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...
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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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In the 1950s, with the start of the Korean War and Senator McCarthy's purging of Communists from all areas of American life, the possible infiltration by ‘‘the other’’ caused a national panic and hysteria. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage and executed in a symbolic gesture of alleviating this anxiety and purging the nation of its intruders and traitors. Unlike Hickock and Smith, the Rosenbergs turned out to be innocent; like them, however, they were killed to restore a sense of order and fulfill a sense of retribution.
Anti-Establishment and Counterculture Movements
In the wake of the Korean War and McCarthyism, concern about the consequences of blind conformity and false American values spawned anti-establishment movements in politics, art, and literature. It was during the 1950s that the Beatnik, or Beat generation, writers published seminal works such as "Howl" by Allen Ginsburg and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Beat signified literal fatigue, a sense of being beaten down, tired, and worn out. In the 1960s, the anti-establishment movements evolved into more severe counterculture movements in everything from changes in popular music, to open drug use and the sexual revolution. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the United States' entry into the Vietnam conflict fed the anti-government sentiment and disillusionment.
Disruption increased as national...
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Capote points out fatalistic and ominous clues from the Clutters' last days. The Bible next to Bonnie Clutter's bed is marked at the passage, ‘‘Take ye heed, watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is.’’ Herb Clutter takes out a forty-thousand-dollar life insurance policy, which pays double indemnity in the case of murder. Well-known for not carrying cash, Herb Clutter also does not keep a safe containing ten thousand dollars in the house, although the killers think he does. The family dog is gun-shy. Even Hickock and Smith's plans seem ill-fated from the start; Smith tears the glove that they plan to use during the robbery, which seems highly unlucky to him.
The symbols in the text serve largely to detail the persona and interior life of Perry Smith. From childhood, Smith has dreams in which a large yellow bird, ‘‘taller than Jesus,’’ rescues him from his abusers, pecks out their eyes and kills them, and then, "enfolding him,'' the bird carries him away to paradise. The figure of the avenging "warrior angel" is both biblically allegorical and reminiscent of maternal and vigilante themes. On the ride from Las Vegas as he is being extradited back to Kansas, Smith "contemplates...the carcasses of shotgunned coyotes festooning ranch fences.’’ The corpses were hung there to scare away other coyotes, sacrificed to maintain the security of the ranch's livestock, much as Hickock and...
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The most obvious technique in In Cold Blood is the journalistic one. After his first fiction was published Capote turned to journalism for money and because it interested him as an art form. With In Cold Blood he was ready to impose the structures of fiction onto a factual event. During the 1950s he had published a number of nonfiction pieces, most notably The Muses Are Heard (1956) for which he was criticized for being possibly less than objective. Of course he wasn't objective.
The whole tour is seen through his sly, glittering eyes. That was his achievement. Just as painting and avant-garde literature were becoming self-referential, so was Capote's version of journalism. Readers are never unaware of the reporter's presence. He does not pretend to an objectivity that probably never existed in the first place. His view of the Soviet Union is a highly personal one and no less true for its subjectivity. In many ways it seems more "true" than supposed objective reportage (whose objectivity is governed by the tastes and historical prejudices of the culture it springs from) because of its intimacy.
With In Cold Blood he abandoned the techniques of subjective reportage and adopted an objective tone. He returned to the style he rebelled against and tried to erase himself from the text. To some extent he succeeded. The book is a tonal success. It reads like fact. But as objective reportage it fails, yet this failure is...
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Some would say that Capote's novel had no social concerns, that it succeeded in being a mere presentation of gruesome facts. There is ample evidence for this kind of evaluation, the "just-the-facts, ma'am" tone that pervades the novel for example. Yet even seen in this light Capote provided a valuable, detailed document of how the American police force and legal system work. The actual murders take up very little of the book's almost four hundred pages. Most of the book concerns itself with the search for, trial of and execution of the murderers. Readers are privy to the exhaustion, banality, frustration and luck that are part of a police investigation. Readers wait with the prisoners through their trial, their appeals, their psychiatric evaluations, their lives on death row. Readers wait for them to die.
Capote's book is also valuable as a document of the lives of marginal people, particularly in its handling of Perry Smith. One sees firsthand how a person of Perry's murderous capabilities is formed. Poor, abused, uneducated as a child, drifting from parent to institution to parent, and finally just drifting, one watches a person who is not taught how to integrate into society as a child and consequently who has no skills to do so as an adult. The tragedy of Perry's life is that there is no place for him, there never will be, and he cannot accept it. By the end of the book readers come to understand his rage. Capote does much to explain Perry's life as...
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Compare and Contrast
1960s: The United States Supreme Court strikes down capital punishment laws as unconstitutional; a national moratorium on executions follows. Murder is the most common crime for which criminals are sent to Death Row. At this point, only ten states have no capital punishment laws on the books. From 1930 to 1967, 3,800 people are executed.
Today: States have changed their capital punishment laws to fit the high court's revised constitutional requirements. Twelve states have no capital punishment laws, and far fewer criminals are executed: from 1977 to 1999, a total of 598 people are put-to-death by the state.
1960s: The use of an insanity plea relies on the successful application of the M'Naughten Rule, which states that the defendant is legally insane if the defendant did not know, at the time of the crime, the nature of the act or that it was wrong.
Today: The M'Naughten Rule has been replaced by the more complex and psychologically refined Moral Penal Code, which states that, among other tests, the defendant is legally insane if he or she does not have the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong.
1960s: As an outgrowth of new journalism, nonfiction novels begin to become popular. Capote claims to have invented this new literary genre with In Cold Blood, which documents and dramatizes a crime.
Today: One of the most popular and established genres,...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the evolution of the insanity plea, from the ancient M'Naughten Rule to the Durham Test, the Irresistible Impulse Test, and today's Moral Penal Code. What external political and social forces compel the courts and legislatures to amend insanity plea requirements? What cultural shifts, changing priorities or advances in psychiatry required updating insanity plea legislation? What were the landmark cases which established each new step in its evolution?
Critic Jon Tuttle claims that the influences of Flannery O'Connor on Capote's In Cold Blood are too profound to miss. Read Flannery O'Connor's story ‘‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find'' and compare the characters of Perry Smith and the Misfit. Compare their attitudes toward the families they murder, their methods of murder, their speeches, and their revelations about their pasts. In what way are both the Misfit and Perry Smith archetypal criminals or archetypal psychopaths?
Some critics assert that the publication of In Cold Blood ultimately led to the United States Supreme Court's striking down capital punishment across the nation, a moratorium that lasted into the 1970s for some states. Research death penalty statistics for mentally ill criminals or criminals who attempted to use the insanity plea to exonerate themselves. What are the arguments in favor of institutionalizing the mentally ill? What are the arguments in favor of capital punishment for truly heinous crimes?...
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Capote would have said there were no literary precedents for his book. AH his life he felt he had not been given his due for inventing a new form. Certainly the New Journalism and writers like Norman Mailer owe Capote a debt. Yet critics cite John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946) and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925), among others, as precursors to Capote's experiment. Still the books they point to are different in form from Capote's. They are either clearly novels based on real events or they are clearly journalism told novelistically. If Capote's story had been a simple recitation of the facts, it would have been journalism plain and simple. But he did not stop there. Capote tells a story in which every detail is factual (well almost; there is some minor dispute about this among critics). But he is not simply reporting a story through novelistic technique. He is talking about the dream of America and how that dream manifests itself in individual lives. The Clutter tragedy is Capote's metaphor. John Hersey's Hiroshima, although it uses novelistic devices, is about the bombing of Hiroshima. It is journalism. Dreiser's book is a novel based on fact. Capote's book is neither of these. Perhaps it is not quite the breakthrough Capote felt it was. It is not as great nor as radical as what James Joyce did. But it was new. It was different. There had never been anything quite like it before.
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In his 1967 adaptation of In Cold Blood for the screen, director Peter Brooks tried to attain the hyperrealism of the book by actually filming the movie at the scene of the crime in Holcomb, Kansas. He felt the story was the American equivalent of Greek tragedy and the movie is certainly ambitious in feeling and intent. Capote has said that the film's star Robert Blake was eerily like Perry Smith, even physically. When the film was made Capote said it was one of two adaptations of his work that he liked, the other being The Thanksgiving Visitor. The film was a popular and critical success, though true to form there were a few major critics who disliked it. Other adaptations of Capote's work include the 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany's, which differed considerably from the original work. Starring Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, and Patricia Neal, this film was generally well received by both the critics and the public.
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In Cold Blood is the 1967 feature film, written and directed by Richard Brooks and starring two unknowns, Robert Blake and Scott Wilson, as the murderers, with music by Quincy Jones. Capote was heavily involved in the making of this film, and it endures as a faithful retelling of the book.
In Cold Blood is a 1996 TV-miniseries remake of Richard Brooks' film version, directed by Jonathan Kaplan and starring Anthony Edwards and Eric Roberts as Hickock and Smith.
Murder in Cold Blood is a 1998 documentary about the Clutter murders, which includes police photos, interviews with lawmen who worked on the case, and audio from Hickock's confession.
In 1994, composer Mikel Rouse wrote a musical theater piece entitled, ","Failing Kansas with a libretto comprising language from the actual testimony at the trial and transcripts of interviews. Trying to portray intentions of the story through sound, he presented the conflicting voices in counterpoint, in a technique of vocal writing he called "counterpoetry." It debuted at the Kitchen in New York.
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What Do I Read Next?
Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb (1997), published in 1997 by Bernard Lefkowitz, tells the shocking and true story of a young, mentally retarded high school student who was raped by the town's much-vaunted football team. Lefkowitz's painstaking research and immersion in the community produces a book which explores all possible origins and motives for the behavior of the rapists and the response of the community.
Capote (1997), by Gerald Clarke, is considered the definitive biography of Capote's life and career.
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (1974), by Vincent Bugliosi, is easily the best-selling true crime novel ever, describing the gruesome murder of a celebrity by Charles Manson and the Family.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baughman, Ronald, ‘‘Literary Perspectives on Murder,’’ in ALSA Forum, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1982.
Carberry, Belinda, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, http://126.96.36.199/ynhti/curriculum/units/1983/4/83.04.05. x.html (December 12, 2000).
Conniff, Brian, '‘‘Psychological Accidents': In Cold Blood and Ritual Sacrifice,’’ in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 1, Autumn 1993.
Dupee, Frederick, Review in New York Review of Books, February 3, 1966, p. 3.
Galloway, David, ‘‘Real Toads in Real Gardens: Reflections on the Art of Non-Fiction Fiction and the Legacy of Truman Capote,’’ in The Critical Response to Truman Capote, edited by Joseph J. Waldmeir and John C. Waldmeir, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 143-154.
Garson, Helen S., "Acts of Darkness: In Cold Blood,'' in her Truman Capote, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1980, pp. 141-164.
Hendin, Josephine, ‘‘Angries: SM as a Literary Style,’’ in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 248, No. 1485, February 1974, pp. 87-93.
Kauffmann, Stanley, Review in New Republic, January 22, 1966, p. 19.
Phillips, William, Review in Commentary, May 1966, p. 77.
Poirer, Richard, ‘‘In Cold Ink: Truman Capote,’’ in Trying It Out America: Literary and Other Performances, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999, pp....
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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 articles that focuses on In Cold Blood and critical reaction to the novel. Includes articles that place In Cold Blood in the context of Capote’s other works. Of special interest is George Plimpton’s interview with Capote; the interview gives excellent perspective to Capote’s novel and literary intent, his relationship to the events and people in the book, and how he worked the material into what he calls a “nonfiction novel.”
Nance, William L. The Worlds of Truman Capote. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein and Day, 1970. Two chapters are devoted to In Cold Blood, the first chapter placing the novel in Capote’s career, the second chapter offering a critical study of the...
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