(Note: Benjamin Stein of the German book blog Turmsegler asked me to write something about Truman Capote on the anniversary of his death. Although a German version will follow, the original below is cross-posted to Turmsegler.)
Today is the yortsayt of Truman Capote—the twentieth-fifth anniversary of his death from “liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication,” as the Los Angeles County coroner dutifully reported—although yortsayt may not be the best word to use in connection with someone who once attacked “the Jewish Mafia in American letters” which “control[s] much of the literary scene” through “Jewish-dominated” publications that “make or break writers by advancing or withholding attention.”
The provocation behind Capote’s rant is not immediately clear. Commentary, the most Jewish-dominated publication of them all, hardly withheld attention from In Cold Blood, devoting twenty-two hundred words to the book in its May 1966 issue. William Phillips, the reviewer, who also happened to edit the Partisan Review, another Jewish-dominated publication, even allowed that the book was “good in its own way,” although he went on to ask—“as in the old Jewish joke—whether In Cold Blood was good for literature.” Maybe Capote could not take a Jewish joke. Or maybe, as Norman Podhoretz observed, he was too embarrassed to admit that Southern writers “were always praising each other in magazines they controlled, like the Kenyon Review and the Sewanee Review.”
In Cold Blood is the book Capote is remembered for, which may be for the best. By 1966 his thin talent for fiction had given out. The four book-length volumes of fiction that preceded it—Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949), The Grass Harp (1951), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958)—were distinguished by style and really little else. The portrait of the maid in his first novel, released when he was just twenty-four, owes more to Miami Mouth in Ronald Firbank’s Prancing Nigger (1924), for example, than to anything in Capote’s experience of growing up in Monroeville, Alabama:
By the time Capote wrote In Cold Blood the mannered prose had become an afterthought. Consider, for instance, the way in which he negotiates the transition from the arrest of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith to their return to the seat of Finney County, Kansas, to stand trial:
I do realize that the flouting of decorum is among the signature achievements of literary modernism, but the use to which Capote puts it—the effect he is after—not only suggests what is morally questionable about the technique, but also reveals his larger purpose in In Cold Blood. The purpose is to distract attention in a confusion of close-up detail. In introducing the house that is the scene of the murders, for example, Capote writes:
Capote reconstructs the Clutters’ last day alive, interweaving the narrative with a step-by-step account of the murderers’ progress toward Holcomb in a black 1949 Chevrolet, carefully recording Perry Smith’s vomiting in a gas-station toilet on their last stop two-and-a-half hours away, but stops short of the killing. Only after the fact—only after the Clutters have become corpses—does Capote carry on with the reconstruction of what happened. Two hundred and eighty five pages remain: eighty-three percent of In Cold Blood. The Clutters, whose taste was so common, disappear from view.
Although Capote glances at Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective Al Dewey, his overriding interest is in the killers—especially Perry Smith, the diminutive and probably homosexual convict who was, as William Phillips bluntly put it, “the more twisted of the two.” The crime writer J. J. Maloney is convinced that, during the course of his research on the book, Capote fell in love with Smith. What is obvious from the design and language of the book is his sympathy for Smith, which Capote intends the reader to share. Although he feels no remorse for the murder, saying that “nothing about it bothers me a bit,” Smith is represented as likable despite it all. Even the man to whom he confesses that he feels nothing whatever about murdering four people acknowledges, “Yes, I like you.” He is pathetically grateful for, as he says, “Somebody who cares about me a little bit.”
After listening to county attorney Logan Green’s final address to the jury, two reporters exchange words. An unnamed “young reporter from Oklahoma” says the summation was “rabble-rousing, brutal.” Richard Parr of the Kansas City Star scoffs:
“But he didn’t have to hit that hard. It’s unfair.”
“The whole trial. These guys don’t stand a chance.”
“Fat chance they gave [16-year-old] Nancy Clutter.”
“Perry Smith. My God. He’s had such a rotten life—”
Parr said, “Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood.”
“Yeah, and how about hanging the bastard? That’s pretty goddam cold-blooded too.”
Capote’s purpose in In Cold Blood is to mitigate the evil of the Clutters’ killers. The only time the word is used is in a bitter reminiscence of his early life by Perry Smith:
 Interview with Playboy (1968), in Truman Capote: Conversations, ed. M. Thomas Inge (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987), p. 158.
 William Phillips, “But Is It Good for Literature?” Commentary (May 1966): 77–80.
 Norman Podhoretz, Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 145.
 Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 223.