druggy interview said he hated me & that I should be executed. LOL.”
There’s no doubt Capote left behind some enemies, but at least he continues to support writers and their work from beyond the grave with prizes in his name. We talk to Birmingham below about the importance of literary and intellectual freedom. “That’s the role of literary criticism—not to explain literature but to make it feel urgent,” Birmingham told IowaNow. “If you can’t feel a critic’s love for literature, nothing else will work.”
Birmingham officially accepted the award in Iowa October 19.
Are you a fan of Truman Capote and, if so, which of his works do you enjoy most?
KB: I first read Breakfast at Tiffany’s many years ago, but it was In Cold Blood that captivated me. It showed me some of the possibilities of narrative nonfiction, and my current book about Dostoevsky probably owes something to Capote’s similarly morbid fascination with murder.
The Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin reflects Capote’s concern for the health of literary criticism in the English language. How would you describe the state of literary criticism today and what challenges still exist in terms of censorship?
KB: The Truman Capote Award is partly a reckoning with institutional injustices—Newton Arvin was drummed out of the academy in 1960 when his homosexuality became public. Obscenity charges brought him down, so it’s gratifying that the award would celebrate the story of James Joyce’s battle with obscenity. Literary history reminds us how important—and how fragile—literary and intellectual freedom is.
Can you reveal what topic you plan to talk about during your acceptance speech?
KB: In the spirit of the award, I’ll address how much the profession of literary criticism today depends upon overworked and underpaid adjunct faculty, many of whom will never get the time and resources to publish their own scholarship. It’s hierarchical and exploitative and contrary to everything that great literature teaches.
You are the first writer to receive this award for a first book. What was your reaction when you found out you’d won?
KB: I received an email requesting a phone call, which came a couple of days later. Honestly, I figured they were launching a new award for younger scholars or that they wanted to congratulate me for being nominated.
Capote and James Joyce have publisher Bennett Cerf in common. Do you know of any other connections they share?
KB: None that I’m aware of. Joyce passed away before Capote burst onto the scene.
Kevin Birmingham photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer.
This story is part of our celebration of Truman Capote’s life and work in conjunction with his birthday September 30 and the 50th anniversary of the publication of In Cold Blood this year. Click here for more Capote stories and interviews.