KILLING A MOCKINGBIRD IN COLD BLOOD
When naming a great American novel, you might choose To Kill A Mockingbird, or maybe In Cold Blood. But who wrote them?
In the 1930s, in Monroeville, Alabama, a young girl named Nelle, became best friends with the boy next door. She was mouthy, a non-conformist, a tomboy, a playground scrapper. He was small and, as a result, often grateful for his friend’s protection. They shared a love of reading and after being given an old typewriter they began writing stories together. They were to grow up to become two of the America’s finest authors: Harper Lee and Truman Capote.
Capote moved to New York City, joining his mother. In 1948 his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published. Around that time, Lee headed to New York to pursue her writing career. After eight years of working menial jobs, she finally showed a manuscript to a publishing editor. Told that the novel was more like a string of short stories, Lee began rewriting and her frustration grew. Rumour has it that, one cold winter’s night in 1958, Lee chucked her entire manuscript out of her apartment window. That novel was To Kill A Mockingbird. Fortunately, she called the editor to inform him of her act and he insisted that she went straight outside to retrieve the work. She rescued the manuscript, literally, from the slush pile.
The story is told from the view of a six year old girl, Scout Finch, and clear similarities can be made with Lee’s own childhood in Alabama. In the book, a character called Dill spends his summers with Scout. He lives next door and brings with him a city boy’s perspective, whilst entertaining her with his tales. Dill is surely based on Capote, who, having left in the third grade, returned to Alabama every summer where he lived with his uncles and aunts. The hero of the novel is Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, who, like Harper Lee’s father, is a lawyer. The plot deals with class, morality and gender roles, but, most of all, it deals with race and prejudice. It is possible that a case involving Lee’s father directly shaped the story: In 1919 he had defended two black men (a father and son) who had been accused of murdering a white shopkeeper. Both clients were hanged. In the book, Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of raping a young white woman.
The plot certainly points to the pen of Lee but did Capote turn it into a masterpiece? It is on record that he read the manuscript and helped with the editing but how much of To Kill a Mocking Bird did he actually write?
In 1959, Capote is drawn to an article in the New York Times. It outlines the brutal shotgun killing of a farmer (Herb Clutter), his wife (Bonnie), and their two children (Nancy and Kenyon). The Clutters had been discovered bound and murdered at their home in Kansas, the mother and daughter found in their beds, the father and son slain in the basement. Capote decided to write about the murders and headed to Kansas, accompanied by his friend, Harper Lee.
Whilst they worked on a book about the murders, Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was published, with a quote from Capote on the jacket. The novel achieves rave reviews and becomes a bestseller. A year later, the novel lands the Pulitzer Prize. It has been said that Capote resented the book’s success – he was reluctant to quash suggestions that he was actually the author – but their friendship survived as the methodical, pragmatic Lee worked tirelessly on Capote’s 1966 novel, In Cold Blood. Was Lee in debt to Capote for his contribution to her success?
She spent the best part of six years researching the Clutter murders and interviewing the locals. Her findings provided the bedrock for the novel, and her interviews with the killers allowed the book to show their views from death row.
Capote thanked Lee in his dedication but did she get enough credit?
Since In Cold Blood came out, it has never gone out of print. It’s spawned several movies and defined its own genre. When we begin the book, the reader knows that the Clutter family have been brutally murdered. This real family; hardworking, solid members of society, engage us and we soon become emotionally involved with their lives and the town folk, fearing their inevitable path.
Both books have strong narratives; they raise questions about capital punishment and victimisation, and deal with uncovering the truth but, like Lee and Capote, they were quite different.
In Cold Blood was difficult to classify. It has been hailed as the first true crime book, and described as gothic fiction, but, I like Capote’s view that it’s a ‘non-fiction novel’. The idea of applying a strong story narrative to a non-fiction book was inventive. It reads like a stylish, haunting crime novel, but is also true account of the murders, the perpetrators’ arrest and their trail.
We will probably never know who had the most input into these seminal works of literature but it does seem that the authors conspired. Readers like the idea that a book has an author, singular, but that’s not always the case. With Lee and Capote, we have two great talents at work, neither of whom produced any work of note after the publication of In Cold Blood.
The fact that Capote failed to receive the Pulitzer Prize he was expecting did nothing for his relationship with Lee. His jealously and drinking may have led to problems in their friendship. What is known is that they never worked together again. Writing alone they were not the same force.
In the aftermath of To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee was uncomfortable with the public attention thrust upon her and went on to adopt a reclusive, private lifestyle. Capote, however, lived off the success of In Cold Blood, hobnobbing with the rich and famous whilst drug and alcohol abuse caused a slow public demise, resulting in his death in 1984.