The Warmth of Cold Blood – Literature of Journalism Class

“In Cold Blood” is a subjectively composed non-fiction novel. Throughout Capote’s word choice, style and character development, it is evident that he delicately arranged the light in which each character appears. He explicitly states in his interview with George Plimpton that he used his own comments “manipulate” the reader, rearranging passages to “set the reader straight.” This concept is not new. Fabricating minor details to create suspense is not new. What is new, however, is Capote’s tragic character development and his ability to leave you wondering who the real victim is and ultimately what greater crime was committed.

In Plimpton’s interview with Capote, he asks how the author maintained his objectivity without presenting his own point of view, to which Capote responds, “I could have included other views,” adding, “Perry’s happens to be the one I believe is the right one.” In journalistic reporting, it is expected that the objective reporter does not pick a “right” character, instead they allow the facts to speak for themselves. However, in journalism reporting, as we discussed in class, it is also likely that the “right” voice is the voice of authority, the one behind the particular newspaper’s funding. By casting Perry in an unexpected, favorable light, Capote inserts a level of subjectivity that upsets many critics, but amazes others (I find myself in the latter group).

Helliker hypocritically uses subjective diction in his article, damning Capote for highlighting, to an “unacceptable” degree, the influence of Mr. Dewey in the book. In the sentence before his condemnation, he uses the phrase “bloody slaughter,” to describe the murder of the Clutter family. In order to maintain a journalistic amount of objectivity, such pejorative imagery should be avoided. In my opinion, Helliker and the article from the Lawrence Journal-World are missing the point of “In Cold Blood.” Capote’s point is not to unbiasedly report the murder of the Clutter family, but to present the antagonist, the killer, the undeniable villain, in an empathy-provoking manner, shedding light on the injustices of 1950s American capitalism. This was Capote’s groundbreaking contribution.

Amy Standen calls Capote’s work, “the best true-crime novel you’ll never put down.” She is completely correct in characterizing “In Cold Blood” as a true-crime tale of masterful manipulation and meticulous reporting. Similarly, George Garrett begins his article with a quote about experience rather than memory, emphasizing that Capote’s work was unique because of his experience with the characters, not the minute details of his reporting. Capote’s book was not about his 90 (or 95%) perfect memory or his ability to play nicely with the police. This book was, above all else, a paradox. A tale that focused both on the American dream and the American nightmare.

Capote eloquently captured Perry’s long and miserable tumble to rock bottom. His “ear for Smith, and for all the disappointment of Smith’s life,” was revolutionary, as no one had vocalized such interest in the mind of a killer (Standen). The depth of psychosis, the effect of schizophrenia and childhood abuse were emphasized throughout this novel. Perry’s diagnosis, in fact, takes up eight straight pages in the last section of the book, not to mention the large pieces, throughout the book, dedicated to his accounts, relationships and dreams. Capote was as interested, if not more interested, in the murderers instead of the physical murder.

As discussed in class, the murder itself is a one-time act, a melodramatic blood splatter that changed small-town America for decades to come. The tragedy of Perry Smith, the “empathetic and fascinating look at a murder’s psyche” is by-far the most interesting component of this story (Garrett). This book was not named, “The Clutter Family Tragedy,” because it focuses instead on the psychology of crime and the tale of a fascinating, senseless murder performed “In Cold Blood.” Capote used narrative non-fiction to turn the reader’s sympathy from the all-American Clutter family, to the underrepresented, underbelly of America: American poverty.

Critics like Jack De Bellis argue that Capote faced a strain between his “intellectual strategy and the emotional reality he faced.” While I agree Capote may have been overly ambitious in his strive for 100% accuracy, I think the greater goal was accomplished masterfully. While he may have changed punctuation or grammatical mistakes, the over-reaching theme of the book was powerful and influential. The collision between the “daylight world” and the “nocturnal…dangerous, psychotic element” (Bellis) was described with uncompromising patience, achieving a level of empathy unachievable in traditional journalistic reporting.

Hersey was criticized for being too objective, presenting characters as a spectacle rather than multi-dimensional humans. Capote was criticized for doing the opposite, focusing too much on their personal attributes and internal struggles to be considered a true non-fiction novelist (Bellis). These two authors created separate works of narrative non-fiction, with opposing levels of subjectivity and objectivity. However, they both used real-people to describe real-events, focusing on the unlucky, rather than the usual authority figures and wealthy contributors.

I think “In Cold Blood” accurately depicts Perry’s qualities as a tragic hero, highlighting his demise into insanity. Capote’s intimate and personal involvement adds to the book, rather than taking away from it. While I understand the need for accuracy, I think if Capote had boasted more about his character development than his ability to memorize and recite minute facts, there would be no worthy critics against “In Cold Blood.”

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