Harping on the Past

            In his novel The Grass Harp, Truman Capote uses an image from nature to develop an extended metaphor in his “harp of voices,” created by the tall Indian grass that grows just outside a rural 1930s southern town (9).    Protagonist Collin Fenwick reveals his attachment to the harp in telling the story of his relationship with his older cousin Dolly Talbo, who first introduces him to the harp one day while they are in the woods gathering roots.  Collin, in telling the story, becomes the harp of which he speaks.

            Throughout the novel, Capote paints pictures for his readers with words, particularly of images in nature.  Through Collin he paints this picture of the grass harp:

Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons:  go to see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.  (9)

Capote offers his story in language rich in simile, in metaphor, and personification because nature provides him generous opportunity.  The harp and the China tree seem to be among his favorites.

            Just as readers are allowed a sense of warm familiarity with nature, they are also permitted glimpses into the hearts and minds of Capote’s characters.  Dolly, moved by nature, sparks this same love in Collin when she first tells him of the grass harp:

Do you hear? that [sic] is the grass harp, always telling a story—it knows         the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who ever lived, and when we are dead it will tell ours, too.  (9)

Collin is touched so much by this experience that he becomes Dolly’s grass harp by telling in the novel, the stories of the people on the hill (those buried in the cemetery).

            In first reading the title of the book, the reader makes those immediate associations with the word harp as a musical instrument, but the word has another definition as well. To harp is also to write or tell of something extensively or at great length, often to the point of excessiveness and often on the past.  Harp was used in literature with this meaning as early as in the time of Shakespeare (“Harp”).

The novel The Grass Harp then becomes Collin’s account of the lives of Dolly, Verena, his parents, all those who lived before him.  He tells their stories.

Capote closes the novel with what Collin considers to be his last trip to the woods that gave readers the cemetery, the China tree, and of course the grass harp.  Wanting to share this special place and keep the image alive, he brings the Judge with him:  “…I wanted then for the Judge to hear what Dolly had told me” (97).  Not believing that he might someday return, he deems it necessary to relate to the Judge the significance of this special place “that…was a grass harp, telling, a harp of voices remembering a story” (97). Capote concludes his tale with the very simple words, “We listened” (97).  And later, Collin tells the story.



Works Cited

Capote, Truman.  The Grass Harp.  New York: Vintage, 1993.

“Harp.” Web. 13 May 2004.