Writing history: Capote's novel has lasting effect on journalism
By Van Jensen - Special to the Journal-World
April 3, 2005
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."
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"Certainly it's an important book," Hart said, "to demonstrate that the literary techniques of a novel could be applied to narrative journalism."
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.' "