Holcomb, Kansas, in the novel In Cold Blood, appeared to Capote as the very embodiment of traditional American ideas. Discuss the importance of the setting in Holcomb. What does the novel reveal about the town? How does the gossip surrounding the crime reflect underlying truths about Holcomb and small town Kansas? Is the town a character or protagonist?
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Truman Capote was one of the innovators of "new journalism." Others included Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson. New journalism is more subjective and impressionistic than traditional journalism, which emphasizes facts and objectivity. Capote wanted to create a new literary genre. With the publication of In Cold Blood,
Capote claimed to have invented a new genre, the ''nonfiction novel,'' and critics quickly accepted his classification, his methods, and his purpose as a new combination of journalism and fiction. He wanted to merge the two—enlivening what he saw as stagnant prose conforming to stale, rigid standards—and he wished to experiment with documentary methods. The Clutter murders were the perfect vehicle for this monumental experiment in reportage. (eNotes Study Guide)
Capote made many trips to Kansas for the purpose of getting some of the elements of fiction into his reporting. Setting was of great importance in creating an impression of the Clutter farm and the town of Holcomb as they might be portrayed in a novel. He interviewed everyone who would talk to him, and he invented dialogue to characterize the people of the region as well as to convey information about the Clutters and the chilling effect their brutal murders had had on everyone.
The crime was especially shocking because Holcomb was a place where everybody knew everybody and everybody trusted everybody. None of them ever locked their doors at night. This included the Clutter family. Dick Hickock and Perry Smith were able to walk right in on the night of the murders.
In addition to vivid description of the setting and the creation of dialogue, Capote added suspense to his nonfiction novel by saving his description of the actual murders until late in the book. Until Hickock and Smith have been captured, the reader only knows that the four bodies were discovered on the morning after the crime by neighbors who had come to take Nancy Clutter to church. Up to this point the reader has been left in suspense regarding what actually happened.
It was appropriate for Capote to present his description of the murders late in the book because that description had to come from the only two persons who witnessed them, Hickock and Smith themselves. Then Capote uses information he obtained in personal interviews with the killers in their cells to dramatize the events of that terrible night. Throughout his book Capote is dealing with facts but making them more vivid and dramatic through novelistic techniques.
Capote followed the investigation of the Clutter murders and the prosecution of the killers right up to their conviction and execution. He focused on the role of one investigator to create the impression of conflict between the protagonists and a single antagonist.
At forty-seven, Alvin Dewey is only a year younger than Herb Clutter. Dewey is a meticulous, dedicated agent from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation who is in charge of the Clutter case. He is a former sheriff of Finney County, where Holcomb is located, so he is familiar with both the town and the Clutters. He becomes obsessed with solving the crime, growing thin and smoking more as he repeatedly reconsiders several pet theories about the murders. (eNotes Study Guide)
The town of Holcomb is neither a character nor protagonist. It is used as a setting and represents small-town America where people used to believe they were safe from the atrocities that occurred in big cities.
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