Marc Weingarten Remembers Jack Dunphy

It somehow seems fitting that this guest essay from Marc Weingarten should run today, as millions of film fans (many of whom may also be literature lovers) prepare themselves for tonight’s Oscars presentation, wondering just how many awards Capote is going to take. Marc is the author of The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, a history of the early years of New Journalism which I’ve heartily enjoyed.

weingarten.jpgThis is a tragic story about what happens when a fine writer’s reputation is obscured by the very public persona of a genius, and how literary fame always trumps solid literary grunt work.

You might have heard of the protagonist, Jack Dunphy, if you have read about the life of his companion of 35 years, Truman Capote. You might have seen Dunphy, or at least tantalizingly fleeting glimpses of him, portrayed by actor Bruce Greenwood in the film Capote. He’s the one who peremptorily slams his study door shut while Capote struggles with the moral dilemmas of In Cold Blood, as if to keep the gathering storm of his partner’s life at bay. But chances are you have not read Dunphy’s books, as they are all out of print.

That’s where the tragic part comes in, because Dunphy was a very skilled and sensitive novelist. Perhaps not a brilliant prose stylist like his partner, but why should a fine novelist be penalized just because he shared his bed with a giant?


5 March 2006 | guest authors |

Read This: Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare

shakespeare.jpgBecause of my busy schedule these days, I end up reading a lot of books piecemeal—a few chapters one day, a few more a couple weeks later—and that’s how I’m getting through the latest biography by one of my favorite writers, Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare. I was lucky enough to get to hear Ackroyd speak a few months back, at a Sunday brunch lecture sponsored by the 92nd St. Y, where he discussed the challenges in writing yet another biography about someone who, it seems, has a book published about him every single day…but also about the challenges of biography itself. “In fiction,” Ackroyd observed, “you must always tell the truth, but in biography you’re allowed to make things up.” This was well before the whole James Frey thing, mind you; what Ackroyd was talking about was the way in which the genre relies equally upon imaginative reconstruction and scholarship to give a sense of a life. “What is the point of the historian or the biographer,” he wondered, “if we can’t use imagination as a source for inspiration?”

During the question period, I asked him if he felt any difference between writing the big biographies like Shakespeare and the recent series of “brief lives” he’s developed about subjects like Chaucer and J.M.W. Turner. “It doesn’t make any difference as far as I can tell,” he smiled. “The vision has to be approximately the same.” And it is, I have to confess, a vision I’m usually willing to follow in just about any direction.

4 March 2006 | read this |

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