Couldn't resist the urge to read more about Truman Capote after seeing the film Capote—and its superb, Oscar-winning performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role—for the second time recently. Specifically, I was interested in Capote's writing of In Cold Blood (the main subject of the movie) and how accurate that book actually was.
Capote, for his part, called the book a "nonfiction novel." In the absence of a detailed author's note on methodology, that squishy label leaves the reader, in my view, walking on quicksand throughout, never knowing quite what to believe is factually accurate and what is artistic license—the case with so much creative nonfiction today.
To try to get a gauge on things, I read the solid, very readable 1988 biography by Gerald Clarke, who writes that In Cold Blood was, for the most part, quite accurate, and that Capote had truly worked hard on his research. According to Clarke, the fact-checker at The New Yorker assigned to check the book's accuracy said Capote was the most accurate of the many New Yorker writers he had worked with, including A.J. Liebling, Richard Rovere and Lillian Ross. "In Cold Blood may have been written like a novel," Clarke writes, "but it is accurate to the smallest detail. … Although it has no footnotes, [Capote] could point to an obvious source for every remark uttered and every thought expressed."
On the other hand, Clarke says, " … Truman did give way to a few small inventions and at least one major one … and In Cold Blood is the poorer for it." The major invention involved Capote's decision to conclude the book with a happier scene than the murderers' executions. Where did he get this scene? He made it up. It involved a chance, springtime encounter between the lead police detective on the case, Alvin Dewey, and the best friend of the one of the murdered victims.
According to a quick Internet check, additional questions about Capote's accuracy have been raised in the years since Clarke's biography. A more recent comment comes from critic Thomas Mallon in his review in The New Yorker of Clarke's collection of Capote letters that came out in 2004. "And yet, with this collection of letters, as with each biography that has come along," Mallon writes, "the fictional quotient of Capote's 'nonfiction novel' has to be revised upward … the effect of these small revelations is always dismaying, and diminishing. The more artistry we espy, the less artistic seems the book, which Capote always touted as a miracle of scrupulosity."
For more on this, see the useful discussion at The Generalist blog.
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