The Literary Provenance of Blogs and Other Lessons from Capote

If Borges presaged the Wikipedia, Perry Smith of the In Cold Blood fame was one of the hardcopy blogging pioneers.

On the cover of the second notebook, the handwriting of which he was so proud, a script abounding in curly, feminine flourishes, proclaimed the contents to be “The Private Diary of Perry Edward Smith”–an inaccurate description, for it was not in the least a diary but, rather, a form of anthology consisting of obscure facts (“Every fifteen years Mars gets closer. 1958 is a close year.”), poems and literary quotations (“No man is an island, Entire of itself”), and passages for newspapers and books paraphrased or quoted. For example:

My acquaintances are many, my friends are few; those who really know me fewer still.

Heard about a new rat poison on the market. Extremely potent, odorless, tasteless, is so completely absorbed once swallowed that no trace could ever be found in a dead body.

If called upon to make a speech: “I can’t remember what I was going to say for the life of me–I don’t think that ever before in my life have so many people been so directly responsible for my being so very, very glad. It’s a wonderful moment and a rare one and I’m certainly indebted. Thank you!”

Read interesting article Feb. issue of Man to Man: “I Knifed My Way to a Diamond Pit.”

“It is almost impossible for a man who enjoys freedom with all its prerogatives, to realize what it means to be deprived of that freedom.”–Said by Erle Stanley Gardner.

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is a breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in teh sunset.” –Said by Chief Crowfoot, Blackfoot Indian Chief.

This last entry was written in red ink and decorated with a border of green-ink stars; the anthologist wished to emphasize its “personal significance.” “A breath of a buffalo in the wintertime”–that exactly evoked his view of life. Why worry? What was there to “sweat about”? Man was nothing, a mist, a shadow absorbed by shadows.

But damn it, you do worry, scheme, fret over your fingernails and the warnings of hotel managements: “Su Día Termina a las 2 P.M.”

The view of blogs as anthologies of obscure facts masquerading as personal journals seems spot on to me. But so much of Capote’s writing is similarly revealing in this quiet, unassuming way. His choices have nothing exhibitionist about them. The words, even when unusual, are simply right: Perry’s, the murderer’s, pastiche of scribblings is an anthology. In another passage, Capote describes the winter winds on the Kansas prairie as “razory.” The measure of how great these descriptions are is that they immediately supersede all alternatives. After you read a passage of his, what else can cold February winds be other than “razory”? Here they are, the newly-minted clichés of our future.

The other voices the book includes–Perry himself, as in the quoted passage, the town’s postmistress, the dead girl’s boyfriend–are always distinctive. Perry omits subjects. His phrases are choppy. “But damn it, you do worry, fret…” : you can feel it’s Perry thinking at the end of that quote above on the basis of style alone–no quotation marks required. Other voices are different too. Myrtle Clare speaks folk; she calls her neighbors “lily-livered” and refers to herself as “this old girl.” Dick’s speech is covered by a veneer of obscenities and cockiness. He says things like, “there was mud up to your cojones.” They all have affectations. In contrast, the narrator’s voice seems natural and invisible, a kind of a glass Riker mount to better pin the specimens he collects to.

Then there are those perfect rolling rhythms. The sentences go on for miles, but I didn’t pause once because I had to reread. But Lord I wanted to. The difference between your standard style short stuccato sentences and Capote is the difference between driving through Kansas and the Rockies.

I could gush on and on, but instead, I leave you with this quote from Capote from the Paris Review interview (a long chunk available here [PDF]):

“Do you read a great deal?”

“Too much. And anything, including labels and recipes and advertisements. I have a passion for newspapers—read all the New York
dailies every day, and the Sunday editions, and several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at newsstands. I average about five books a week—the normal-length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies. It doesn’t bother me to read while I am writing—I mean, I don’t suddenly find another writer’s style seeping out of my pen.”

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