Modern Journalism 1914 - Present


 
All American
>Modern America
 

Notable Works
 * Some of Capote's stories were adapted for stage and screen. Highlighted selections contain links to information about these works.

Events

1924: born in New Orleans
1939: begins submitting short stories to literary quarterlies
1942: begins work for the New Yorker
1945: “Miriam,” published in Mademoiselle
1951: starts working in theater
1984: dies of a heart attack at 59

Resources

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.

Links

Truman Capote: A Black + White Tribute is a wonderful webpage featuring black and white photos of the writer and exerpts from his various books.

American Masters is a website with information about Truman Capote and his work. It includes a timeline and other resources.

One 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.

In Cold Blood - The Movie
is detailed on the Internet Movie Database.

Updated November 12, 2001
© Mark Canada, 2001
mark.canada@uncp.edu

Truman Capote                         1924-1984

By James Bass
Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

Introduction

      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 of art. 

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 means (Plimpton). 
      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 The 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 to Breakfast 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 The 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). 

Works Cited

Primary:

Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Vintage, 1965 

Plimpton, George. "The Story Behind A Nonfiction Novel" 6 Jan. 1966 New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-interview.html>
 

Secondary:
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988. 

Connery, Thomas B. ed.  A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers In An Emerging Genre. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992. 

Garson, Helen S. Truman Capote. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. 

Reed, Kenneth T. Truman Capote. Boston: Twayne, 1981. 

Study Questions

  • 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 at times?
  • 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.
 

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