Vision and Revisions: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood

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Author: Jack De Bellis
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 3,846 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1050L

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"Vision and Revisions: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 7, No. 3, September, 1979, pp. 519-36.

[In the following excerpt, De Bellis discusses the balance between fact and fantasy in In Cold Blood. ]

When Truman Capote serialized In Cold Blood in The New Yorker in autumn 1965, no one imagined that his much-heralded "nonfiction novel" was an unpolished work. Yet a comparison of the magazine edition and publication by Random House ten weeks later reveals that Capote made nearly five-thousand changes, ranging from crucial matters of fact to the placement of a comma. Since Capote claimed that his new art form contained not only perfect factual accuracy, but "the poetic altitude fiction is capable of reaching," his own intentions did not seem precisely clear. However, few people questioned Capote's assertion of complete accuracy. No one, of course, suggested that Capote's style might be deficient. Yet careful analysis of The New Yorker and Random House editions reveals that a great many doubts lingered in the author's mind after he had committed his six-year work to print. Many of his changes seem so personal that they are incomprehensible. The impression persists that he could not resist re-examining his research and his style. And since many of the things changed in the Random House edition originally appeared in "official records" and numerous interviews conducted entirely without aid of recorders or pencils, it is all the more surprising that they might be subject to revision....

The most interesting revisions in the "non-fiction novel" are those purporting to correct factual errors. Capote altered numerical counts, for example, changing the number of churches in Garden City from twenty-two to twenty-eight, and giving detective Dewey eighteen assistants rather than seventeen. Times, directions, and places were also altered. In The New Yorker Perry was paroled in the summer, but the time is spring in revision. The killers are east of Holcomb, not northeast. The site of a murder shifts from Tampa to Tallahassee, momentarily implicating the killers in another crime. Utah is subtracted from the list of states the fugitives crossed Capote changes product titles, offering "Miller High Life" for "Miller's High Life" and "The Topeka Daily Capital" for "The Topeka Capital."... Naturally, such specificity gives In Cold Blood "persuasiveness of fact," but it also raises questions about the accuracy of the narrative, since The New Yorker version was ostensibly accurate to begin with.

Of more importance, perhaps, are changes contributing to characterization. Although Smith's brother originally "killed his wife one day and himself the next," Capote clears him of murder in the Random House version. In fact, Smith's sister-in-law had placed a shotgun to her head and triggered it with her big toe. Capote's comment that Myrtle Clare dresses like a man is deleted from Random House. Although Mrs. Helm was originally described as the family housekeeper and confidante of Bonnie Clutter, this was deleted....

The richest character changes, however, are naturally those involving Smith and Hickock. When Hickock observes Smith staring in a mirror, he accuses him of looking at a "woman" originally, but a "piece of butt" in Random House. During his first interrogation Hickock refers to "Virgin Lane" but calls this "Cherry Row" in revision. Capote gives him queries not in the serialization when he has him ask a whore, "Is it good, baby? Is it good?" More extensive, though, are Capote's revisions of Smith. Originally he described Smith's reactions to fellow-prisoner Lee Andrews this way: "Was it any wonder he never opened his mouth? Andrews meant well, but Perry couldn't stand him—yet for a long time he did not admit it." Revision changes the tone of Smith's reaction: "Better to keep your mouth shut than to risk one of the college kid's snotty lines, like: `Don't say disinterested. When what you mean is uninterested.' Andrews meant well, he was without malice, but Perry could have boiled him in oil—yet he never admitted it." Does "boiled him in oil" clarify the precise quality of Smith's feeling as he experienced it? Or is Capote attempting to vivify Smith's character by showing the close relation in Smith's mind between violence and his intellectual insecurity? As we shall see, revisions in the character of Smith offer clues about why Capote failed in his intention to write a "nonfiction novel."

Elsewhere, Capote diminishes characterization by deleting details, removing, for example, his depiction of Hickock as "pallid as a funeral lily." Although the magazine revealed Judge Tate's lips "curved downward, his eyes blazed," the Judge simply "scowls" in the Random House edition. Repeatedly, Capote removes all remarks which might draw attention to himself in order to provide more "objective" reporting....

Simple substitution of single words often allowed Capote a more vivid characterizing detail. Hickock's lips do not "move" but "writhe" on revision when he spots Floyd Wells in court. Smith is coarsened by the simple addition, "Shit." On the other hand, Capote augments Smith "hurried on" to "Smith's pencil sped almost indecipherably."...

Of course such interest in arriving at the mot juste touches all aspects of In Cold Blood. Apparently to create a less formal tone he changed "lugubrious" to "mournful"; "encompassed" to "included"; "festooned" to "trimmed"; and "not unbrave" to "no coward." Other changes are less comprehensible: "photographers" to "cameramen"; "engine" to "motor"; "roadworker" to "Highway employee"; and "khaki" to "suntans." ... To say "alternative" rather than "alternate" jurors were selected is to import an error into the Random House version. But the view of the jurors retiring to "determine" rather than "discuss" the verdict corrects an original mistake.

Such attention to nuances of meaning enables Capote to defamiliarize his characters by referring, for example, to the killers as Smith and Hickock, rather than Perry and Dick, particularly after their capture. Likewise, Judge Tate becomes simply "the Judge," and the sarcasm of "specimens" is dispelled by the neutral "townsfolk." Perhaps the possibility of rhyme suggested the alteration from "crimes of violence" to "ill deeds," since Capote had written that country lawyer Fleming "was more happily at home with land deeds than ill deeds." Again, the result is distance....

In most revisions involving syntax changes, Capote, as expected, improves his work; yet a surprising amount of indecision surfaces concerning sentence fluidity and punctuation. Reducing simple awkwardness and redundancy, he changed "The young girls described certain observations they had made," to "the young girls described what they saw." Improving an effect by repetition, he alters "The state stopped him there, and it halted Cullivan too" to "The state stopped him there, and stopped Cullivan too." Capote tidies referents to improve syntactical relations: "the daughter of the subject" becomes "Mrs. Johnson." But syntax is contorted by the addition of a needless "as": "the journalist was as equally well acquainted with Smith as he was with Hickock." The first "as" had been added. Another revision creates more problems than it solves: "his intelligence, the formal quality of his college training" becomes "the formal quality of his college-trained intelligence." This suggests that "intelligence" can be "trained" and that this can be detected in some vague "formal quality," while assuming what is obscure, that a logical relation exists between "formal quality," "training," and "intelligence." ... Although Norman Mailer has praised Capote for writing the best sentences "rhythm upon rhythm" among living authors, such peculiar errors in revision call into question Capote's sense of style.

Although he made few grammatical changes, some that he did make caused problems occasionally. Revisions of the conditional were frequent but inconsistent. He corrects a mistake in the use of "lay" and "lie" and alters the movement of tenses during Smith's confession from past to present. In one quoted passage his alteration of voice entirely changes the meaning: "Margaret Edna attracted him" became "was attracted to him," shifting the emphasis of admiration from Hickock to his wife....

[Whether] or not a change is due simply to typographical error is difficult to establish clearly.... Certainly some of the changes which might be attributed to initial error are actually a result of Capote's editorial decisions. He has made changes in nineteen cases involving direct quotations. Therefore, these changes, some of which are obviously errors, create problems when we attempt to discover the special contribution he made toward a new art form in which every word would be true.... Because the evidence does not allow us to decide with certainty whether a change is made because of typographical error or because of editorial decision, we are precluded from establishing an authoritative text in these cases.

Turning now to Capote's handling of punctuation, we find his primary goal repeatedly realized: to increase formality. Hence, Capote prefers the colon to the comma before quotations, as well as the colon followed by the semi-colon after items in series, rather than dashes followed by commas. Dashes regularly become commas, semi-colons, colons, or even periods. Parentheses replace dashes, as do single quotes when sobriquets are indicated. Dashes, however, replace the sequence of dots to indicate deleted matter. Quotation marks are uniformly deleted in diary entries, letters, signs, and headlines. Movie and book titles formerly placed in quotes are now italicized. Quoted material is frequently paraphrased. His deletions of punctuation created a more rapidly-paced narrative. Commas are removed after introductory clauses, phrases, and words, as well as after final items in a series. He discontinues commas for appositions and interruptors. Sometimes their deletion creates comma splices or obscures meaning, as in: "And that, freedom apart [,] was what he most desired." Elsewhere, Capote deletes the comma for sentence rhythm: "Hickock consented to take the test [,] and so did Smith." Comma reduction helps improve sentence rhythms, as in: "Fleming, who was seventy-one, was a former mayor of Garden City, a short man who habitually enlivened an unsensational appearance with rather conspicuous neck-wear. He resisted the assignment." In the Random House edition this becomes: "Fleming, seventy one, a former may or of Garden City, a short man who enlivens an unsensational appearance with rather conspicuous neckwear, resisted the assignment" (R: 257). The removal of an inert "to be" verb, the decision to change to past tense, to drop "habitually," and the suggestion of cause and effect between Fleming's age, height, and appearance with his resistance to the assignment are facilitated by the blending of ideas actuated by the comma before the final clause....

Additions in punctuation almost entirely concern commas, especially when clarifying apposition. Otherwise, Capote corrects mistakes in the apostrophe, as in "counsels'." He even deletes an apostrophe in a letter from Smith's father, ending "All's well with me," which becomes "Alls." Since Capote tells us that Smith destroyed his father's note at once, one wonders how Capote was able to decide to delete the apostrophe. My assumption throughout, of course, has been that, because of Capote's celebrated method of interviewing, his interviewees gave him no notes in their own hand.

Capote's most consistent practice is the addition of the hyphen, particularly in "T-shirt." Though usually spelled "T shirt" in The New Yorker, Capote adds the hypen not only in his narration, but in Smith's police statement. Since Smith's statement was undoubtedly recorded orally and then transcribed by a court reporter, why should Capote have allowed such an interpolation to overrule his own professional stylistic sensitivity? Curiously, he adds a hyphen to "pre-emptory," which is not only incorrect but misspelled, as it had been in The New Yorker. Other minor additions include the employment of italics for store names, Latin phrases, and boat names and the use of quotes for slang words like "shiv."

Although many of Capote's revisions occur in unverifiable quoted sources, his changes in the punctuation and diction in a poem provide a case in which his fastidiousness can be tested. In The New Yorker the ninth stanza of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" appears this way:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

But the Random House edition contains two word changes: "boasts" replaces "boast"; and "await" supplants "awaits." The comma after "pow'r" was deleted from the book as well. However, in all three cases The New Yorker version agrees with the best sources. No edition of the "Elegy" uses "boasts." Did Capote decide to rely on his notes on revising his work, realizing that since the stanza had been given to Hickock by another prisoner its inaccuracies would not be his own responsibility? The reader, finally, cannot be sure which version represents a truthful rendering of what Capote observed. When a breach of trust is created with the reader over such confirmable matters, his doubts begin to gather about other matters of plot, characterization, symbolism, and theme of In Cold Blood. ...

Interesting as these analyses of Capote's revisions may be in themselves, they become more important for the light they cast upon Capote's intentions to contribute to a new art form. Since the best available evidence suggests that five-thousand revisions were crammed into the ten weeks separating the serialization and the Random House publication, Capote's re-examination of his book appears to have been obsessive, perhaps stemming from a fear that his high ambitions were not being realized.

His major claim, of course, was that he had produced a "nonfiction novel." ... In such a genre the subject is of no importance but is merely the "X" in the "quadratic equation" of a "stylistic problem." Capote's special contribution would be the removal of the narrator entirely to provide "vertical interior movement." This forced him to "empathize" with people he otherwise would not have written about. However, I suggest that a strain developed between Capote's intellectual strategy and the emotional reality he faced. And since "emotionality" made him "lose writing control" and his five-year "schizophrenic experience" forced him to live intimately with deliberate cruelty, "the only unforgivable thing," it is no wonder that he described the book as "written on the edge of my nerves." This is scarcely the condition in which to apply "fantastic concentration ... right down to the very comma" in which "any distraction at all is fatal," especially when the ultimate aim is "to have it all perfectly." The strain he faced was most apparent in his handling of Perry Smith, for as Capote has said, "I did identify with him to a great degree. Never did deny it. It's also quite true that my portrait of him is absolutely one hundred per cent the way he was."

The more cautious reviewers of In Cold Blood suggested that verification was needed before Capote's claim to total accuracy could be accepted. F. W. Dupee asserted that "to praise without proof is foolish," and he wondered about Capote's decision to suppress his documentation in the text itself [see excerpt above dated February 3, 1966]. Other commentators wondered why Capote made so elaborate a pretense of holding to the facts and suggested that his sacrifice of the artist's vision was not worth the gain in objective reportage. I would like to pursue this two-pronged criticism, examining first the factual accuracy of the work and then the "distractions" which interfered with his ambitions.

Although Capote prided himself for possessing the equivalent of an auditory photographic memory, he nevertheless conceded that it was not foolproof but at best ninety-percent effective, "and who cares about the other ten percent." This alone would be sufficient to account for errors which even Capote's revisions would not catch. Many other ways can be adduced which import errors into his narrative, yet reliance upon the revisions already examined is sufficient to show that Capote's errors in revision weaken credibility in his method of gathering evidence. But without foundation, such doubt rests on speculative sands. Though one assumes that revisions represent corrections, verifiable evidence might reveal otherwise. And such is, in fact, the case with Capote's handling of the killers' tattoos. Although Capote indentified a snake tattoo on Smith's right arm in The New Yorker and deleted its position in the Random House edition, he placed it on Smith's left arm when later referring to it in the book. Nevertheless, his revision was inaccurate, for the photographs by Richard Avedon of Smith and Hickock show clearly that The New Yorker was right; Smith's snake is on his right arm. Furthermore, a cat design described as being on Hickock's right hand appears on his left hand in Avedon's photograph. Not only does this show that Capote incorrectly revised In Cold Blood, but it reveals that original errors transported from the serialization to the book which could have been corrected fairly easily were never changed. This suggests that Capote was simply unaware of mistakes which even a reader of Life or Newsweek might uncover with little difficulty.

Soon after the publication of the book two reporters sought to verify Capote's handling of facts and found discrepancies. Robert Pearman discovered that Capote erred in his presentation of the sale of Nancy Clutter's horse Babe, reaching for pathos rather than realism. Bobby Rupp told Pearman that Capote mischaracterized him, and Perry Smith confided to undersheriff Meier that the book would contain inaccuracies, saying, "read it and see for yourself."...

The first examiner to study Capote's sources extensively was Philip Tompkins, who uncovered four discrepancies [see excerpt above dated June, 1966]. The most serious involve Perry Smith. Although Capote recorded that the wife of undersheriff Meier heard Smith cry and say, "I am embraced by shame," Mrs. Meier absolutely denied this ever happened when Tompkins re-questioned her. She insisted that she never "told such things to Capote." Besides this disputed scene, witnesses at the execution offered different opinions about Smith's last words. None of the other reporters, editors, or wire-service representatives recorded that Smith said, as Capote indicated, "I apologize." Detective Dewey told Tompkins he was unsure what Smith had said.... Capote himself has said that during Smith's last speaking moments all he could hear was "the roar of blood in my ears." Later Capote stated that Smith was "upset that he didn't have any conscience"; elsewhere he noted that all multiple murderers he had ever interviewed admitted that "they couldn't care less."

Tompkins' discovery that Smith's pathetic plea for sympathy never occurred and Capote's virtual admission that Smith did not feel the apology he records in In Cold Blood suggests that the revisions concerning Perry Smith contain the "poetic altitude fiction is capable of reaching" rather than "the persuasiveness of fact." Perhaps Capote's personal involvement with Smith was the chief reason for his extraordinary number of alterations.

In Cold Blood's first reviewers detected how "uncannily" Smith fit into the pattern of Capote's other characters. Like them he was short-legged and thus grotesque, precocious and childlike, artistic, and irrational. He represented an eruption from the "nocturnal world" delineated in Capote's early stories. He is a dreamer, an androgynous father-seeker like Joel Knox of Other Voices, Other Rooms. Like Holly Golightly he seeks his own morality. Later commentators suggested other parallels. The practice seems reasonable since Capote has said "Perry was a character that was also in my imagination ... [he] could absolutely ... [have stepped] right out of one of my stories."

But various commentators have also asserted that Capote's own relation to Smith weakened his ability to restrain his personal vision.... Capote himself drew attention to their similarity of faces by using the same image, that of the "changeling's face," to describe himself and Smith. In a recurrent dream, Smith is characterized as avenging himself on his enemies in the guise of Perry O'Parsons. Capote's original name was Truman Persons....

[Despite their similarities], Tompkins finds that Smith and Capote differ over the crucial matter of violence. But this leads Tompkins to suggest that Capote labored to shorten the emotional gap which he felt isolated him from Smith by insisting that Smith was only able to kill while in a "schizo-phrenic darkness." Thus, Smith, with whom Capote had come to have "great rapport," could be understood and forgiven.... Tompkins further suggests that Capote could not be true to his basic intention of getting away from his "own particular vision of the world." Capote had found an imaginary toad in his real Kansas garden and chose to convert his scheme so that he might produce an apparently real toad in an apparently real garden. This way he could give the density of reality to images from his nocturnal world....

Yet there is more to the story than Perry Smith, and there may be more to Capote's envelopment, for he tended to conceive of Kansas as symbolic of his "daylight world" of "the good, solid, landed American gentry," "the world of safety." The collision of this world with the nocturnal world "representing the dangerous psychotic element, empty of compassion or conscience," would inevitably produce death. If one wished to speculate that Kansas represented the South in Capote's imagination and could accept the view of Smith as Capote's doppelganger, In Cold Blood then becomes the author's revenge upon the section which gave him the dual vision of his fiction, daylight and nocturnal, and which prompted the extreme tactic of the "nonfiction novel" as a way of release from his psychological bondage to the South. The revenge would be depicted in such a way that the author bore no responsibility for his fantacizing. This fantasy contains an element of the child's imagined revenge upon his parents. But by recording the consequences for Smith and Hickock, Capote recognized society's right to self-protection from the dangerous visionaries it creates and then consciously or unwittingly destroys. Perhaps he saw in Smith's life and death a parable about the serious artist in America. Paradoxically, however, he had to purge himself of his own resentments of the "world of safety" in order to develop as an artist with greater conscious control and wider sympathies. The story called to him at rather deep levels.

Perhaps this is why he said of the Clutters, "They selected me." The "madness of art" had its own reasons, regardless of Capote's need to solve his stylistic quadratic equation. Little wonder he would admit, "I'm still very much haunted by the whole thing. I have finished the book, but in a sense I haven't finished it: it keeps churning around in my head. It particularizes itself now and then, but not in the sense that it brings about a total conclusion." What total conclusion could be possible? The meaning of the experience, like Smith's motives for murder and Capote's reasons for endless revision, may never fully disclose its secrets. If, however, he consciously deceived his public with In Cold Blood, his fate is clear, for Capote has stated, "Perry always said that if I told any lies about him he was going to come back from the grave and kill me."

"Vision and Revisions: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 7, No. 3, September, 1979, pp. 519-36.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2101202386