In Cold Blood

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

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.

Impact

Although described as nonfiction on trade lists, In Cold Blood won the 1966 Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award. Capote’s precise methods would be almost impossible to replicate—he claimed a self-taught ability to recall and thus transcribe, with nearly perfect accuracy, hours of interview material and insisted that he had constructed his novel exclusively from observed or recorded detail—but his interest in blurred genres was shared by other novelists, journalists, and filmmakers committed to exploring American social life in new ways. Capote’s aggressive self-promotion and extravagant literary claims fostered a situation in which the use of fictional techniques in nonfiction forms and the ethics of making art (and money) from murder could be debated. The strong sense of “two Americas” that characterized In Cold Blood became emblematic of an increasingly polarized nation, split apart by suspicion, intolerance, and violence.

The film version of In Cold Blood was more revision than experiment, a solid, capably produced studio film in content reminiscent of the earnest social problem films of the 1950’s, driven by psychological explanation and liberal argument (in this case, against capital punishment), and in form characterized by moody, highly stylized black-and- white photography evocative of 1940’s film noir. Although sufficiently admired to have been nominated for four major Academy Awards—Brooks, for both Director and Original Screenplay; Conrad Hall, for Cinematography and Quincy Jones, for Original Musical Score—the film received none and was overshadowed in 1967 by another story of a criminal couple loosely based on fact: the more popular, more violent, more radical, and thus far more controversial Bonnie and Clyde. In Cold Blood did launch the careers of a pair of talented, previously unknown young actors, Scott Wilson (Hickock) and Robert Blake (Smith), who portrayed, with sensitivity and imagination, the two damaged, ruthless men who intrigued Capote and much of the nation in the mid-1960’s.

Related Work

In Armies of the Night (1968), Norman Mailer offers his version of a fact-based literary experiment, labeling the form novel-as-history, history-as-novel. Although personally antagonistic and publicly dismissive of each other’s work, Mailer and Capote nevertheless shared many goals.

Bibliography

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 novel.

Reed, Kenneth T. Truman Capote. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Surveys Capote’s short fiction, novels, and efforts at reportage, which include work on In Cold Blood. Reed ends with a study of Capote’s style, his themes, and the influences on his writing.

Stanton, Robert J. Truman Capote: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. Very helpful annotations accompany the lists of works about Capote and his writings. Extremely thorough.

Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud. The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel, 1976.