In Cold Blood (The Sixties in America)
Originally published as a four-part article in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood had made Truman Capote a millionaire and a national celebrity even before the book’s highly touted publication. Capote was fascinated by the mystery of the brutal, seemingly unmotivated 1959 murders of respected, prosperous Kansas farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, and their two teen-age children, Nancy and Kenyon. Encouraged by New Yorker editor William Shawn, Capote followed the case for years, living in Kansas much of the time, interviewing scores of people (at first accompanied by his friend, the novelist Harper Lee), and eventually becoming confidant to Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the two men convicted of the murders, as they waited on death row during a series of appeals. Capote became especially close to Smith, whose lonely childhood, physical self-consciousness, and artistic aspirations resonated with the writer. Published serially just months after the executions of Smith and Hickock, Capote’s project had accumulated unprecedented interest, partly because of its sensational subject matter but also because of Capote’s established literary reputation, his personal flamboyance, and his widely publicized claims that he was creating a paradoxical new literary form, the nonfiction novel. In 1967, Pax Enterprises/Columbia produced a film adaptation of In Cold Blood that closely follows Capote’s narrative design, his interest in the psychological makeup of the criminals (especially Smith), and his commitment to realism (director Richard Brooks even staged the murder scene at the Clutter’s home). However, the film omits much of Capote’s close, almost anthropological attention to the Clutter family’s small-town life, focusing instead on the flight and subsequent capture, trial, and execution of Hickock and Smith. As in the novel, the film waits until deep into the narrative to present the Clutter murders, which are “recalled” by Smith as a testimonial flashback. In contrast to Capote’s subtle rhetorical stance, Brooks adds the character of a reporter, who operates as the film’s conscience, questioning the morality of capital punishment, thus making explicit the implied irony of the title.
Although described as nonfiction on trade lists, In Cold Blood won the 1966...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
On November 16, 1959, the bloody corpses of Herbert, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon Clutter were discovered in their Holcomb, Kansas, farmhouse. Herbert Clutter had been a prominent and prosperous member of that rural community, and the gruesome murders of the upstanding Methodist farmer, his wife, and two of their four children shocked the Midwest. It was a crime without any apparent motive, and it was not until January that the murderers, two parolees named Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested.
Truman Capote, renowned for his Southern gothic fiction and for his eccentric personality, read about the Clutter massacre in New York and determined to write about it. Commissioned by The New Yorker and Random House to report on the case, he was in Kansas within a few days of the murders, trying to learn as much as he could about the victims, the crime, the criminals, and the larger social and legal context into which the events fit. Capote stayed with the story for five and a half years—through the apprehension of the killers, their trial, and their execution. He conducted extensive interviews with a wide variety of people connected, however remotely, with the case. By the time he began writing, he had accumulated six thousand pages of notes.
The result was In Cold Blood, a book that Capote labeled with the oxymoron “nonfiction novel” and to which he gave the subtitle A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Garden City. Seat of Kansas’s Finney County on the high wheat plains of Western Kansas. Here upright Herbert Clutter headed the building committee for the newly completed First Methodist Church. Capote reminds his reader that they are in “the ‘Bible Belt,’ that gospel-haunted strip of American territory in which a man must, if only for business reasons, take his religion with the straightest of faces.” This idyllic setting has caused many readers to believe Capote’s book is evoking the Christian story of the Fall in the Garden (City) of Eden, with Hickock and Smith as the snakes, that is, as infiltrating evil.
*Holcomb. Village of 270 people near Garden City, outside of which the Clutters reside on River Valley Farm, a spread of eight hundred acres owned outright by Herbert Clutter, with three thousand more acres farmed on a rental basis. Clutter calls the river valley “Eden on earth.”
Open Road. In Cold Blood is structured in four sections, and the central two—“Persons Unknown” and “Answer”—detail Hickock and Smith’s flight following the Clutter murders and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s pursuit of the men across the United States and into Mexico. During his six years of research, Capote retraced every step of the killers’ seven-thousand-mile flight, beginning in Kansas City, where Hickock bounces bank...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography, 1988.
Garson, Helen S. Truman Capote. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Chiefly valuable as a survey, almost a paraphrase, of Capote’s literary works, including In Cold Blood, prefaced by a brief look at Capote’s life.
Hollowell, John. Fact and Fiction: The New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel, 1977.
Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Truman Capote: Conversations, 1987.
Malin, Irving, ed. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”: A Critical Handbook. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1968. A compendium of...
(The entire section is 274 words.)