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"Bane Or Boon? A Study Of The Effects Of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood On The Literary Landscape”

Jason Tremblay

When Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was first published in serialized form in 1965, it created a sensation that catapulted the young author to the forefront of the literary world, and according to the author, created a new genre: the nonfiction novel. Capote’s artful blending of facts and fiction enraptured readers of The New Yorker, and would later make him a millionaire with the release of his work in the form of a novel.

Though others had created similarly genre-bending works, it was Capote who took the concept of using fiction to enhance the facts of a story to a new level (Garrett 467-8).[1] While writing In Cold Blood, Capote sought to “successfully combine within a single form –say the short story- all (I know) about every other form of writing” (Siegle 441). Though it would consume six years of his life and arguably trigger the personal and creative downward spiral that ultimately led to the author’s early demise, In Cold Blood, despite Capote’s unusual investigative practices, had a profound impact on the literary and reporting landscapes.

Capote began his investigation into the Clutter murders based on his reading of a short, straightforward newspaper article. The article was approximately 300 words long, and gave only the most basic facts about the case, but it was enough to propel Capote out to Kansas. While there, he employed unusual methods that were and are generally considered unacceptable in the field of reportage. Some critics of the novel assert that “if written today, In Cold Blood would not be published without significant changes (and) without end notes or some kind of elaborate acknowledgement of his sources and his information techniques” (Jensen).

Capote’s practice of simply listening to his subjects without the aid of recording devices or written notes was decidedly unscientific, and due to the unpredictable idiosyncrasies of the human mind, susceptible to corruption. How could a man already acclaimed for writing creative fiction, and in the process, creating scenarios and dialog out of nothing, be trusted to give a clear and accurate picture of the conversations upon which he based his novel, particularly without the aid of permanent data?

The practice of “transparency,” letting the reader know the source of information that has not been directly observed, has become an expected practice in the field of reportage. Though there is no record of Capote facing legal difficulties based on his portrayals of people in In Cold Blood, there are instances on record where people have challenged Capote’s representation of the “facts.”

The Reverend James Post, Kansas State Penitentiary’s chaplain at the time of Smith’s and Hickock’s incarceration, insisted that Hickock “wasn't the sex fiend that Capote tried to make him out ... like trying to rape the Clutter girl before he killed her ... it didn't happen. And other things ... lies, just to make it a better story” (Jensen). Others close to the Clutters, including surviving daughters Beverly English and Eveanna Mosier, bristled at the depiction of Bonnie Clutter as an invalid (Jensen). When integral components of a story are contested as fabrications, it calls into question the overall validity of the work as anything but pure fiction, as the reader is left wondering what to take as fact and what to dismiss as artistic embellishment.

While In Cold Blood was billed as “a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences,” similar works of today are generally categorized less specifically under the qualifier “based on a true story.”[2] Though mostly a semantic argument, Capote’s work might be better categorized under the latter heading, as the entirety of his body of evidence regarding the actual killings comes second-hand, and from the killers themselves, who are not objective sources by any means. Given the situation and the mental conditions that allowed it to transpire, the killers may not have been a reliable source of information. After all, rational people do not murder complete strangers in the night, and those who do cannot be counted upon to provide accurate details.

Since its publication, In Cold Blood has been the subject of much debate regarding its categorization. Capote’s assertion that his work was unique enough to merit the creation of an entirely new genre, the nonfiction novel, begs the question of whether or not such a distinction even makes scholarly sense, as the notion of fiction and the concept of the novel have been inveterately linked. Author Robert Siegle contends that the nonfiction novel should be viewed “not as an oxymoron, but as a tautology” (438). He posits that fiction and fact-based reporting are not mutually exclusive, as facts are often relative to how they are perceived by individuals (439). If the facts are colored by the reporter, regardless of intent, they become more like fiction, edging closer to the realm of complete fabrication. Where then, should an author draw the line when deciding the acceptable level of creativity while trying to report the facts in an engaging way, and what might the consequences be for crossing that line? As it happens, Capote eventually felt the consequences of his maverick style.

Following the publication of chapters from Capote’s Answered Prayers, an occasionally scathing and thinly-veiled portrait of members of his social circle, the author found himself a virtual pariah, scorned by those who had embraced him before he wrote about them. During this tumultuous period, Capote came to realize “the difference between what is true and what is really true” (Siegle 440). Though Answered Prayers came years after In Cold Blood, Capote’s distinction between “the truth” and “the real truth” seems to articulate what he was trying to convey in his telling of the Clutters’s demise. The general public’s perception of the truth is that Perry Smith and Dick Hickock murdered a family of four for no apparent reason. The real truth, Capote attempts to show us through the blending of facts and speculation, is that there was a reason, however convoluted and unforgivable it may be.

Following the enduring success of In Cold Blood, other authors have indulged in Capote’s penchant for exaggeration, sometimes crossing over into outright fabrication. In 1997, a rising reporter named Stephen Glass, who had written stories for The New Republic, George, and Rolling Stone, was disgraced when it came to light that many of his stories were laden with fabrications (Kroft). Glass’s web of lies began to unravel following his coverage of a fictitious computer hacker conference in a story for The New Republic, when a reporter for Forbes magazine tried to verify facts about Glass’s story for a follow-up story (Kroft). In his interview with Steve Kroft, Glass explains how his stories were usually constructed:

I would tell a story, and there would be fact A, which maybe was true. And then there would be fact B, which was sort of partially true and partially fabricated. And there would be fact C which was more fabricated and almost not true,” says Glass. “And there would be fact D, which was a complete whopper. And totally not true. And so people would be with me on these stories through fact A and through fact B. And so they would believe me to C. And then at D they were still believing me through the story.”

 

It is not difficult to imagine Capote employing a similar strategy when faced with a deficiency of verifiable facts. Certainly Capote performed more due diligence in his attempts to collect the facts of the Clutter case, but his fictional ending for In Cold Blood, where Kansas Bureau of Investigations agent Alvin Dewy Jr. encounters Susan Kidwell, Nancy Clutter’s childhood friend, in a graveyard, in my opinion, is no more acceptable than Glass’s fictional happenings.

More recently, journalist Jayson Blair, a former reporter for The New York Times, resigned in 2003 amidst a scandal involving journalistic fraud (Barry et al.). In 7,239 word Times article, Blair’s misdeeds are extensively investigated and reported, but are effectively summed up in one paragraph:

The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York . He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not. (Barry et al.)

Again, we see echoes of Capote’s influence. Though Blair was known to have conducted some verifiable research, he would often embellish or alter facts to make his stories more compelling. For example, though he described a farm in West Virginia as having “(a porch) overlooking the tobacco fields and cattle pastures," there was, in fact, no tobacco, and no cattle (Barry et al.). Further, Blair had never even been to the farm in question, but his vivid descriptions of the family and their home helped to sell the mood and veracity of his account.

In the literary world, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, promoted as a non-fiction book about his experiences with drug and alcohol dependency and recovery, was revealed to be rife with inaccuracies and embellishments. Originally sold as a factual account, Frey’s book, in light of the scandal surrounding it, now seems more accurately described as a nonfiction novel. While writing his book, Frey took liberties similar to those taken by Capote in his telling of Smith’s and Hickock’s crime; both authors wanted to craft better tales and used their skills to do so, though Frey did it about himself. Frey’s publishers, Doubleday and Anchor Books, swiftly responding to public outrage, have taken action to correctly identify the book, including notes from the publisher and the author addressing the controversy. In his forward, Frey begins:

A Million Little Pieces is about my memories of my time in a drug and alcohol treatment center. As has been accurately revealed by two journalists at an Internet Web site, and subsequently acknowledged by me, during the process of writing the book, I embellished many details about my past experiences, and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book. I sincerely apologize to those readers who have been disappointed by my actions. (Frey 1)

 

Faced with proof of his own lies, Frey grudgingly admits to fabricating details to achieve the “greater purpose” of his book. Putting aside the likelihood that the “greater purpose” was to create greater book sales, I assume that Frey is attempting to justify his fictionalization as a means to reinforce his purported messages of strength and hope in the most visceral and compelling terms possible.

Frey’s predicament brings to mind Capote’s quest for the “real truth” in his non-fiction novels, and raises the question of how well Capote’s novel would have worked in today’s literary landscape. Regarding allegations of falsifying or embellishing information and events, Capote would only publicly admit to “slight editing” of the facts, but never to outright fabrication (Jensen). Capote’s acknowledgements for In Cold Blood offer:

All the material in this book not derived from my own observation is either taken from official records or is the result of interviews with the persons directly concerned, more often than not numerous interviews conducted over a considerable period of time. (Capote i)

 

Capote’s unorthodox methodology invites criticism about the accuracy of his accounts. Capote is reported to have made over five-thousand changes in the manuscript in the ten weeks between its publication in The New Yorker and the first printing of the book, some correcting verifiable facts (De Bellis 519). Author Jack De Bellis notes, among others, the following discrepancies between Capote’s published versions:

Capote altered numerical counts, for example, changing the number of churches in Garden City from twenty-two to twenty-eight, and giving detective Dewey eighteen assistants rather than seventeen. Times, directions, and places were also altered. In The New Yorker Perry was paroled in the summer, but the time is spring in revision. The killers are east of Holcomb, not northeast. The site of a murder shifts from Tampa to Tallahassee, momentarily implicating the killers in another crime. (521)

These discrepancies, as well as many others, are likely the direct result of Capote’s refusal to take written notes. While some items are minor, almost inconsequential details, the fact that Capote got them wrong speaks against his claims of total accuracy. De Bellis notes that Capote frequently boasted about having a ninety percent or higher effective recall rate for conversations, “and who cares about the other ten percent” (532). Capote’s recall rate notwithstanding, it must be remembered that a good deal of the research that would later be used in the writing of the novel was conducted by Harper Lee, who made no such claims of such a dubious recall rate. One has to wonder if Capote’s retelling of the murders falls within that phantom ten percent, and therein lies the largest problem with Capote’s methods: how is the reader to know what is fact and what is fiction?

Capote’s colorful treatment of the Clutter family’s murder and the careful yet fanciful examination of their killers showed the world the value and power of presenting a story with a theatrical flair, but questions about Capote’s methods and the accuracy of his “true account” have existed since In Cold Blood’s publication. Capote seemed to argue that the point of the story was more important than the details presented to illustrate it, but that sentiment has not helped Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair to regain their credibility or James Frey in the defense of his book, nor should it be acceptable when history looks back on Capote’s work. Factual inaccuracies do not diminish the readability or artfulness of Capote’s novel, but its claim of being “a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences” may be a little generous and misleading. Capote would have been truer to his claims of complete accuracy if he had instead subtitled In Cold Blood with the words “based on a true story,” though it seems that history has indulged Mr. Capote in the end.


[1] Garret cites works arguably similar in style to In Cold Blood, including Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and e.e. cummings’s The Enormous Room.

[2] Films are also frequently “based on a true story” and are often heavily marketed as such, perhaps owing a debt to In Cold Blood’s success as a precursor of the genre. For example, Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” loosely based on the serial killings of Ed Gein, and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” based on German industrialist Oscar Schindler’s efforts to save Jewish citizens from Nazi abuse, are both based on fact, but occasionally embellish, omit, or create material for the sake of a more compelling narrative.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Barry, Dan, David Barstow, Jonathan D. Glater, Adam Liptak, and Jacques Steinberg. "Correcting the Record; Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception." New York Times 11 May 2003 25 Apr 2006 <http://www.jaysonblair.com/articles/nyt110503.html>.

 

 Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. 1st Vintage international. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

 

 

De Bellis,Jack. "Visions and Revisions: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood." Journal of Modern Literature Sep 1979: 519-36. Gale Literary Databases. Penn State University Library. 25 Apr 2006 <http://galenet.galegroup.com>.

 

 Frey, James. "A note to the reader." amillionlittlepieces.com. Jan 2006. Random House Inc.. 25 Apr 2006 <http://www.randomhouse.com/trade/publicity/ pdfs/AMLP020106.pdf>.

 

 Garrett, George. "Then and Now: In Cold Blood Revisited." The Virgina Quarterly Review 72 (1996) : 467-74. ProQuest Direct. Penn State University Library. 20 Mar 2006. <http://proquest.umi.com/login>.

Jensen, Van. "Writing history: Capote's novel has lasting effect on journalism." Lawrence Journal-World 03 Apr 2005 25 Apr 2006 <http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2005/apr/03/writing_history_capotes/>.

 

 

Kroft, Steve. "Stephen Glass: I Lied For Esteem." CBS News. 17 Aug 2003. CBS News. 25 Apr 2006 <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/05/07/ 60minutes/main552819.shtml>.

 

 

Siegle, Robert. "Capote's ‘Handcarved Coffins’ and the Nonfiction Novel." Contemporary Literature 25 (1984) : 437-51. J Stor. Penn State University Library. 20 Mar 2006. <http://www.jstor.org/search/>.