Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Miriam"

Truman Capote's "Miriam" is usually described as a horror tale. It was published in 1945, more than twenty years before In Cold Blood would truly make him famous.

The main character is Mrs. H. T. Miller (Miriam) who lives a nondescript life on money from her husband's insurance policy. She stays in an apartment near the East River, is 61, and tends a canary.

One day, she meets a small girl, also named Miriam. We never find out if Miriam is real or a figment of the main character's imagination. If little Miriam exists only in Mrs. H. T. Miller's imagination, we don't know if this overactive imagination has something to do with loneliness or dementia or something else.

What cannot be disputed is that once the little girl attaches herself to Mrs. H. T. Miller, she refuses to go away.

After I reread this story a few days back, I thought about it over night. I'm wondering if perhaps Miriam the 61 year old woman and Miriam the little girl the same person. That is, the older Miriam is being somehow visited by a younger version of herself. The description of the young Miriam is intriguing. She has strange hair--"absolutely silver-white, like an albino's."

We know that Truman Capote also had white hair as a child--the hair is described by Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and most people acknowledge that Harper Lee's white-haired boy, the strange boy in her novel, is based on Truman Capote. Lee and Capote were childhood friends.

We also know that Truman Capote felt abandoned by his mother and his father. Little Miriam also seems to be abandoned by anyone who once loved her.

If "Miriam" had come later in Capote's career, I would be tempted to say that he wrote the story as a way to accuse himself of abandoning what was true about his life. In the story, for example, little Miriam derides the older Miriam for a "paper rose" in a vase. "Imitation," the little girl says, "How sad. Aren't imitations sad?"

The little girl also complains about many other aspects of Mrs. H. T. Miller's life, disturbs the old woman's sleeping canary, steels a brooch, and demands to be fed.

Because the story was one of Capote's first, I wonder if perhaps Capote somehow understood, even from a young age, that the big battle in his life would have something to do with authenticity.

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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken

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