In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
Nancy’s bedroom was the smallest, most personal room in the house – girlish, and as frothy as a ballerina’s tutu. Walls, ceiling, and everything else except a bureau and a writing desk, were pink or blue or white. The white-and-pink bed, piled with blue pillows, was dominated by a pink-and-white Teddy bear – a shooting-gallery prize that Bobby had won at the county fair. A cork bulletin board, painted pink, hung above a white-skirted dressing table; dry gardenias, the remains of some ancient corsage, were attached to it, and old valentines, newspaper recipes, and snapshots of her baby nephew and of Susan Kidwell and of Bobby Rupp, Bobby caught in a dozen actions – swinging a bat, dribbling a basketball, driving a tractor, wading, in bathing trunks, at the edge of McKinney Lake (which was as far as he dared go, for he had never learned to swim). And there were photographs of the two together – Nancy and Bobby. Of these, she liked best one that showed them sitting in a leaf-dappled light amid picnic debris and looking at one another with expressions that, though unsmiling, seemed mirthful and full of delight. Other pictures, of horses, or cats deceased but unforgotten – like “poor Boobs,” who had died not long ago and most mysteriously (she suspected poison) – encumbered her desk.
Nancy was invariably the last of the family to retire; as she had once informed her friend and home-economics teacher, Mrs. Polly Stringer, the midnight hours were her ‘time to be selfish and vain.’ It was then that she went through her beauty routine, a cleansing, creaming ritual, which on Saturday nights included washing her hair. Tonight, having dried and brushed her hair and bound it in a gauzy bandanna, she set out the clothes she intended to wear to church the next morning: nylons, black pumps, a red velveteen dress – her prettiest, which she herself had made. It was the dress in which she was to be buried.
Before saying her prayers, she always recorded in a diary a few occurrences (‘Summer here. Forever, I hope. Sue over and we rode Babe down to the river. Sue played her flute. Fireflies’) and an occasional outburst (‘I love him, I do’). It was a five-year diary; in the four years of its existence she had never neglected to make an entry, though the splendor of several events (Eveanna’s wedding, the birth of her nephew) and the drama of others (her ‘first REAL quarrel with Bobby’ – a page literally tear-stained) had caused her to usurp space allotted to the future. A different-tinted ink identified each year: 1956 was green and 1957 a ribbon of red, replaced the following year by bright lavender, and now, in 1959, she had decided upon a dignified blue. But as in every manifestation, she continued to tinker with her handwriting, slanting it to the right or to the left, shaping it roundly or steeply, loosely or stingily – as though she were asking, ‘Is this Nancy? Or that? Or that? Which is me?’ (Once Mrs. Riggs, her English teacher, had returned a theme with a scribbled comment: ‘Good. But why written in three styles of script?’ To which Nancy had replied: ‘Because I’m not grown-up enough to be one person with one kind of signature.’) Still, she had progressed in recent months, and it was in a handwriting of emerging maturity that she wrote, ‘Jolene K. came over and I showed her how to make a cherry pie. Practiced with Roxie. Bobby here and we watched TV. Left at eleven.’
– Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
A novelist has the perfect freedom to develop and supply detail at will. The operating limitation of the “non-fiction novel” is that details can’t be provided from the wide expanse and possibilities of imagination, but rather from what you can verify.
The unending debates over non-fictional novels, creative nonfiction, memoirs—really any attempt to merge a narrative frame with real events—assume that that the necessity of force and clarity in storytelling in some way runs counter to real-world fidelity. And while it’s obvious that it’s not necessary to make things up entirely in order to find compelling real-world subjects, there is a strong argument to be made that the act of conforming actual events into an aesthetically satisfying whole has inherent obstacles.
Visual mediums in particular have to struggle with this issue. Any attempt at reconstruction of events needs actors who will have different faces and voices than the persons depicted and settings that will, no matter the attention to detail, differ in some way from what actually was. Documentaries are on surer footing, with the capacity to rely heavily on primary sources, but the great pressure on films and television to simplify and compress has an inevitable tendency toward distortion. And while photographs or audio recordings on their own can be powerful documents, they aren’t quite stories in their own right.
In this text has a great advantage: it does not have to lie. In part due its ability to present much more information, prose can limit itself to what can be accurately captured while maintaining a forceful impact. And what’s so admirable about this passage is that Capote provides every possible sense of literary intimacy while restraining himself from anything that could be viewed as speculation. Every single detail in this passage has a clear source or the transparent implication of how he learned such a thing. (For instance, while Capote doesn’t write “I looked at her room,” he has observed it directly.) At no point does Capote “fill in Nancy’s thoughts,” and even as minor a gloss as the questions suggested by Nancy’s handwriting receives an “as if” qualifier. There is no intrusion of authorial voice, no wearying metafictional foregrounding. The writing is simply and perfectly clear, a factual document and a literary passage and no weaker for being both.
There is no fabrication here because with Capote’s writing there is no need for it. He was also conscious of the dangers of perceived embellishment: “One doesn’t spend almost six years on a book, the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions.” While he couldn’t maintain perfect discipline in writing In Cold Blood—he invented the final scene in his work, and made other minor errors of fact—Capote nonetheless demonstrated the merits of sticking to his tenet. And in bringing the form of the non-fiction novel to popular awareness, and in steadfastly, if imperfectly, rising to the challenge of equal craft and accuracy, Capote proved that there was something there for the taking for those who could grasp it. No one after him should ever have had an excuse to do otherwise after Capote laid it all out there.
As for whether novelistic storytelling has something important to bring to the conveying of information, Capote made even more of a contribution. One danger with “true crime” material is to romanticize the victims in order to drive home the horror of their fates, and the unavoidable interest in the gory details of the death of a beautiful Kansas family lurks behind In Cold Blood at all times. The reality that Nancy would die in a very bad way just a short time after what Capote describes here could make the passage feel distasteful.
Yet Capote accumulates these details, and presents them, in a way that feels very close to Nancy; there is an intimacy to this description that provides a more vivid sense of her as a living person and not an enhanced sense of her as a dead symbol. The restraint Capote shows is at its most valuable here; in not overwriting or sentimentalizing material that is rife with the potential for such exploitation, he allows for a sympathy for this young woman that doesn’t have to accommodate the unseemly intrusion of Capote himself. Leaving his public comments about his work aside, and the constant awareness that reading the details of Nancy’s murder must wait for the book’s climax, In Cold Blood is, in passages like this, content to let the facts be what they are. And because of this they became much more.
There will always be the option to present factual information in a literary frame. A passage like this drives home that perceived trade-offs between narrative clarity and empirical accuracy are a false distinction. Capote looks and captures, and you learn that Nancy Clutter was a specific individual who was alive until Percy Smith killed her with a shotgun, and that she was the kind of girl who kept a diary meticulously and who loved a nice boy from the neighborhood and who only took time for herself at the end of the day. And Capote understands that we can take in both these things at the same time because there’s a synonym for literature and journalism: empathy.