Some of Capote's stories were adapted for stage and screen. Highlighted
selections contain links to information about these works.
1924: born in New Orleans
1939: begins submitting
short stories to literary quarterlies
1942: begins work
for the New Yorker
1945: “Miriam,” published
1951: starts working
1984: dies of a heart
attack at 59
Capote: A Biography
is a superb biography of author Truman Capote. It was released just four
years after his death and includes photos and quotes from Capote.
The Story Behind A
Non-Fiction Novel is George Plimpton's interview
with Truman Capote, published by the New York Times. It gives fresh
insight into the author and his work.
Capote: A Black + White Tribute is a wonderful webpage featuring
black and white photos of the writer and exerpts from his various books.
Masters is a website with information about Truman Capote and
his work. It includes a timeline and other resources.
Night On A Kansas Farm is a review of In Cold Blood
published by the New York Times. It offers an examination of both
the author and the book.
Cold Blood - The Movie
detailed on the Internet Movie Database.
November 12, 2001
By James Bass
Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Truman Capote is known for developing
"New Journalism," a style of writing that was a cross between journalism
and literature. The epitome of this genre is Capote's ground-breaking
work of non-fiction, In Cold Blood, published in 1965 and
considered the first "so-called news novel" (Connery, 239).
Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons
on September 30, 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana to Lillie Mae and Arch
Persons. According to Gerald Clarke in his book Capote: A Biography,
the neglected Truman spent his childhood in various homes and was eventually
sent to live with relatives in Monroeville while his parents contemplated
divorce (11-15). According to Clarke, in 1930, Monroeville was “a small
town, scarcely more than a furrow between fields of corn and cotton. That
year’s census listed 1,355 people, but even that tiny figure was exaggerated
by local officials who wanted a number big enough to qualify for a post
office” (18). His childhood companion there was Harper
Lee, a next-door-neighbor. Lee’s father, a state senator, was also
a lawyer and former owner and editor of the Monroe Journal (21-22).
In his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman based the
character Idabel Thompkins on his friend Harper Lee. When Lee wrote her
Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960, she
used Capote to create her character Dill Harris. In 1932, Truman moved
to New York to live with his mother and her new husband, Joe Capote, whom
she had met and married shortly after leaving Truman’s father, Arch.
On February 14, 1935, Truman’s name was officially changed to Truman Garcia
Capote (Clarke, 34).
Capote took a job at The New Yorker
magazine, first in the accounting department and then in the art department,
where he cataloged cartoons and news clips. Later, he moved up to writing
for the column "Talk Of The Town." During this time, he began to read lots
of movie scripts and worked as a freelance writer (Garson, 3). Between
1946 and 1950, The New Yorker published nine travel articles by Capote.
One of Capote's travel articles was a journalistic account of an American
theatrical troupe's tour of Russia called "The Muses Are Heard" (Connery,
239-240). Many literary critics did not consider Capote's fiction noteworthy
because of its "unrealistic characters, fanciful plots, and indifference
to moral issues." Other critics just called it simple romance (Garson,
6-7). Many critics dismissed his fiction because they expected Southern
writers to use gothic elements. "Unlike Faulkner or Tate, [Capote] is not
concerned with destruction...downfall...or decay..." His work was called
"decorative" (Garson, 13). His first novel, "Other Voices, Other Rooms,"
was also not a favorite of the critics because of its homosexual themes,
which were taboo in American works of the time (Garson 14).
Elements of New Journalism
One of Capote's travel articles was a
journalistic account of an American theatrical troupe's tour of Russia
called "The Muses Are Heard" (Connery, 239-240). He also did a satirical
piece on Marlon Brando in 1957 called "The Duke In His Domain," which strongly
upset the actor. It was during the creation of this work that Capote began
to develop an unusual style of interviewing which he mastered in In
Cold Blood. It was a technique Capote called "the secret to the art
of interviewing." Capote's secret was to tell his subject a considerable
amount of information about himself, which reversed the roles and gave
the subject the feeling of being the interviewer. Then the subject would
lose inhibition and share his story with Capote (Connery 241-242).
He also began to record details of interviews in his mind, without the
use of traditional resources. "Twelve years ago I began to train myself...to
transcribe conversation without using a tape-recorder. I did it by having
a friend read passages from a book, and then later I'd write them down
to see how close I could come to the original. I had a natural facility
for it, but after doing these exercises for a year and a half, for a couple
of hours a day, I could get within 95 percent of absolute accuracy, which
is as close as you need," said Capote in an interview
with writer George
Plimpton. Capote began to idealize a writing style with a unique formula.
Tom Wolfe, a contemporary of Capote, defined this new style as "reporting
that read like fiction." He identified four common narrative techniques
that characterized the style: 1) detailed scene construction 2) complete
dialogue from interviews instead of subjective quotes 3) point-of-view
variation, and 4) details about the characters in the story (Connery, 3).
Capote's Theory and Work
Capote's experiments with creative reporting
began in 1950 with Local Color, a work which marked a shift from
fiction to reportage. Local Color was a collection of travel pieces
the author wrote from various visits to other cities. It was the beginning
of a style of point-of-view that would mature by the time In Cold Blood
was released (Reed 95-96). In an interview
with writer George
Plimpton, Capote said many critics were unsympathetic about his idea
of combining journalism and literature, feeling it was "little more than
a literary solution for fatigued novelists" (Plimpton). "It seems to me
that most contemporary novelists...are too subjective... I wanted to exchange
it, creatively speaking, for the everyday objective world we all inhabit...reporting
can be made as interesting as fiction, and done as artistically..."
Capote also felt that to be a good creative
reporter, one must also have a firm grip on ficition writing (Plimpton).
He also said good literary journalism should incorporate themes that, like
good, news-worthy journalism, should be timely. "[Y]ou want to be reasonably
certain that the material not soon 'date,'" he said. He also said, "murder
was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time...the first essential
of the nonfiction novel--that there is a timeless quality about the cause
and events. That's important. If it's going to date, it can't be a work
In Cold Blood Analysis
In Cold Blood marked a peak in
Truman Capote's career. The book was both an acclaimed literary success
and a huge financial success, and when it came out, book reviewers
called 1966 "the year of Capote." In fact, many critics agreed that Capote
was finally getting the success he deserved after paying his dues writing
for print and magazines (Garson, 1). What made the book so unique in the
literary world was the author's style of "creative writing mingle[ed] with
realism and novelistic imagination." Capote utilized journalism in his
novel by giving the reader facts in a "straightforward newspaper fashion,
but as a creative artist selecting details" and reproducing them like a
painter carefully creating a fine portrait (Garson, 143).
In Cold Blood is divided into
four sections, each presented like a vignette: "The Last To See Them
Alive," "Persons Unknown," "Answer," and "The Corner." Each of the
chapters are written like short stories within the main story, each presenting
a different scene or setting than the previous chapter.
As Capote began writing his book about
the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas, it became important to him
that he keep himself out of the story. "My feeling is that for the nonfiction-novel
form to be entirely successful, the author should not appear in the work,"
he said in his interview with George
Plimpton. According to Capote, critics became curious about how he
could reconstruct the conversations of the dead family without interjecting
his own opinions. "'How can you reconstruct the conversation of a dead
girl, Nancy Clutter, without fictionalizing? Each time Nancy appears in
the narrative, there are witnesses to what she is saying and doing - phone
calls, conversations, being overheard...All of it is reconstructed from
the evidence of witnesses which is implicit in the title of the first section
of the book "'The Last to See Them Alive'...Of course it's by the selection
of what you choose to tell" (Plimpton).
Capote spent six years working on his
book. A great deal of time was spent collecting data and research on the
case and its players. "I did months of comparative research on murder,
murderers, the criminal mentality, and I interviewed quite a number of
murderers - solely to give me a perspective on these two boys," he said
in his interview with Plimpton. Capote went on to say, "I'd say 80
percent of the research I did I have never used...I suppose if I used just
20 percent of all the material I put together over those years of interviewing,
I'd still have a book two thousand pages long!"
In speaking of the his writing process
for In Cold Blood, Capote remarked, "I worked for a year on the
notes before I ever wrote one line. And when I wrote the first word, I
had done the entire book in outline, down to the finest detail ... It began,
of course, with interviews - with all the different characters of the book"
Capote cites two examples of how he used the interviews within the
text. In the first part of In Cold Blood - the part named "The Last
to See Them Alive" - there is a long narration delivered by the school
teacher who went with the sheriff to the Clutter house and found the dead
bodies. Capote said he set that into the book as a straight complete interview,
although it was done several times. In the final version, the teacher tells
the whole story himself, describing exactly what happened from the moment
they got to the house, and what they found. Also in the first part of the
book, there is a scene between the postmistress and her mother when the
mother reports that the ambulances have gone to the Clutter house. Although
the scene reads as a straight dramatic scene, it was developed from interviews
just like the one with the school teacher. However, in this case Capote
compiled all his information and transposed it into straight narrative
In other parts of the book, Capote uses
yet another journalistic tool to build his story - observation. By visiting
Holcomb, Kansas, and not just reading about it, Capote was able to paint
a visual for his readers. One example of Capote's observation technique
reads, "The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness,
and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and
high-heeled boots with pointed toes" (Capote, 3).
Of all the journalistic techniques employed
by Capote, none is more important than the research he did to acertain
the factual information, which is the backbone of the story. Concerning
his extensive research, Capote says, "My files would almost fill a whole
small room, right up to the ceiling. All my research. Hundreds of letters.
Newspaper clippings. Court records - the court records almost fill two
trunks... I have some of the personal belongings - all of Perry's because
he left me everything he owned; it was miserably little, his books, written
in and annotated; the letters he received while in prison. . .not very
many. . .his paintings and drawings...I think I may burn it all ... The
book is what is important. It exists in its own right. The rest of the
material is extraneous, and it's personal. What's more, I don't really
want people poking around in the material of six years of work and research.
The book is the end result of all that, and it's exactly what I wanted
to do from it" (Plimpton).
Reviews of In Cold Blood were mostly
positive, except for a few reviewers who did not understand Capote's new
style of writing. One reviewer, Jimmy Breslin of the Herald Tribune, said
Capote's work could "affect the type of words on pages...for a while" (Clarke
363-365). According to Kenneth Reed, in his book Truman Capote,
the author went on to make almost two million dollars from re-print and
movie rights sales (95).
Capote In Film And Stage
Truman Capote courted celebrity status
and espescially liked to be in the company of theater people. Having completed
Grass Harp in 1951, Capote was made an offer to turn his novel into
a play. At first he was skeptical, but the allure of big broadway money
changed Capote's mind. By January 1952, he completed an adaptation of his
novel and it soon became a theater production (Clarke, 225-227).
Besides The Grass Harp, Capote
acted in some plays and became more involved with the theater, but Hollywood
was also calling. Capote was fascinated by film scripts and employed techniques
similar to those used in film narrative, such as psychological closeups
and examinations, flashback scenes and carefully-depicted settings (Garson,
143). His writing made for good movies and he eventually sold the rights
At Tiffany's to Paramount for $65,000 (Clarke, 269). He was also paid
$135,000 to write a screenplay for the third filming of F. Scott Fitzgerald's
Great Gatsby. However, Paramount rejected the screenplay, although
Capote was still paid (Clarke, 437).
There was interest in turning In
Cold Blood into a movie, and Capote enlisted director Richard Brooks
to handle the task. Brooks wrote the screenplay and refused to let Capote
see it, fearing the author might want to make changes. Capote had already
gone against the movie company, who wanted Steve mcQueen and Paul Newman
to play the killers. Capote also disagreed with the movie being shot in
color, choosing starking black and white instead. Brooks insisted on filming
the movie on location in Kansas. Parts were filmed at the real Clutter
house, the courthouse and other parts of Holcomb. Brooks even hired the
same hangman who executed Dick and Perry, and used Nancy Clutter's pet
horse. Life magazine even ran a cover story about the movie complete with
a picture of Capote standing between Robert Blak and Scott Wilson, the
two men who played the killers. When In
Cold Blood was released, it opened to excellent reviews. However, despite
public praises by the author, Capote criticized the movie in private. He
felt too much emphasis was put on the killers and not enough on the victims.
The movie did not have the same impact ast he book (Clarke 386-387).
Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Vintage, 1965
Plimpton, George. "The Story Behind A Nonfiction Novel" 6 Jan. 1966
York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-interview.html>
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster,
Connery, Thomas B. ed. A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism:
Representative Writers In An Emerging Genre. Connecticut: Greenwood
Garson, Helen S. Truman Capote. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
Reed, Kenneth T. Truman Capote. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Truman Capote said "timliness" was important to writing good creative journalism.
"[Y]ou want to be reasonably certain that the material not soon 'date,'"
he said. Almost fourty years after In Cold Blood's first publication,
does the book still possess an element of "timeliness"?
How does Truman Capote use interviews to narrate the story in In Cold
Blood? Besides interviews, what items/techniques does the author use
to tell the story?
Describe how Capote uses the techniques of screenwriting and elements of
film narration in In Cold Blood? Does the book read like a movie
In Cold Blood is divided into four parts. Discuss how each part
is like a "short story within a short story."
Does Truman Capote incorporate local color-style writing in In
Cold Blood? Discuss how the author depicts places and sets events in
context of the storyline.