Truman Capote, born September 30th, 1924 in New Orleans, was often viewed as a chronicler of chic Manhattan party life, but became most famous for writing a gritty account about the murder of a family in Kansas. In Cold Blood changed journalism, creating what Capote termed the non-fiction novel.
Capote’s work, published in 1966, advanced what was described by fellow author Tom Wolfe as the New Journalism, combining elements of fiction writing and fact together. Capote honed his craft to tell a story that used narrative fiction elements to describe a horror on the prairie, when four members of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, were murdered in November 1959. The perpetrators were two ex-cons who came in fruitless search of cash they thought was in the farmhouse.
Capote embraced the style of New Journalism in his account of the Kansas murders, using first-person description to connect the murdered family and their killers. Teacher W. G. Nicholson said the New Journalism was an essential response to the television era, which threatened both print journalism and fiction. He quotes Clay Felker, the editor of New York Magazine, as saying, “We had to do something television couldn’t do. It wasn’t enough to give interpretation. We had to give style, too.”
The style worked for In Cold Blood, taking the dispassionate journalistic observer out of the story and replacing him with a reporter invested in the story. Capote humanized his subjects, including the main investigator of the crime, the family, and, most controversially, the killers. He described one killer’s emotional issues as a child, with the killer emerging as a literate psychopath (a characterization disputed by those who knew him). In painstaking detail, Capote wrote about the daily activities of all involved, culminating in the murder. One critic noted that the murder was anything but a calm act done “in cold blood.” According to scholar Donald Pizer, the title likely refers to the state of Kansas, which executed the killers in a legal, dispassionate manner.
Capote argued that his approach was closer to reality than the more traditional form of crime reporting. But some critics were less impressed by the story’s veracity. The original story was serialized in the New Yorker. Jack De Bellis writes that by the time the story made it into book form, it had undergone 5,000 revisions, calling into question Capote’s approach. Capote often didn’t take notes and relied on what he said was his photographic memory. At the execution, Capote reported remarks made by the chief investigator’s wife and one of the subjects that other witnesses did not hear.
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Some critics castigated the New Journalism approach. According to Nicholson, Dwight McDonald called the approach “parajournalism” that created a bastard form between fiction and non-fiction, placing the reporter in the center of the story. Others argued that Capote, who had a difficult relationship with his native South, had transposed those negative feelings to small town life in Kansas.
Still In Cold Blood proved to be a success, both commercially and, for most critics, artistically. The book was subtitled, “A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences.” Capote’s writing made the consequences spellbinding, even if some contended he was a bit loose with the actual facts of the case in service of greater truth of tragedy.