Crime and Punishment in America

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In the ongoing debate about whether nature or nurture is the primary force shaping a person's character, Capote comes down firmly on the side of nurture and environment in his book In Cold Blood. His portrayal of Perry Smith, the crippled killer with a nightmarish childhood, is highly sympathetic. Capote argues, none too subtly, that Smith had significant potential for a constructive life had he not been abused, neglected, and disenfranchised. In detailing his sympathies for Smith, it is clear that Capote identifies and empathizes with Smith personally. But Capote's questioning of the relevance and righteousness of small-town values and priorities could be his own angry criticism of the world he himself inhabited: a false meritocracy in which his talents were inadequate unless accompanied by a biting, unrelenting charm. Capote depicts the hypocrisy of Smith and Hickock's trial and execution with similar precision; murder by an individual was illegitimate, but murder by the state was an accepted, even necessary means of satisfying a sense of reckoning and restoring order.

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Perry Smith is in many ways the central character of the book. He confesses to killing all four members of the Clutter family, a fact he later denies and then reiterates. Capote is most interested in the trajectory of Smith's life toward this final, fatal deed, and the people, events, and conditions that shape his course. The question of whether Smith is doomed from the start, or whether, as Willie Jay believed, there was something "savable" about him, is answered by Capote through his inclusion of various letters and biographical sketches written by Smith and those who knew him, who attest to both his violent temper and his latent sensitivity. Capote purposefully makes clear that Smith is, as Helen Garson noted in her book Truman Capote, a "strange, psychopathic mixture of vicious killer and compassionate protector'' by detailing the touching manner in which he bound his victims. Smith placed a pillow under Kenyon Clutter's head, a mattress box under Herb Clutter's body, and tucked Bonnie and Nancy Clutter into their beds after tying them. Garson also notes that Capote as narrator agrees with the views of psychiatrists he quotes that Smith, in killing Herb Clutter, was most likely exacting revenge on a ‘‘key figure in some past traumatic configuration.’’ In fact, Smith himself admits, "Maybe it's just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it’’—it being a lifetime of mistreatment. Smith's desire for revenge against his abusers is rendered not only understandable, but acceptable.

In destroying the Clutters, Smith is extinguishing not only the image and reality of all that he was denied, but the most respectable figures in an emblematically close-knit, vindictive community. George Steiner, in his 1965 review in The Guardian , describes the America that judges and ‘‘wastes human possibilities on a formidable scale.’’ In this unforgiving setting, "If a man falls off the escalator of American economic and social achievement, there is a grey turbulence of petty crime, illiterate sex, and aimless drifting waiting to absorb him,’’ Steiner concludes. Hickock and Smith originally went to prison for petty theft, an unfortunate circumstance that hemmed-in the rest of their lives. The degree of Smith and Hickock's indifference is seen when Hickock swerves to hit, not avoid, a dog, and when Smith explains that he thought Herb Clutter was a very decent, nice man, "right up until the moment I cut his throat.’’ Hickock does in fact refine his petty criminal behavior, developing a talent for passing bad checks, bedding married women, and "passing" in the world of decent humanity, while Smith develops an incongruous aversion to drinking, indiscriminate sex, and unnecessary theft, although he is gripped with a wanderlust that...

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Critical Overview