Critical Context

In Cold Blood is heir to nineteenth century naturalism’s reliance on copious research; for example, French author Emile Zola spent months in a coal mine taking notes for his novel Germinal (1855; English translation, 1855). It also demonstrates the crisis of confidence in traditional literary forms that became acute during the 1960’s. During this period, Tom Wolfe hailed what he called “the New Journalism,” an abandonment of bogus conventions of reportage in order to enlist the resources traditionally employed in fiction in the service of recording facts. In a society that many believed had become so bizarre and complex that it was no longer accessible to “objective” reporters, writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, and Wolfe himself were pioneering other techniques to translate what they had not invented into engaging English prose. At the time of its publication, In Cold Blood was seen as part of a movement toward revitalizing reportage. Its formulas were so widely imitated that within a decade scarcely a murder trial occurred without several earnest authors sitting in the gallery.

Capote’s book was also born out of a crisis of confidence in the novel, a sense that the innovations possible in the genre had been exhausted. The generation of American novelists who emerged after World War II suffered under the burden of achievement by such intimidating predecessors as William Faulkner, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Ernest Hemingway. Rather than accepting an identity as epigones, merely imitating the masterpieces of more illustrious forebears, three prominent later novelists found a way out of the impasse: to abandon invention entirely and to deploy their literary talents in rendering a ready-made world. Thus, Norman Mailer wrote The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968), Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968 (1969), and The Executioner’s Song (1979); Gore Vidal wrote Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), and Empire (1987); and Truman Capote wrote his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood.

That account of a multiple murder in Kansas also resolved a crisis in Capote’s career. A celebrity at the age of twenty-four for his precocious novel Other Voices, Other Rooms and later acclaimed for A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949), The Grass Harp (1951), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Capote was, by the mid-1960’s, lacking inspiration and desperately in search of a subject to maintain his reputation. He found that subject in Holcomb, and the book that resulted is generally recognized as Capote’s major work. The enormous success of In Cold Blood made its author more than ever a national celebrity, one whom the temptations of social life seduced away from the solitude of writing. Capote had begun taking tranquilizers during the five and a half years of intense labor on the book, and after its publication, drugs and alcohol increasingly reduced him to pathetic incoherence. Dead in 1984 at the age of sixty, Truman Capote never matched the achievement of his 1966 work In Cold Blood.