Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cold-Blooded Writing

A friend sent me this February 8th article in the Wall Street Journal about the discovery of long-lost files involving Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood (1966).

The discovery of the KBI files, while interesting, is not really "news."  Critics have known for some time that, despite Capote's claims, his account of the Clutter murders in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 is by no means "factual."

Capote had a flair for the theatrical.  He liked to make sweeping claims that couldn't possibly be true, and then insist on their truth.  He often contradicted himself.  He claimed he didn't need to take notes, because he had 95% verbal recall--he knew this, he said, because he had tested himself at one point.

Capote also drank heavily throughout much of his life.

None of which takes away from the artistry of In Cold Blood.  If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.  It's disturbing and interesting and terrifying and extremely well-written.  Part I of the novel is one of the most compelling pieces of American prose I can name.

If there were world enough and time, I would write a comparative article examining Atwood's Alias Grace and Capote's In Cold Blood.  Both are true-crime accounts, and both grapple with issues of artistry and authenticity.

As I pointed out in my blog post on Alias Grace, however, Atwood's novel is far more up-front in its self-disclosure.  It never claims to be a "factual" account, because it identifies the "facts" in the case it describes as complicated by social context, individual psychology, and the erasures of history.

Capote wrote a brilliant novel while practicing some very dangerous "journalistic" tactics.  I put the quotation marks around "journalistic" because I don't think Capote should actually be considered a "journalist" at all.

If the novel weren't so damn good, he would have never gotten away with what he did.

As the recent Wall Street Journal article suggests, Capote turned the case involving Perry Smith and Dick Hickock into a media circus.  The killers were photographed by Richard Avedon, the American fashion photographer who is best-known, perhaps, for his images of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. (A collection of his selected work is available through The Richard Avedon Foundation.)

If you'd like to see the January 7, 1966 issue of Life magazine that featured the story of the Clutter murders with the Avedon photos, just click on the link, scroll past all of the photos of a much-younger Sean Connery in "Thunderball" and the lovely ads for cigarettes and Tang, and you'll find the story.

Capote made all kinds of questionable statements about his "journalistic" practices in writing In Cold Blood.  He openly admitted that he came to sympathize with the killer, Perry Smith, and in the same breath insisted that this sympathy had no effect on his depiction of the killers, their crimes or their ultimate executions.

In a 1968 interview for Playboy magazine (sorry, but I'm not including links to Playboy in my blog, ever), Capote argued that he pursued the creation and construction of the novel as a kind of mathematical problem, in which the subject is simply the "x" in the "quadratic equation" of a "stylistic problem."

Capote insisted,"I did identify with him to a great degree.  Never did deny it.  It is also quite true that my portrait of him is absolutely one hundred percent the way he was."  And, "Perry was a character that was also in my imagination ... [he] could absolutely ... [have stepped] right out of one of my stories."

In "Visions and Revisions: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood" (Journal of Modern Literature. Vol 7, 1979, 519-536), Jack DeBellis systematically identified all of the changes Capote made in the few months between the original, four-part serialized publication of In Cold Blood in The New Yorker (beginning on September 25, 1965) and its publication in book form by Random House in January 1966.

There's more.  Capote added scenes that never occurred (the ending of the novel, for example).  He created "composite" characters.  He shaped the events of the crime like the plot of the novel, consciously creating a story-arc that focused predominantly on Herb and Nancy Clutter, two of the four victims.

Capote included dialogue he could not possibly have known, and that it is unlikely any of the individuals involved in the investigation would have recalled.  He included details that were both precise and specific, that coincidentally also "worked" artistically.

In the years following the publication of In Cold Blood, individuals came forward to claim that they had never told Capote the things he had depicted them as saying.

Perhaps most damagingly, one of the witnesses to Perry Smith's execution claimed that Smith never actually apologized for his crimes, as Capote's novel depicts.  It was claimed that, even if he did, Capote was so overwrought, he was standing in the back of the room, too far away to hear anything Smith might have said.

In an April 2005 interview in The Lawrence-Journal World, however, Charles McAtee, the Director of the Kansas State Penal Institutions in 1965, indicated that he believed Capote's account did mirror actual events.

Ultimately, Capote's novel and the context surrounding its composition resonates on multiple levels, I think.  On the one hand, there are the ethical issues it raises.  Given that the text depicts a real crime and real victims, did Capote have "the right" to do what he wanted with the material (as he insisted he did)?

While few dispute the ultimate artistry of the novel (or at least of sections of it), the question remains whether writers can really ever write in cold blood, with an eye for the strictly factual, unbiased by emotion or empathy.  The successes and failures of Capote's novel offer a fascinating litmus test for these questions.

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