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Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as Literary Journalism

Literary journalism is criticized as being the bad child of “the modern age of media and hype”(Yagoda, “In”). But, looking back through the ages, there are many examples of what is now called literary journalism, or blurring the line between fact and fiction. What has changed ” . . . is not the practice of literary journalism but expectations about truth” (“In”).

In Postmodern American Fiction, the editors make the point that Truman Capote’s ” In Cold Blood (1965) illustrates how the postmodern inclination to blur the boundary between standard journalism and fiction could itself create a new layer of narrative tension within the bounds of the tradition novel”(125). According to Yagoda, though, this isn’t a new trend.

Yagoda cites Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel, A Journal of the Plague Year. It was supposedly the account of a resident of London during The Great Plague, 1664-1665. In 1664 Defoe was four-years-old. He used history to create the fictional journal, making the story a little more personal (“In”).

Yagoda also uses Thucydides as an example. In Book I of his history of the Peloponnesian Wars, the author writes, “As to the speeches which were made either before or during the war, it was hard for me, and for others who reported them to me, to recollect the exact words. I have therefore put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasion, expressed as I thought he would be likely to express them” (“In”).

These two examples, and there are many more that could be added to this list, show that literary journalism isn’t new, nor is it the product of media hype. The thing that is new is the how truthful the author is about his fabrications.

One of the first things a journalism student learns is to attribute anything that is not known fact. With the publishing of In Cold Blood, Capote was lauded for his, ” . . . meticulous accuracy and total recall, which obviated the need for not taking notes” (“In”). Capote used his journalistic skills, and, because he didn’t attribute anything to anyone, the story became fiction.

It was the beginning of many such books by journalists. The list includes Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra, The Last Brother by Joe McGinniss, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (which is considered non-fiction although the author has said he made up some conversations and messed with the chronology).

Mix of Journalism and Fiction in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

In his novel, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote attempts to create a new form of writing, a combination of both fiction and journalism. According to Capote he was attempting to create “something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.” Whether or not Capote was successful in this so called “new” form of writing has been debated by numerous critics.

Some critics argue that Capote was being pretentious when he suggested that he had invented the form of writing which blends the fact/fiction barrier. In the Columbia University Forum, Charles Alva Hoyt pointed out that what was called a “new literary genre,” was simply a plain old reinterpretation of the art of writing history. What Mr. Capote thinks he has discovered is already known to the world by a different name: history. History is the art of telling the truth, selectively (so that the reader may not strangle on vast accumulations of data) and gracefully (so that the reader will want to read in the first place).

Another critic who also takes the stance that Capote has invented nothing new is Rebecca West. Despite this criticism, West had nothing but praise for Capote’s way of presenting his character’s as truthfully as possible, while at the same time making them interesting to the reader. In Harper West wrote the following of Capote’s characters; “They speak the words which reporters hear when they interview the participants in prodigious events, and listen with embarrassed ears.” The realness of the character’s dialogue is evident in Myrt Clare’s response to the news of the Clutter family murder. While her speech is colorful enough to command any fiction novel, it also has a ring of truth to it that makes it difficult to decipher whether it is fact or fiction.

“I’m not surprised,” Mrs. Clare said. “When you think how Herb Clutter spent his whole life in a hurry, rushing in here to get his mail with never a minute to say good-morning-and-thank-you-dog, rushing around like a chicken with its head off-joining clubs, running everything, getting jobs maybe other people wanted. And now look-it’s all caught up with him. Well, he won’t be rushing any more.”

While Capote may not have invented a new genre, he certainly is successful in instilling a depth to his characters that the fact driven historian does not.

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