The Beginnings of New Journalism: Capote’s In Cold Blood

capote2.jpgTalk has recent­ly focused on the pass­ing of Nor­man Mail­er, a nov­el­ist remem­bered for many things. As The New York Times put it, he was “a prodi­gious drinker and drug tak­er, a wom­an­iz­er, a devot­ed fam­i­ly man, a would-be politi­cian who ran for may­or of New York, a hip­ster exis­ten­tial­ist, an anti­war pro­test­er, an oppo­nent of women’s lib­er­a­tion and an all-pur­pose feud­er and short-fused brawler, who with the slight­est provo­ca­tion would hap­pi­ly engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and ran­dom punch-throw­ing.” He was, of course, also a nov­el­ist, and, for some, “the great­est nov­el­ist of the sec­ond half of the Amer­i­can cen­tu­ry.” That’s at least how George Pack­er sized him up on his New York­er blog.

For Pack­er, Mail­er achieved his lit­er­ary great­ness when he ven­tured into the realm of “New Jour­nal­ism,” help­ing to cre­ate a new genre that brought fresh lit­er­ary tech­niques to con­ven­tion­al jour­nal­ism and his­tor­i­cal writ­ing. We need only men­tion The Exe­cu­tion­er’s Song, Mail­er’s heav­i­ly-researched account of the exe­cu­tion of Gary Gilmore, that earned him the Pulitzer Prize in fic­tion in 1980.

Although Tom Wolfe offi­cial­ly coined the expres­sion “New Jour­nal­ism” in 1973 (see the book with the same title and relat­ed book review), this lit­er­ary approach was not entire­ly new. Oth­er authors had already writ­ten mas­ter­pieces in the genre but referred to it by dif­fer­ent names. More than any­one else, Tru­man Capote gave form to the genre when he pub­lished In Cold Blood in 1965. Famous­ly cen­tered around the 1959 mur­der of the Clut­ter fam­i­ly in rur­al Kansas, this “non­fic­tion nov­el” was writ­ten to give real­i­ty to some­thing Capote believed for 20 years — that jour­nal­ism was “the most under­es­ti­mat­ed, the least explored of lit­er­ary medi­ums” and that in the right hands “jour­nal­ism, reportage, could be forced to yield a seri­ous new art form,” (See Capote’s inter­view with George Plimp­ton, 1966.)

In Cold Blood orig­i­nal­ly came out in four suc­ces­sive print­ings of The New York­er. And as the cur­rent edi­tor of the mag­a­zine describes it, “peo­ple were lit­er­al­ly chas­ing the deliv­ery trucks down the street.” Quite nice­ly, you can find the first install­ment of the nov­el in the New York­er’s online archive (for free). It cov­ers the first 70 pages of the cur­rent­ly pub­lished book, and here the stage for the rest of the non­fic­tion nov­el is set. To para­phrase a line from the recent film star­ring Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man, it’s in this sec­tion of the nov­el where two Amer­i­c­as col­lide — the qui­et con­ser­v­a­tive Amer­i­ca and its vio­lent under­bel­ly.

Quick after­thought: The New York­er should con­sid­er reprint­ing the four copies of the mag­a­zine which intro­duced In Cold Blood to the world. I imag­ine that copyright/contractual issues might stand in the way. But if they did­n’t, it could be a pret­ty excit­ing media event and read­ing expe­ri­ence.
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