writing about reading
AUGUST 7, 2011 2:24PM

Capote and "In Cold Blood": "It nearly killed me"

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Truman Capote, 1965 (photographed by Irving Penn)

Truman Capote's legacy these days seems secure in American letters, and his personal life has become familiar to moviegoers and magazine readers over the years since his death at age 59. Yet it remains difficult to imagine the impact his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood had on the country's imagination when it was published as a book in 1966 after being serialized in The New Yorker.

Capote's novelized form of reality has since become a staple of book lists. It can be argued that the success of Capote's book created the modern horror story, which uses at its base the shards of real-life crime to imagine possibilities of human degradation. (Psycho, by Robert Bloch, was a fictionalized version of an actual crime in 1957, but used none of the facts of the Ed Gein case.)
In Cold Blood is a far cry from the short stories and the roman candle success of Breakfast at Tiffany's which had made Capote a literary celebrity. But as Rupert Thompson points out in a recent column in The Guardian UK, the writing of In Cold Blood also exacted a psychological price on the author from which he never fully recovered. Readers were introduced to an entirely different kind of reporting -- a deepening spiral of darkness and factual revelation that was ultimately true in its shocking particulars.
What horrors Capote uncovered on the Kansas plain have since become part of the American subconscious of unlocked doors and noises in the middle of the night. In Cold Blood telegraphed remorseless psychosis: that the murder of the Clutter family was ultimately a senseless act in a botched robbery of a Kansas farmhouse. The novel's complete starkness, Thompson notes, was a function of its reportage: the unbelieveable facts took on novelistic force in their telling.
As the real-life drama of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith developed, the author claimed an emotional distance as he wrote. "It really doesn't make any difference to me if the case is ever solved or not," Capote remarked coldly at the time. Tom Wolfe wrote later: "The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset ... Instead, the book's suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.
In the Guardian article, Thomson emphasizes the difference between In Cold Blood and what Capote had written before:   


... Capote had exploded on to the literary scene with short fictions that exhibited a retrospective point of view. He was, first and foremost, an exquisite stylist – "the most perfect writer of my generation", as Mailer called him. Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and The Grass Harp (1951) were carefully wrought examples of swamp gothic – unashamedly ornate, lush and impressionistic, and for all its metropolitan sass, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), Capote's third novel, in which he gave us the kooky, amoral Holly Golightly, also had its roots in the deep south. Yet, even early on, and despite phenomenal success, Capote seemed conscious of the need to push his writing in new directions.

He wanted, as he said, "to do something else", and In Cold Blood gave him the opportunity, allowing him to ditch his attachment to childhood and nostalgia, the literature of the backward glance, and to immerse himself in something that was both current and universal. At the same time, he largely dispensed with his breathless, gossamer sentences, which often teetered on the brink of preciousness and whimsy, and ushered in a style that was much leaner and more sinewy: "Dick! Smooth. Smart . . . Christ, it was incredible how he could 'con a guy'." This was a new Capote – surprisingly tough, almost hard-boiled.

He had cut his non-fiction teeth on two extended pieces, both written in the mid-1950s."The Muses Are Heard", published in the New Yorker in 1956, chronicled a trip to the Soviet Union by the Everyman Opera, which was touring with Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," and showcased razor-sharp observation and a tone of voice that ranged from the playful to the acidic. In "The Duke in His Domain", published the following year, and still considered a milestone in the history of celebrity profiles, Capote interviewed Marlon Brando on location in Kyoto. Here, too, Capote displayed uncanny journalistic skills, capturing even the most languid and enigmatic of subjects – Brando in his pomp – and eliciting the kinds of confidences that left the actor reflecting ruefully on his "unutterable foolishness".

Capote saw journalism as a horizontal form, skimming over the surface of things, topical but ultimately throwaway, while fiction could move horizontally and vertically at the same time, the narrative momentum constantly enhanced and enriched by an incisive, in-depth plumbing of context and character. In treating a real-life situation as a novelist might, Capote aimed to combine the best of both literary worlds to devastating effect. ...


The devastating effect was apparently total on both the American public and the writer. After the relentless motion of the novel, Capote appended a fictional resolution in order to bring some peace and emotional balance to the story's end. "I felt I had to return to the town, to bring everything back full circle, to end with peace," Capote offered his critics, but it ended the book on a fictional note that didn't suit the book's tone.
He hoped the novel would win the Pulitzer prize, and when it didn't Capote seemed exhausted and drained. Whether his inability to complete another major fiction was because of what Thompson calls Capote's "Faustian pact" with In Cold Blood, the sum of his career seems unfulfilled and an example of wrecked ambition.
"To the marrow of my bones": Capote might have viewed the murderers as a distorted mirror-image of the author himself. Thompson includes a telling quote from Gerald Clarke, Capote's biographer: "In Perry he recognized his shadow, his dark side, the embodiment of his own accumulated angers and hurts." The murderers and the author, it seems, were all pure products of America each in their own way.


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Great article about one of my favorite authors. He was a very complicated man. Those were the good old days- when you'd have shows like David Susskind and Dick Cavett who would feature authors like Capote. Nowaday, Mailer dies and it hardly caused a ripple.
I know a lot about what you wrote about Capote, but I learned some new things too. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing it with us.
First-rate essay. Thanks for keeping us plugged in to the literary side of things!
Thanks, fernsy. I finally read In Cold Blood about five years ago and then had to sleep with some lights on for quite a while! It seems even more powerful than the movie -- a testament to the human imagination. You're right about book culture these days. I wish Dick Cavett could be talked into a weekly 30-minute NPR book show, that would be something to listen for!

Jeanette, I'm just glad I can share these thoughts on OS. I just wish I'd been able to comment on some good-news literature today ... maybe next week.
i read 'In Cold Blood' when it was first published; i was a teenager. we still have the Life magazine articles about the murders in kansas and the arrest of hickock and smith. the writing of the book and the wait to publish it until the appeals had been adjudicated and the defendants executed certainly took a toll on capote, and you (and thomson) are correct that his later writing was never as well-received. but i disagree with the importance you (or thomson) place on the fictionalized ending of the book. 'In Cold Blood' was an enormous critical and financial success, and the controversy was about the invention of the nonfiction novel, as capote called it, as a genre, not the ending. also, capote was an exceptionally talented writer whose life was a tangled mess from childhood until it ended. he identified with perry smith, not both killers, and detested hickock. the saddest bit is that he was an alcoholic and addicted to prescription drugs, which is arguably why he couldn't pull himself together to write another novel after ICB and is certainly what killed him. although i disagree with substantive bits of the thomson article, i appreciate the reminder of that masterpiece of a book and the incredible talent of mr. capote.
I saw a movie made of the time he was in Kansas writing this book, it was really good. I used to watch him on Johnny Carson all the time. Yes, if he wanted "to do something else", he sure did it with gusto!
In Cold Blood was an excellent book and although it is interesting to read about the author, I am not one to make judgements toward or against on but prefer to look at the work as stand alone. Your piece here is fair and flattering but many prefer to dwell on his peculiar personality traits of late and not the writing. I liked his writing very much thanks for this, I also liked Mailer's writing and he suffered the same (or invited) criticism.
Chilling book. Great movie too. This essay offers some good perspective on both life and literature and the intersection of both. Thanks.
I really enjoy watching Capote on old re-runs of Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson. He was such delicious fun and wrote some of the most beautiful sentences in American literature. In Cold Blood was his downfall because he could not maintain an artistic distance with its subjects.
Late in replying, but I appreciate those who stopped by!

Candace, yes it's Thompson who makes the argument about the misplaced ending. ICB was a stunner of a book -- and it may be that the controversy about its new form was one of the reasons it didn't win the prize. I think the missed prize added to his personal downturn -- he was a mercurial talent who never found a niche in the American public.

scan, yeah he was quite a "gadfly" (there's a word that's gone out-of-fashion!) who could always be called upon to make any party or late-night show scene ...

rita: it's remarkable these days how writers are supposed to "be" their characters, or how fiction is always in some aspect thought to be autobiography. Joyce Carol Oates calls most literary biography "pathography" with its insistence on dysfunction. I always read articles like Thompsons' and walk away in admiration that writers can get ANYTHING done...

And Scarlett, turning "life" into "art" is one of those overused phrases but Mr. Capote surely had an amazing talent for both. ICB is an amazing creation that's rarely been equalled.

Miguela, I used to watch Capote on the Tonight Show and just think his personality was just so much a sugary coating to a very difficult interior. Then I read ICB and knew for sure ....