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Cripping the Bildungsroman: Reading Disabled Intercorporealities in Truman Capote's

Other Voices, Other Rooms

Author(s): Jess Waggoner
Source: Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 38, No. 1, Disability and Generative Form (Fall
2014), pp. 56-72
Published by: Indiana University Press
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Accessed: 31-01-2018 20:21 UTC

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Cripping the Bildungsroman:
Reading Disabled Intercorporealities in
Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms

Jess Waggoner
Indiana University

Truman Capote’s 1948 novel Other Voices, Other Rooms offers a rich vantage point
from which to consider the place of disability in the modernist Bildungsroman. The
novel’s focus on forms of immobility, disability mentorship, and disability community
both engages and revises classical and modernist Bildungsroman tropes. Here, I consider
disability narrative’s relationship to late modernist life writing, and therefore intervene
in conventional notions of the able-bodied protagonist. I link this relationship to recent
discussions of transability, or the able-bodied desire to become disabled, and I argue that
representations of disability in Capote’s novel may depathologize this phenomenon.

Keywords: Truman Capote / disability / queerness / Bildungsroman / modernism /


It was in this café that five years earlier I’d met the prototype of Cousin
Randolph. Actually, Cousin Randolph was suggested by two people . . .
an asthmatic invalid who smoked medicinal cigarettes and made re-
markable scrap-quilts . . . . The other Randolph, the character’s spiritual
ancestor, was the man I met in the café, a plump blond fellow who was
said to be dying of leukemia.
— Truman Capote, 1968
preface to Other
Voices, Other Rooms

he Bildungsroman has had a longstanding yet ambivalent relationship with
disability and illness. Frankie Addams’s counter-identification with the
traveling freak show in The Member of the Wedding; Jane Eyre’s marriage to
Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre; Scout’s fascination with the recluse Boo Radley in
To Kill a Mockingbird; Hans Castorp’s extended stay in a Swiss sanatorium in The
Magic Mountain and the manifold terminal illnesses inflecting Thomas Wolfe’s
autobiographical fiction comprise just a few examples of the disabled mentors,

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Capote Crips the Bildungsroman 57

enemies, and lovers that populate this genre. Yet even as disabled secondary
characters crowd its narratives, the Bildungsroman’s frequent dependence on the
protagonist’s unmarked body and unrestricted mobility suggests that disability
is at most a deviation from — or an impediment to — maturation. I will argue,
to the contrary, that disability can in fact be integral, rather than inimical, to the
Bildung of a protagonist’s development.
As a young writer, Truman Capote’s encounters with ill and disabled mentor
figures in New Orleans and Alabama contributed to the creation of Cousin Ran-
dolph, the queer surrogate father figure in his 1948 Bildungsroman, Other Voices,
Other Rooms. Beginning from this proposition, I will offer what disability scholars
term a “crip” theorization of this novel by reading its characters as enactors of
disabled intercorporeality.1 My reading of intercorporeality is influenced in part
by philosopher Gail Weiss’s thesis that “[H]uman beings tend to have multiple
body images and . . . these body images overlap with one another and are them-
selves constructed, reconstructed, and deconstructed through a series of ongoing,
intercorporeal exchanges” (165). These overlapping images, I argue, trouble dis-
tinctions between ability and disability in Capote’s novel. Scholars of Other Voices,
Other Rooms have read the novel as a queer Bildungsroman, identifying its parallels
to, and divergences from, the generic conventions of the Southern gothic. They
have also addressed this novel’s relationship with enfreakment and the grotesque.
Aside from Joseph Valente’s recent discussion of the novel in the context of queer
disabled embodiments, however, no other scholars have attended to its potential
affinities with what is now called disability narrative.2 My crip reading of the text
will trouble the habitual association of Bildungsroman protagonists with normative
embodiment, in part by focusing on the destabilizing roles played by immobile
characters in the novel’s domestic settings.
After his mother’s death, Joel Knox, Capote’s protagonist, moves from New
Orleans to rural Alabama to live with his father at a dilapidated mansion called
“Skully’s Landing.” Upon his arrival, he discovers that his father is in a permanent
coma. His stepmother, Amy; her effete cousin, Randolph; and their house servant,
Zoo Fever, will become Joel’s haphazard familial support. At the Landing, Joel
is struck by the ill temporalities of its inhabitants: “Amy, Randolph, his father,
they were all outside time, all circling the present like spirits: was this why they
seemed to him so like a dream?” (127). Cousin Randolph’s asthmatic lassitude
simultaneously evokes European decadence and the mysterious illnesses of the
South. His artistic pursuits occur in fits and starts, reflected in the novel’s smoth-
ering, overgrown prose punctuated by chapters that end abruptly, as if they cannot
breathe. In his new location, Joel’s numerous encounters with disabled characters
including Cousin Randolph have the effect of challenging his sense of able-bodied
autonomy, in part by calling attention to his own bodily vulnerability.
Near the end of the novel, Joel develops a serious illness, which solidifies his
desire for care and kinship, and he decides to remain permanently at the Landing.
His emerging identification with disability may be familiar to crip readers as a ver-
sion of “transability” — a term coined by the blogger Sean O’Connor to describe

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58 Journal of Modern Literature Volume 38, Number 1

the desire to transition from nondisabled to disabled. Transability’s medicalized

counterpart is known as Bodily Identity Integrity Disorder (BIID), but BIID
is usually associated with the desire for amputation; “transability,” by contrast,
accounts more broadly for “any number of other disabilities” (
In Other Voices, Other Rooms, Joel’s transabled experience — wherein he begins to
identify with disability — is crucial to his subject formation. The purchase of this
reading, I wager, will help depathologize the desire for disability and revise the
place of disability in the Bildungsroman.
While queer readings of Other Voices, Other Rooms have ranged from condem-
nation to celebration, the strong presence of disability in this text has been over-
looked, possibly in part because of the infamy of Truman Capote’s queer persona.
The unevenness of his critical reputation is often attributed to a lack of writerly
seriousness spurred on by his celebrity, an attachment to realism that stunted his
imaginative (read: high modernist) capacities, and his personal viciousness, seen
as irrecuperable for queer politics.4 The book, with its decadent back cover pho-
tograph of a reclining Capote, was a public scandal and a critical target from the
start. John Aldridge’s 1951 review, “The Metaphorical World of Truman Capote,”
is typical of this sentiment: Aldridge dismisses Capote for his failure to write a
modernist Bildungsroman in the tradition of James Joyce or Thomas Wolfe, insist-
ing: “it is not . . . Stephen Dedalus’ search for Bloom, or even Eugene Gant’s for
W.O.” (250).5 He is especially peeved by the purported “isolation” of Other Voices’
narrative, which suggests a “life not lived” and a psychological paralysis that gives
way to physical paralysis (252).6
More recent scholars, particularly Tison Pugh and Brian Mitchell-Peters,
have maintained that Capote’s novel works within the gothic tradition. They
have sought to pluralize the gothic modes used in the text by arguing for his use
of “gothic sentimentalism,” “mock gothic,” and “camping the gothic.” According
to these critics, Capote devises these literary modes in order to elicit sympathy
for his queer characters and to thwart the doomed homosexual narrative familiar
to mid-century queer fiction.7 It is crucial to acknowledge the strong Southern
gothic influence in Other Voices, Other Rooms and the potential of the gothic mode
for mobilizing a powerful critique of homophobia through sympathy.8 In a similar
vein, I would suggest that the novel can be generically situated as a disability nar-
rative that induces sympathy and critiques ableism through a consideration of the
ways in which disabled community practices can affect the protagonist’s personal
growth. Other Voices, Other Rooms, in other words, may be read as a disabled
Bildungsroman that foregrounds disability aesthetics and mentorship.
Let us return for a moment to Aldridge’s damning 1951 assessment that the
novel fails its modernist Bildungsroman predecessors in its unsatisfying paralytic
sensations.9 As I will argue, this may be where Capote’s novel in fact succeeds as
a modernist coming of age tale. For Aldridge, paralysis is inherently bound up
in Joel’s failure to locate a clear father figure, or at least an able-bodied, mas-
culine mentor. Yet the searches for mentors in Joyce and Wolfe’s work, which
Aldridge sees as epitomes of the proper Bildungsroman, are also anti-climactic

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Capote Crips the Bildungsroman 59

and non-teleological. Joel’s search for a mentor is similarly anti-climactic: after his
mother’s death, he discovers that the robust father he hoped to find is immobile
and incapable of speech; in place of (or in addition to) his father, he therefore
develops non-familial affective ties that introduce him to less conventional modes
of mentorship. As he connects with the reclusive Cousin Randolph, Joel revises his
ideas about paternal attachments and becomes his father’s caretaker. Additionally,
his own experience of incapacitation during a long illness leads him to appreci-
ate invalidism as a valid way to live. The connective experience of immobility is
central to the novel, then, and runs directly counter to the trope of mobility that
structures the conventional Bildung narrative.
Disability theory will aid us in examining some of the distinctions between
disabled and nondisabled bodies in Joel’s development, especially as they are
related to the novel’s status as a modernist Bildungsroman. Disabled charac-
ters, such as Joel’s paralyzed father, Edward Sansom, and his asthmatic cousin,
Randolph, do not appear as sharply rendered, distinct bodies; rather, they are
characterized by intimate fragility and boundlessness, and Joel develops his own
corporeal epistemology by noting their mobilities and immobilities. Such inter-
corporeal contact as Joel experiences in the narrative often occurs in real life
when bodies temporarily cross into illness, impairment, or moments of needed
care. Given the frequency with which this happens, and given that the disabled
constitute the largest and most voluble physical minority in the United States,
one might conclude, in agreement with Lennard J. Davis, that “[M]ost people
would be better off identifying with people with disabilities than fearing them”
(4). This identification can be thought of in terms of recognizing the temporary
state of ability, but also willfully crossing into the realm of disability. In this vein,
scholars such as Barbara Gibson and Margrit Shildrick have turned to the crip
valences of Deleuze and Guattari’s body-without-organs to consider how inter-
action with the disabled body troubles the able body’s sense of autonomy. These
scholars usefully associate disability with inclusivity and inevitability, rather than
exclusive membership, generating a more expansive and complex rendering of the
distinctions between able-bodied and disabled.
The possibilities of bodily intimacy generated by domestic caretaking roles
inflect Joel’s corporeal epistemology as he enters the Landing’s community.10
After his serious illness, Joel realizes his aunt Ellen and deaf cousin Louise
have come and gone from the Landing without his knowledge. This realization
prompts him to change his mocking parody of Louise’s disability at the begin-
ning of the narrative into an alteration of his own body to accommodate Louise’s
impairment. Along with remorse for his childish cruelty, Joel also imagines how
he will alter his body and voice in order to interact with Louise: ‘“My cousin
Louise, she’s deaf,’ said Joel, thinking how he used to hide her hearing aid. . . .
But when he saw her again, why, he’d be so kind; he’d talk real loud so that she
could hear every word, and he’d play those card games with her” (229–230).
Joel’s experience is not unlike that described by Margrit Shildrick, who notes
of her own altered bodily state when encountering the disabled, “When I, as a

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60 Journal of Modern Literature Volume 38, Number 1

putatively able-bodied woman, push a friend’s wheelchair and develop my own

arm muscles, more clearly articulate my words when meeting with deaf colleagues.
. . . I am modifying my bodily comportment and my sense of being-in-the-world”
(26). Both Shildrick’s and Davis’s claims suggest the inevitability of disability,
but also the power of disability to inflect nondisabled bodies. Other Voices, Other
Rooms enlivens these claims, portraying disability as potentially desirable and
the encounter with disability’s potential for intercorporeal experience rather than
for counter-identification. In order to understand how disability and immobility
inflect Joel’s coming of age experience, I will now turn to an exploration of how
Other Voices, Other Rooms responds to the Bildungsroman’s historically complex
relationship to mobility.


Placing disability theory in conversation with modernist studies allows us to
see how disability and modernism, as Janet Lyon writes, share a “foundational
contestation of the category of ‘the normal’ ” (552). In the case of Other Voices,
Other Rooms, normalcy can be challenged at the generic level of the Bildung when
expectations for unhindered mobility and normate bodies are displaced. As Stella
Bolaki has argued of Audre Lorde’s life writing, for example, the disabled figure
is a “betrayal to the ideals of self-improvement” and to the narrative teleology of
the Bildung (187). Because the disabled body is already “violated,” its develop-
ment is assumed to be inherently forestalled. While Bolaki finds Lorde’s work
compelling for its mobility despite disability, it is my aim to show how invalidism
itself can be recovered as a generative trope in the disabled Bildungsroman — in
contrast to disability narratives that must carry the burden of refuting immobility
and unproductivity.11
Capote’s novel is a compound of various genres, including the modernist
Bildungsroman, the Bildungshelden, and the queer Bildungsroman. According to
Gregory Castle, the modernist Bildungsroman critiques the strictures of the clas-
sical Bildungsroman through the implementation of a “non identity” that resists
bourgeois formations of the individual subject. The protagonist’s eventual assimi-
lation into the social world in the classical version is a point of resistance and
departure for modernist writers. In keeping with modernist tendencies to thwart
or fragment this assimilation, Joel neither enters the social world nor returns to
his blood kin in New Orleans, but instead enters the isolated domestic arrange-
ment of Skully’s Landing with his father and Cousin Randolph. In this regard,
Joel’s journey is also relevant to a variation of the Bildungsroman known as the
Bildungshelden, a novel of spiritual growth wherein the mobile hero departs from
the family in order to develop, but then returns to a harmonious state with family
and society by the end of the novel (Castle 214). This Bildung’s fulfillment relies on
the protagonist’s mobility as well as his ability to form numerous points of contact
through his travels. Youth is another necessary component of this narrative, due
to its accompanying connotations of resiliency and bodily ability (Moretti 4–5).12

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Capote Crips the Bildungsroman 61

Although Capote’s novel may be characterized as a “modern” or mid-century

novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms critiques the classical novel of development in the
tradition of its modernist predecessors. This is enacted through a use of disability
narrative to critique identity formations available in the social world at large. Joel’s
character utilizes immobility and relinquishes bodily and psychological autonomy
in his trajectory of personal growth. In his decision to return to the Landing of
his own volition, where a “queer lady” (Randolph in drag) beckons him, Joel
also decides upon a life of stasis that is seemingly opposite to the flight narrative
of the queer Bildungsroman, which typically promises maturation in return for
dislodgement from an oppressive domestic space. When Joel eschews flight, he
is implicitly rejecting modern maturity, in a move reminiscent of what Jed Esty
calls the “failed development” (22) of modernist Bildungsroman narratives. Joel’s
embrace of the domestic suggests just such an arrested development, especially
since his is an immobilized domestic space of disabled, ill, aging, sexually devi-
ant bodies. It is in just this sense, however, that Joel’s rejection of “development”
signifies the cultivation of a kind of queer Bildungshelden in its stead: this sphere
of queer, disabled domesticity brings with it spiritual growth.13


Other Voices, Other Rooms’ seemingly frozen scenes are striking in part because they
revise notions of queer flight, mobility, and cosmopolitanism. Cousin Randolph
generates his own critique of queer mobility when he recounts tales of lost love and
connection in his early dandy days. Once a painter and traveler, Cousin Randolph
temporally and spatially blends the pleasures and regrets of a mobile past with
a static present in a kind of critical contrast to normative ideas of urban queer
mobility, or “metronormativity.”14 His delicateness gestures towards the mobile
dandyism of his past, but his disabled affect of confinement produces other queer
pleasures. His bedridden yet imaginatively mobile body ultimately collapses the
distinctions between movement and stasis. He narrates this preference for the
immobile queer pleasures of the Landing to Joel, who initially resists the tedium
of this lifestyle and attempts to escape.
Randolph’s unexplained insistence that he is “ ‘desperately, desperately ill’ ”
allows him to retreat from the outside world (94). But the postal service becomes
a mode of deferred cosmopolitan desire through which Randolph enacts his queer
disabled mobility from within the Landing. Every day, Randolph thumbs through
an almanac listing “every town and hamlet on the globe” (154). He then sends
letters to his unrequited love interest, Pepe Alvarez, well aware of the impossibil-
ity of the letters — sent to different towns each day — ever reaching him. These
letters seem to eliminate possibilities of contact by daily reducing the cities in
Randolph’s almanac, but they are more than a passive enactment of nostalgia. The
futility of Randolph’s letters — which bear no specific addresses — also models a
non-teleological approach to queer contact that thwarts narrative expectations of
able-bodied intimacy.

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62 Journal of Modern Literature Volume 38, Number 1

Randolph finds a possible life outside of the Landing more stifling than
the illness that often confines him to his bedroom, his duties as caretaker of the
paralyzed Edward Sansom, and his mentorship of Joel. Once he and Joel move
outside of the Landing in an attempt to visit the local hermit, Little Sunshine, the
violent surveillance of the world disorients him: Randolph walks “in a circle, his
hands stretched before him as if he were playing blind man’s bluff . . . he shook
himself like a wet animal. . . . And Joel realized then the truth; he saw how help-
less Randolph was: more paralyzed than Mr. Sansom, more childlike than Miss
Wisteria, what else could he do, once outside and alone, but describe a circle,
the zero of his nothingness?” (227). Randolph lapses into repetition once he is
untethered from the multiple bodies and subjectivities of the Landing. Yet even as
Joel witnesses this helpless perseveration and loss of strength in the outside world,
he also notices the beginnings of his own willingness to care for Randolph (228).
Once outside, Randolph muses about what would become of him if he moved
away from the confines of Skully’s Landing. He speculates that he would collapse
into a hellish version of de-individualization than what he finds at the Landing:
“If I were wise as the mole, if I were free and equal, then what an admirable
whorehouse I should be the Madame of; more likely though, I would end up just
Mrs. Nobody in Particular, a dumpy corsetless creature with a brickhead husband
and stepladder brats and a pot of stew on the stove” (219). Here Randolph rejects a
caretaking economy based on reproduction and fixed gender roles, but also rejects
independence from the bodies he cares for. The collectivity of his life with Amy,
Edward Sansom, Joel, and Zoo afford him the space to perform his queerness
while also situating himself firmly in a community that rejects false binaries of
individual versus collective, past versus present, able versus disabled, and mobile
versus static. At first, Joel cannot accept this disability empathy, and instead
attempts to enter other queered and disabled communities, on an excursion to the
freak show with his tomboy companion, Idabel, before returning to the Landing.
The independence Randolph rejects is also critiqued in Joel’s encounter with
the traveling show, which represents an alternative crip community to that at the
Landing. After solidifying their bond as twin gender outlaws, Idabel convinces
Joel to run away to the circus in hopes of finding acceptance and adventure among
the “freaks.” This encounter with the circus, especially with the popular freak
show worker Miss Wisteria, stages a confrontation between the mobility Joel
believes he desires and the violent movement of modernity and rootless transience.
As Joel and Idabel marvel at a pair of green-lensed glasses Idabel procured at the
carnival the year before — one of the many commodities of desire available to
them through contact with the freak show — they conflate the imaginative world
projected by the glasses with a romantic itinerant lifestyle. Both seek to recreate
the magic of the green glasses they have shattered during a wrestling match, but
also seek contact with Miss Wisteria, whose worldliness alternately fascinates
and bewilders Joel.
Yet once Joel and Idabel arrive at the carnival, the aura of the commodities
they wished to procure is diminished. Idabel pays 35 cents to win a new pair of

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Capote Crips the Bildungsroman 63

tinted glasses, only to discover they are “too large for her, they kept sliding down
her nose” and the merry-go-round seems “a sorry battered toy” (190–191). Their
encounter with the dwarf performer, Miss Wisteria, however, embodies the
desired mobility initially promised through failed commodities. As she regales
Joel and Idabel with stories of how she “just got back from a grand tour of Europe
where she’d appeared before all the crowned heads,” her urbaneness enchants
them and contrasts with the Landing’s rural quiescence (191). During a ride on
the Ferris wheel, Miss Wisteria’s gesticulations become metonymic for queer
cosmopolitan desire: “She gestured her arms in an arc, and in that moment she
seemed to him Outside, to be, that is, geography, earth and sea and all the cities
in Randolph’s almanac: her queer little hands, twittering midair, encompassed the
globe” (194). “Outside” here suggests everything beyond the Landing.
But Miss Wisteria’s arc, like Randolph’s epistolary movement through cities
in the almanac, reiterates the futility of attempting to experience satisfying con-
tact and personal development solely through frenetic movement. Miss Wisteria’s
sophisticated mobility does not fulfill her desire for erotic connection, and she
laments that in all her travels she has never “found a sweet little person” (195).
While looking for Idabel at the carnival and fleeing from Miss Wisteria’s over-
tures, Joel peers into the ten-cent tent, only to discover the solitary nature of the
traveling show: “no one was there but the Duck boy, who was playing solitaire
by candlelight” (197). As he continues to run from Miss Wisteria by hiding in
an abandoned house, he begins to long for the overripe affection afforded by the
Landing: “He owned a room, he had a bed, any minute now he would run from
here, go to them. But for Miss Wisteria, weeping because little boys must grow
tall, there would always be this journey through dying rooms” (200). The freak
show promises acceptance for Joel, Idabel, and Miss Wisteria’s non-normate bod-
ies and desires, but falsely articulates these promises through a normative para-
digm of movement and individualism.15 This is to say that Capote represents the
sideshow as a cosmopolitan option for the disabled, and in doing so, he generates
two competing versions of disability community.16
When Joel returns to the Landing, he realizes that it provides its own queer
pleasures through an alternative mobility engendered through disability.17 In
the classical and modernist Bildungsroman, flight often allows the protagonist to
gain autonomy from the family, but the Landing is not a space of individualism
and self-articulation. Its inter-implicated social world revolves around the care of
the paralyzed Edward Sansom. This domestic caretaking world accustoms the
initially uncomfortable and skeptical Joel to the contingent pleasures of corporeal
blending with disabled bodies.
When Joel’s stepmother, Amy, and Cousin Randolph first introduce him to
his immobile father and familiarize him with the subtle movements he uses to
communicate, Joel collapses Amy’s and Randolph’s distinctly gendered bodies
into “Siamese twins: they seemed a kind of freak animal, half-man half-woman”
as they instruct Joel in how to care for Edward Sansom (120). Sansom — his
last name a play on that of the superhuman Biblical warrior — thwarts Joel’s

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masculinist imaginations of his father as “a circus strong-man .  .  . a big swell

millionaire” (84). Instead, Sansom’s eyes act as a neutered, powerful source of
knowing: “All pleasure, all pain, he communicated with his eyes, and his eyes, like
windows in summer, were seldom shut, always open and staring, even in sleep. . . .
He knew everything; in some trick way his eyes traveled the whole world over”
(125, 173). Joel acknowledges that even as Sansom seems devoid of movement, his
eyes and slight gestures travel far beyond Joel’s able-bodied purview.
Within secluded bedroom scenes, these elaborate descriptions of inert mobil-
ity take place far from the medicalization and standardization of bodies that is
symptomatic of modernity in the outside world. Gender is much more fluid within
the Landing’s atmosphere as well: the Landing’s servant, Zoo, relays to Joel the
story of Randolph’s paralyzed mother, Angela Lee, who moved swiftly through
physical states of gender:
just before she die: she grew a beard; it just commence pouring out her face, real sure
enough hair: a yeller color, it was, and strong as wire. Me, I used to shave her, and
her paralyzed from head to toe, her skin like a dead man’s. But it growed so quick,
this beard, I couldn’t hardly keep up. (124)

Angela Lee’s rapid transformations — so rapid that Zoo cannot “keep up” — ren-
ders her as much more than a still, ineffectual body. Zoo calls the barber from
Noon City and asks him to shave Angela Lee, but he is repelled by the sight of her
disabled, gender-deviant body, and immediately returns to town. Her immobile
body and “strong” coarse hair do not cease to move even when she is bedridden.
The bed that is the scene of Angela’s gender insubordination is the same bed Joel
now occupies, connecting Joel’s newfound space to Angela Lee’s past invalid habi-
tation and anticipating his intercorporeal movement into a disability community.
This knowledge of the disabled past and present of the Landing allows Joel to
move beyond conventional searches for mentorship and into more fluid modes of
caretaking based in a disability heritage shared with Angela Lee and his father.
Joel’s gradual movement towards disability empathy has both affective and
corporeal implications. His life at the Landing revises the Bildung trope of indi-
vidualism typically manifested through a struggle between the preservation of the
inner self and familial or societal demands.18 The transition from seeing oneself
as unmoored to seeing oneself reflected in others appears in Capote’s novel as
“the formation of a disabled identity,” or the transition from seeing oneself as
individually impaired to part of a disability community. This transition, as noted
by Thomas Couser, is intrinsic to disability life writing (232).19 Immediately after
his mother’s death, Joel views himself as “a stone-boy mounted on the rotted
stump” (71), unable to connect with others except through conflict, compulsively
correcting his surrogate family’s grammar and mimicking his deaf cousin Louise
in order to mock her: “he’d cup his ear and cry ‘Aye? Aye?’ and couldn’t stop till
she broke into tears” (10). As we have seen, this mocking disability performance
prefigures Joel’s later, intercorporeal relationship to the disabled body, which is
manifested through identification rather than aggression.

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Capote Crips the Bildungsroman 65

In his movement from New Orleans to the Landing in search of his father,
Joel gradually develops a bodily consciousness that is imbricated with the bodies
of others. Upon discovering that Zoo was attacked by her former lover and now
bears a scar on her throat, he muses: “Maybe she was like him, and the world had
a grudge against her, too. But christamighty he didn’t want to end up with a scar
like that. Except what chance have you got when there is always trickery in one
hand, and danger in the other” (72). Instead of precipitating an immediate rupture
between a young white boy’s gothic imagination of potential violence and the
actual gendered violence enacted upon a black woman’s body, the sight of Zoo’s
scar causes Joel to consider how his own body is also vulnerable to disruption.
Somewhere between solipsism and identification, Joel imagines a bodily connec-
tion with Zoo that provides a conduit for him to identify with other marked and
disabled bodies.20
In his fraught transition out of the self-abjecting singularity he felt in New
Orleans, Joel consciously achieves subjective and bodily blending after his long
illness at the Landing. As it becomes clear that members of the household, includ-
ing Randolph, have been caring for Joel through his sickness, Joel experiences a
blissful release of self-responsibility. For the first time, he willingly sees himself
bound to Randolph:
Now in the process of, as it were, discovering someone, most people experience
simultaneously an illusion they are discovering themselves: the other’s eyes reflect
their real and glorious value. Such a feeling was with Joel, and inestimably so
because this was the first time he’d ever known the triumph, false or true, of seeing
through to a friend. And he did not want any more to be responsible, he wanted to
put himself in the hands of his friend, be, as here in the sickbed, dependent on him
for his very life. (208)

In the tradition of the Bildungshelden, Joel re-enters the community he ini-

tially spurned. From the vantage point of immobility, he sees himself reflected
in his disabled mentor, with whom even holding hands was something he once
found “disagreeable” (85). During his convalescence, the hands of his numerous
caretakers meld and lose definition as Joel relinquishes his bodily autonomy for
a pleasurable intercorporeality (206). He proclaims his love for Randolph, and
wishes never to leave his sickroom. In his movement between and within disabled
bodies, Joel eschews his able body through corporeal blending, and retreats from
the pathologization of disability.
Indeed, Joel modifies the entirety of his sense of embodiment at the moment
he decides to stay at the Landing. This is manifested in his mimetic appropriation
of his father’s paralyzed bodily rhythms as he stands outside the Landing and
contemplates his decision to remain: “The clouds traveled slower than a clock’s
hands . . . and when they were gone, Mr. Sansom was the sun . . . [Joel’s] mind
was absolutely clear. He was like a camera waiting for its subject to enter focus”
(231). Joel mimics a stationary camera gaining focus, like Ed Sansom’s omni-
scient eyes that see all because of, rather than in spite of, his paralysis. Sansom’s

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66 Journal of Modern Literature Volume 38, Number 1

eyes once vacillated between dullness and terrifying focus, but as Joel’s able body
assumes a silent, potentially immobile body, he understands and utilizes the eye’s
communicative capacities.
Joel’s transformation from the unhappiness of nondisabled autonomy to the
increasing bliss of intercorporeal interdependence may shed new light on the
current debate in disability scholarship and activism over the legitimacy of trans-
ability. For the most part, transability has been treated within academic discourse
as a curiosity and/or a pathology. One exception to this tendency is Bethany
Stevens’s 2011 article, “Interrogating Transability: A Catalyst to View Disabil-
ity as Body Art,” which offers an invaluable, non-pathologizing perspective on
this phenomenon, though its perspective principally parallels transability with
transgender politics and body modification. For my purposes, I am interested in
how transability’s desire for impairment connects bodies across the nondisabled/
disabled binary, in part by blurring that binary.21 Transability has come under
fire for what is perceived to be its imitation of “real” disabilities. However, it is
precisely the challenge it presents to physical “realness” or epistemological “truths”
of embodiment that calls into question the discreteness of embodied states. Many
transabled people have been barred from disability communities, yet I would
argue that transability’s engagement with the pleasures of a disability community
could work to destigmatize both disability and the desire of the nondisabled to
belong to this community. Much of the work on transability has focused on the
wish for limb amputation, but I see transability’s affinity for disability and illness
as constituting a paradigm through which we might begin thinking more broadly
about how a nondisabled body such as Joel’s can develop strong identifications
with disability.22
While the novel’s subtle plotline of disabled identification helps to position
it in (and thereby revise) the Southern gothic and queer Bildungsroman genres, it
also, crucially, reveals the novel’s crip potential. Joel’s able-bodied coming of age
experiences are transformed by strange encounters with disability and alternative
forms of embodiment — Zoo’s scar, Randolph’s confinement, Ed Sansom’s paraly-
sis, Angela Lee’s disabled gender deviance. During his illness, Joel surrenders his
bodily autonomy and in so doing clears the way for a life-transforming connection
with a broader disability community.
It is not my intent here to neatly map this understanding of a fictional narra-
tive of disabled intercorporeality onto persons with BIID, but rather to offer a way
of understanding the less standardized state of transability beyond pathology and
radical othering. Familiarizing ourselves with the possible pleasures of debilitation
and care, and the forms of movement available to the invalid body in Capote’s text,
provokes a more nuanced understanding of why one might desire disability. The
knee-jerk aversion to transability from those who consider themselves able-bodied
not only speaks to anxieties about appropriations of marginalized identities, but
also reveals the deeply ableist assumption that disability itself is an undesirable
and unlivable state.

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Capote Crips the Bildungsroman 67

Just as Margrit Shildrick’s bodily boundaries become more elastic in encoun-

ters with her friend’s wheelchair, Joel’s introduction to the unpredictable pleasures
of assuming disability allows his growth to rely less on constant ambulatory
mobility or an unmarked, flexible young body. Randolph, positioned by Capote’s
early critics as a less than ideal mentor because of his immobility and sexual deca-
dence, introduces Joel to a disability community that he ultimately chooses over
fantasies of escape. This shared vulnerability, achieved under the mentorship of
Randolph, Joel’s father, and other unusual bodies, becomes central to the coming
of age narrative, signaling both its engagements with the traditions of the classical
Bildungsroman and its modernist departure from some of the normative strictures
of the genre. Looking to the disabled body in this narrative opens up pathways
of vulnerability, identification, and pleasure, generating non-teleological growth
beyond the standard Bildung and radically reconceiving what constitutes disabled
and nondisabled autonomies.

I am especially grateful to Scott Herring, Karma Lochrie, Shane Vogel, Emer Vaughn, Kelly
Hanson, Deanna Wendel, Shannon Boyer, Sami Schalk, Lindsay Welsch, Rebecca Peters-Golden,
Dory Weiss and Courtney Mitchel for their feedback and unwavering support.

1. My use of the term “crip” follows Robert McRuer and many other disability studies scholars
who reclaim “crip” in the tradition of “queer.” McRuer argues that compulsory heterosexuality and
compulsory able-bodiedness work as intersecting hegemonies in order to naturalize their existence.
2. Although the novel resonates with the Southern gothic tradition, Capote’s resistance to this
label and insistence on the novel’s transnational influences warrant some attention. In his 1968
preface to Other Voices, Other Rooms, he cites as inspiration authors such as Proust, Austen, Forster,
Turgenev, and Flaubert.
3. Sociologist Jenny Davis notes that some PWBs, or People with BIID, utilize strategic essential-
ism to situate their condition as biological, rather than social. In this way, PWBs accept patholo-
gization in order to move closer to their desire for ability-reassignment surgery. This desire for
diagnosis places PWBs in a tense relationship with people with disabilities, many of whom desire
de-pathologization. Davis writes, “[PWBs] queer the categories of ability and disability, desirability
and repulsion, health and illness, and mind and body. As such, they are assigned a stigmatized status
and become marginalized members of society” (321). For these reasons, many treatments of BIID
still reside in pathology.
4. Solomon elaborates on the effect of Capote’s celebrity on his literary reception and Bawer
enumerates the criticisms leveled at Capote’s style.
5. Here Aldridge criticizes Capote’s failure to write in the transnational modernist Bildungsroman
tradition but also the American modernist coming of age tradition epitomized at this time by Thomas
Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.

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68 Journal of Modern Literature Volume 38, Number 1

6. Ten years after the novel’s publication, warmer receptions turned to psychoanalysis and Platonism
to more generously account for the novel’s unapologetically queer paralysis. See Levine, as well as
Baldanza. For more on psychoanalysis in Other Voices, Other Rooms, see Mengeling.
7. Recent queer studies scholars, such as Gary Richards, have turned to less pathological models
to argue that Capote’s use of gender inversion to signal male homosexuality has framed him as
backwards in light of the postwar explosion of queer masculinities (Richards 40).
8. Although this reading is more interested in disability than in sexuality, it is impossible to extricate
this crip reading from a queer analysis of Capote’s work, which has been explored by manifold critics
such as Bibler; Mitchell-Peters; Pugh; Richards; and Solomon, to name a few. For a queer reading
of children in Capote’s work, see Stockton.
9. This essay does not uphold Capote’s text as a singular example of non-pathologizing early dis-
ability narrative. W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Flannery O’Connor’s and Katherine
Ann Porter’s early stories, and Carson McCullers’s novels are but a few examples of the many pre-
1950 narratives in which disability is central.
10. Although the domestic sphere is traditionally associated with heterodomesticity, McRuer aptly
shows how heterodomesticity is also contingent on the expulsion of disability. McRuer’s ideas
regarding the queer and crip threat to the heterosexual bourgeois family remain salient to my argu-
ment, but I am also interested in formulations of “queer domesticity” that eschew both hetero- and
homonorms (see Shah).
11. While much of the cultural production of the 1940s that addresses disability was heavily influ-
enced by World War II, Capote’s novel curiously exempts itself from this theme. Serlin (Replaceable
You) and Gerber have called attention to the normative bent of rehabilitation culture and prosthetic
innovation in the 1940s. Serlin has aptly explored the ways in which representations of innovations
in prosthetics enabled the disabled postwar veteran to theoretically escape the Cold War stigma of
feminization and dependency. For more on the United States’ fraught relationship to disability during
this time see Graebner, as well as Foertsch.
12. Moretti sees movement and an individualized psyche as two of the most important components
in the Bildungsroman narrative: “[T]he Bildungsroman . . . abstract[s] from ‘real’ youth a ‘symbolic’
one, epitomized . . . in mobility and interiority” (5).
13. For recent evaluations of what disability critique can offer to modernist studies, see Davidson;
Linett; and Lyon.
14. Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place coins the term metronormativity to describe a “story of
migration from ‘country’ to ‘town’,” “a spatial narrative within which the subject moves to a place of
tolerance after enduring life in a place of suspicion, persecution, and secrecy and embraces a flight to
the city that imagines the metropolis as the only sustainable space for queers” (36–37). See Howard;
Herring; and Bibler, “Making” for further discussions of queerness and rurality.
15. Thomas Fahy reads the function of the sideshow and enfreakment in Other Voices, Other Rooms
as a mode of combating mid-century homophobia.
16. For more on the freak show and circus as economic gain but also a form of community for
performers with non-normative bodies see Bogdan; Garland-Thomson; Adams; and Clare (71–84).
17. It is important to note how the Landing implicitly critiques the flaneur-esque “cruising” of queer
public cultures as well. For example, Scott Herring explores how artist Charles Demuth sculpts an
anti-urban critique by modeling a “productive immobility” during his time with diabetes. For more
on the disabled flaneur, see Campbell, as well as Serlin, “Disabling.”
18. See Castle 11–12, 50–52.
19. For an elaboration on common tropes of disability narrative and disability representation in
literature see Bérubé 568–570; Quayson 15; and Mitchell and Snyder 1–14.

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Capote Crips the Bildungsroman 69

20. This bodily identification does not, however, resolve the racial tensions and unjust labor economy
required in order for these caretaking scenarios to exist. The servants in the novel have limited
options for mobility. The novel displays a clear class delineation between the serving class and the
employers, and in many ways the domestic intimacy with racialized bodies is used to manipulate
them into service. For more on disability and African American experience, see Samuels 57–59;
Bell 1–4; and Jarman.
21. Gayle Salamon’s work with transgender theory and phenomenology revises the notion of embodi-
ment as merely uncontested materiality. Her insistence on the body’s imaginary contours and perme-
able boundaries in the transgender community are useful to consider for the depathologization of the
disabled and disabled-identified. Chloe Jennings-White, a writer for the main resource available on
transability ( writes of transabled empathy with the disabled:

BIID leaves you no other choice. You know you are not as you are supposed to be. But
you can see other people who seem more like how you are supposed to be; people with
disabilities. And you imagine what it is like to be them. And you imagine being them. And
you keep doing this; all the time. And a half century passes . . . . With daily practice you are
hardly conscious of it. It is simply a part of who you are. It is called empathy. (n.p.)

22. For medical approaches to transabled individuals, grouped as DPWs or “devotees, pretenders
and wannabes” see Bruno, as well as First. See Evans for a reading of elective amputation, or in his
terms, “apotemnophilia” in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction and Richardson for an exploration of this
phenomenon in popular culture.

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