Writing history: Capote’s novel has lasting effect on journalism

Madeleine Blais teaches Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” in journalism classes because it is compelling and beautiful, she said, a masterpiece.

She uses the book to show her students at the University of Massachusetts what journalism can be, how it can reach past the ordinary. How it can blend the reportage of fact with the writing style of fiction.

” ‘In Cold Blood’ is something miraculous,” Blais said, “an alchemy that should not have been possible. (Capote) had indeed turned reality into a kind of fiction.”

This is half of the legacy of Capote’s great book. Published in 1965, it helped show journalists the possibility of using creative writing techniques while holding to the guidelines of journalism; something now commonly seen not only in books but also in magazines and newspapers — where many view the style as crucial to keeping readers.

But in writing the book, Capote blurred the line between truth and untruth, despite his claims of impeccable accuracy. His embellishments — which vary from allegedly misquoting people to making composite characters to ending the book with a scene that never happened — have bred ill will from some in the book who felt falsely portrayed and distrust from readers who, upon learning of Capote’s changes, are left to wonder where reality ends and fiction begins.

And in today’s media environment, in which Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Stephen Glass of the New Republic have come under fire in recent years for falsifying portions of stories, the challenges to “In Cold Blood” are all the more relevant, said Jack Hart, a managing editor and narrative expert at The Oregonian, Portland’s daily newspaper.

But, with “In Cold Blood” about to turn 40 years old, those leading the movement once known as “new journalism” agree that the book deserves to be remembered for its contributions to the genre as well as for its faults.

“Certainly it’s an important book,” Hart said, “to demonstrate that the literary techniques of a novel could be applied to narrative journalism.”

Nonfiction novel

Capote believed he had written more than an important book. It was a completely new form of writing, he said.

“It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it … Journalism is the most underestimated, the least explored of literary mediums,” Capote said in a 1966 interview with The New York Times.

The book took the form of a novel, featuring set scenes, characters, a distinctive voice and a story formed with an introduction, rising action, climax and resolution — the real events surrounding the murder of the Herb Clutter family shaped into a storyline.

In correspondence from Capote recently published in the book “Too Brief a Treat,” he said that the five years he spent on “In Cold Blood” taxed him more than any writing he had ever done. Writing about such brutal murders left him “limp and numb and, well, horrified.”

“I’ll tell you something: every morning of my life I throw up because of the tensions created by the writing of this book,” Capote wrote in a 1961 letter to Alvin Dewey Jr., the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who became the book’s protagonist. “But it’s worth it; because it’s the best work I’ve done.”

Earning an estimated $2 million in its first year, “In Cold Blood” garnered financial as well as critical success for its author. Capote’s creation, after all, had proved worth the effort and, he said, brought forth a new genre of writing.

But not everyone agreed Capote could claim to have created the style.

His contemporaries, such as Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, included Capote’s work as part of “new journalism” — Wolfe’s term, coined in the mid-1960s, to describe a movement of creative writing in journalism.

Others put the origin much earlier.

In his introduction to “Literary Journalism,” a compilation of articles of narrative journalism he co-edited, narrative expert Mark Kramer traced it back as far as Daniel Defoe’s writing in the 1700s, followed by that of Mark Twain in the 19th century and other writers such as James Agee, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross and John Steinbeck in the period around World War II.

“You can find a lot of earlier examples,” said Kramer, who serves as director of the Nieman Foundation Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard. “It’s silly, that kind of claim.”

Still, Kramer said, Capote’s accomplishments should overshadow his boastful nature. Although Capote might not have created a new type of literature, historians of the form agree he played a crucial role in reviving it.

A “true account”

In his Jan. 16, 1966, review of “In Cold Blood” in The New York Times, Conrad Knickerbocker called the book, “a remarkable, tensely exciting, moving, superbly written ‘true account.’ “

Beyond Knickerbocker’s praise, notice the quotation marks around “true account.”

Shortly after the book’s publication, challenges to Capote’s assertions of absolute accuracy began to arise.

Critics found discrepancies between “In Cold Blood” and official documents, such as the transcript of the murder trial. And people who appear in the book — such as Duane West, the former Finney County prosecutor who tried the case — contended that they had been portrayed unjustly or misquoted.

As time passed, more instances of Capote’s fictionalization came to light.

The Rev. James Post, who served as chaplain of the Kansas State Penitentiary when killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were there, said in an interview with George Plimpton that he had met with Hickock’s son a few years after the killers were executed.

“I didn’t minimize the horrible things that he’d done or anything like that,” Post said. “But I said his dad wasn’t the sex fiend that Capote tried to make him out … like trying to rape the Clutter girl before he killed her … it didn’t happen. And other things … lies, just to make it a better story.”

Dewey, who other people close to the case said Capote made into a composite law enforcement character, later said the final scene of the book, in which he visits the graves of the Clutter family and talks with Nancy Clutter’s friend Susan Kidwell, did not happen.

Although Capote never publicly addressed any changes beyond “slight editing,” privately he did.

In a letter from “Too Brief a Treat” sent to Smith’s friend Donald Cullivan, Capote asked whether he could use Cullivan to represent himself in a scene detailing a conversation between the author and the killer in Smith’s prison cell.

Capote’s changes were not without impact.

West, along with others in Holcomb and Garden City, are still angry at Capote about the book. Garden City native Jon Craig wrote a senior history thesis at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., about how the mistakes of “In Cold Blood” negatively affected members of those communities, noting that a number of changes added to the book artistically but stripped away the truth.

The surviving daughters of Herb and Bonnie Clutter — Beverly English and Eveanna Mosier — might be most affected by the book’s inaccuracies. They expressed anger about Capote’s description of their mother as an invalid, something they and others close to the Clutters contend was not true.

Such changes affect readers as well.

They lessen readers’ trust of all journalists and erode the impact of individual works, Kramer said.

Critics also have challenged Capote’s reporting technique. He never took notes during interviews for the book. He claimed he could memorize what people said and recall it with 95 percent accuracy, something he said he had trained himself to do by memorizing names in phone books and passages of books.

In Cold Blood’s legacy

If written today, “In Cold Blood” would not be published without significant changes, Blais, from the University of Massachusetts, said.

“One of the ways in which literary journalism has evolved is that … his book would not get published without end notes or some kind of elaborate acknowledgment of his sources and his information techniques,” she said.

“Transparency,” as many in media now call it, has become one of the most crucial elements of mixing creative writing with journalism.

At The Oregonian, Hart said: “We attribute anything we didn’t observe directly; how we know what we know. A lot of editors have pushed for strict guidelines.

“My opinion is, everything’s fair as long as the writer lets the readers know (what changes he or she makes).”

Although newspapers and magazines are typically strict about accuracy, Hart said, narrative journalism in book form is often less so.

“Books are all over the map,” he said. “Publishers don’t even care.”

But, leaders in the genre said, readers still expect the same honest approach from authors of books that they do from newspaper or magazine articles.

Even though Capote said “In Cold Blood’s” purpose was to test the artistic merit of journalism, many have found worthwhile social issues within it. Some have used it to debate the value of the death penalty; others praise it for its insight into the criminal mind; and many see in it commentary on social divisions.

“It provides such a stunning picture of the disconnect still much in evidence in our society between decent families like the Clutters and the underclass,” Blais said. “Perry Smith in particular came from the kind of endangered background that just about axiomatically produces children who become dangerous.”

According to a study by the Readership Institute, a group at Northwestern University that researches ways to increase newspaper readership, readers learn more from stories written in narrative form.

So in journalism classes such as those Blais teaches, students will learn about a writing style that reaches beyond standard reporting and writing. At the University of Massachusetts and other universities, that will include reading “In Cold Blood.”

But students will read it not only as an example of how to weave together a story with extensive reporting and deft writing; they will learn the other half.

“I always make note of the challenges to this book’s truthfulness,” Blais said, “because otherwise the students would not have a truthful picture of it and its legacy.”