Truman Capote, Nonfiction Novelist


ENG 343: The American Novel

Lesson 9: Truman Capote, Nonfiction Novelist
Nov. 18-22, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Summarize the life and literary contributions of Truman Capote.
  • Insightfully discuss characters, themes, and other features of In Cold Blood.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: Write a brief news article about the Clutter murders.  How does your journalistic account differ from Capote’s novel?

Presentation: Truman Capote, Nonfiction Novelist (Professor Canada)

Presentations by Lance Floyd, Claire Secrist, Jennifer Hicks, and Jason Hester

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, presentations, and cooperative learning.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.


Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:

  • New Journalism
  • nonfiction novel


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the following:


All American: Truman Capote features a biographical sketch, commentary on Capote’s work, a chronology, and links.


Updated November 15, 2002
© Mark Canada, 2002


After your encounter with Richard Wright’s Native Son last week, our study of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood may inspire some feelings of déjà vu.  Both novels describe grisly murders, explore the personalities of the killers, and feature plots inspired by real events.  Whereas Wright wrote a traditional fictional treatment of his event, however, Capote produced what he called a “nonfiction novel.”


Truman Capote, 1924-1984


Like Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Ernest Hemingway, and many other American writers, Truman Capote wrote both journalism and literature.  Working for The New Yorker in the 1940s and early 1950s, he wrote several travel pieces, including “The Muses Are Heard.”  Beginning with Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), Capote also produced several works of literature, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958).  His most notable contribution to either journalism or literature, however, came when he put them together.  In Cold Blood (1965), his account of a mass murder in Kansas, is what Capote called a “nonfiction novel,” a book that employs the conventions of fiction to tell a true story.  Thanks to this book, Capote has come to be considered one of the pioneers of a movement that Tom Wolfe would later call “New Journalism.”


The American South—a literary hothouse that had already produced William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, and a host of other important writers—produced another when Truman Streckfus Persons was born on September 30, 1924, in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Like both Wolfe and Wright, furthermore, Capote was part of a troubled family.  He spent a substantial portion of his childhood apart from his parents, living for part of this time with aunts and cousins in Monroeville, Alabama, where he became friends with a girl named Harper Lee.  Years later, Lee would draw on the experience in writing her novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), which features a character, Dill Harris, modeled after her childhood friend.  Indeed, the two were friends in adulthood, as well, and even worked together on In Cold Blood.  When he was a teenager, Persons rejoined his mother, who was then living in New York City with her new husband, Joe Capote.  Taking on his stepfather’s name, he became Truman Capote in 1935.  In 1942, he went to work for The New Yorker, eventually becoming a writer for the magazine.  Over the next several years, he produced both journalism and literature; along with the travel pieces he wrote for The New Yorker and other journalistic articles, he wrote Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), The Grass Harp (1951), Beat the Devil (1954), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958).  His career took an important turn in 1959 when he read a newspaper article about the murders of four family members in Holcomb, Kansas.  Capote decided to go to Holcomb, where he began conducting research for a book.  Six years later, that book appeared.  In Cold Blood, which told the stories of both the murders and the murderers, was a sensation, as well as an innovative and important work of literature.  Capote would never top this achievement, though he did write other books over the remaining 19 years of his life.  Some of these books include Music for Chameleons (1981) and Answered Prayers (1986).  He died of a heart attack in 1984.



In our final lesson, we will take a look at a novel from our own time: Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter.