On Capote: Writing is a Dangerous Business

On November 16th, 1959, Truman Capote read a New York Times article with only 300 words that would change his life, and American literature, forever. The article began:

A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged. The father, 48-year-old Herbert W. Clutter, was found in the basement with his son, Kenyon, 15. His wife Bonnie, 45, and a daughter, Nancy, 16, were in their beds. There were no signs of a struggle and nothing had been stolen.

It’s ironic that it’s on American Independence Day that I’m watching Capote, the film of how the book Capote would write transpired.

An early cover from Penguin's release of In Cold Blood.

I’m starting to realize what an important movie it is in my collection, from a million different perspectives, almost all of them to do with writing and what it means to me or what I feel it says about writing.

And in that realization, I found myself at a loss for a brief moment there, “pause” frozen on my screen, pondering what effect Truman Capote’s original book, In Cold Blood, must’ve had on the mindset of America.

The murders themselves, of course, resonated with the country then, but I wonder who, other than Capote, realized what it meant in the adolescence of his country. These days, it would seem he was ahead of the pack in those observations.

In the five decades since the Clutter Killings, one could say we’ve witnessed the death of the American Dream. With a look across the cultural landscape, one can’t ignore the economic strife America’s battling, the crime that has redefined the geography of the land, and the loss of the Here-vs-There that once existed — the “safe”-country-versus-the-“bad”-city mentality.

Where is the America that existed before it all? Gone, like any culture any other place in the world — a victim of modernity and technology?

About In Cold Blood, Wikipedia says:

The book examines the complex psychological relationship between two parolees, who together commit a mass murder, an act they were not capable of individually. Capote’s book also explores the lives of the victims and the effect of the crime on the community where they lived. In Cold Blood is regarded by critics as a pioneering work of the true crime genre.

It’s safe to say that In Cold Blood was one of the first mass killings in which the rest of the country had to say, “My god, if it could happen to them, it could happen to us.”

With that came fear, a fear that’s forever stained the fabric of America.

Anyone who’s paid attention to USA’s politics since 2001 knows just how destructive it can be to adapt to life under a regime of fear.

Well, by 1960, America had inklings of what “fear” was. It was the time of McCarthy and the Cold War, and a decade-plus of post-Holocaust reality that, out there, Evil existed.

And now, with the handiwork of killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the fear lived at home, too.

Capote’s true-crime masterwork is a book widely accepted to be a jumping-off point for what fine literature was able to do to real-life on the pages.* In it, a real and tangible look was given into the headspace of these killers — one of whom had very much the same sort of horrible childhood of abandonment and abuse as Capote, offering this brilliant author the opportunity to internally juxtapose the life he’d been able to create for himself despite his tragic beginnings, versus the horror Smith wreaked upon others as a result of his own.

And that, friends, is often what brilliant writing is — the seeking of truth in everything, and the ability to own it within yourself. The inability to do the latter in a lasting way, however, can be devastating to a writer, and Capote’s decline should be a warning to all writers.

Reading In Cold Blood was a defining point in my life as a writer/reader. True life’s tragedies could be rendered in beautiful language that conveyed so much more than just photographic evidence of its horrors.

I doubt it was Capote’s work alone that stirred a new consciousness of the possibility of Evil Within amongst Americans — much of society was headed in that direction at the time, powered by media and politicans.

But Capote did what I love that good writers can do: Through a seemingly miniscule event, he correctly understood the quickening pulse of his country, and that this event — a seemingly small rural tragedy, buried a few pages into the newspaper on his morning read — was something that spoke of a world to come, of changes that loomed in his country’s previously untouchable heartland.

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As much as this film makes me want to be a writer, it terrifies me — the price it suggests one would pay for being great seems far too high.

Capote, I feel, was destroyed by his subject (and himself).

A young Truman Capote by Irving Penn.

With his book’s success bound to his subject’s journey to the electric chair, and his need to understand the parallels in their lives, Truman Capote slipped into depression and guilt. He almost certainly was traumatized by the reality that he knew Smith’s execution was necessary for his book to be the brilliance it could be.

Deep down inside, I’m sure Capote realized having Smith living would contradict the “truths” the writer would write in the book, that it might be dangerous to his masterwork’s longevity. No one wants to think like that, but I guarantee you the thought would occur to any intelligent writer. What if…

Today, speculation does exist that Capote fictionalized entire passages of what was boasted to be true in every word. Evidence of the fictionalizing has been hard to come by.

Having that “what if” of execution work out in your favour — guaranteeing the “truthfulness” of what would be your masterwork — standing there to bear witness as the noose snaps the neck of the man who is all that’s wedged between you and literary immortality, that must induce some pretty horrific guilt-laden realities for a writer.

In the end, it took him 4 years to write the book, and 18 years to drink himself to death before his 60th birthday in 1984.

The book came out in ’65, and Capote became somewhat a mockery of himself within the next seven years. He would never again write anything considered “great” and, by 1978, was comfortably threatening suicide on national television, the punchline of many a joke.

I believe, ultimately, that his willingness to go as far as he could to write about those murders and to draw parallels between his life and the life of Perry Smith is what drove him into his alcoholic haze that choked the greatness from him.

Writing is a dangerous business.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The choices we make of holes to dig and skeletons to reveal, they define who we writers are in that moment and who we’ll become down the line. Writers must accept that these words they trifle with hold powers they maybe don’t expect, and the journeys taken to weave words can burrow deep into a writer.

Some opened doors will never be closed.

Capote couldn’t close his, so he drank to numb the opened doors away.

One could say he should have truly dived into the abandonment he felt as a child — that he was only comfortable peeling away the truths about others but terrified what doing so might reveal of him.

After all, he was an openly gay Southern man when being gay still meant being “one of them”. He was an outsider, born poor, spent a lonely childhood never belonging anywhere, and found his solace in writing.

When he stopped pushing envelopes and didn’t publish anything of significance beyond In Cold Blood, I would suspect he lost that solace and instead felt as though he had betrayed some part of who he was.

Not having been true in life and now not on the page, I’m certain Capote probably felt like a fraud and found himself seeing life through the eyes of Perry Smith, believing he could never really belong where he socially was perceived to be.

In my lowly opinion, the greatest, most tragic men in “big” American literature in the last 100 years were Hemingway, Capote, and Hunter S. Thompson.**

Each searched for an ideal, a life they felt obliged to enjoy or a dream they held about Their America and what the modern world could be. Each never found what they sought. Each engineered his own demise.

Ironically, though, Capote did achieve what he sought — the execution of a man he fell in love with after identifying with everything that made Smith the monster America believed him to be, a monster Capote possibly wondered if he himself had inside — and it gave him the book he dreamed he could write, solidified his placed as a master of American English literature, and it is, one could argue, that achievement (and guilt for it) which destroyed him.

Writing is a dangerous business.

*Some would argue too that Capote’s take on the killings romanticized and even justified the murders from a sociological point of view, and that the “literary” non-fiction approach may have led to the erosion of facts and journalistic irresponsibility. These aren’t entirely wrong, nor right.

**Without getting into a lengthy debate with hugely relevant but lesser-knowns like David Foster Wallace & John Kennedy Toole. Just of the “big scene” American writers.