Masterplots II, Nonfiction
In Cold Blood
A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences
Author: Truman Capote
Given Name: Truman Streckfus Persons
Born: September 30, 1924; New Orleans, Louisiana
Died: August 25, 1984; Los Angeles, California
Type of Work: Nonfiction novel/New Journalism
Time of Work: 1959-1965
Locale: Kansas, Nevada, California, Mexico, Florida, and Texas
First Published: 1966
RICHARD (DICK) EUGENE HICKOCK, a twenty-eight-year-old extroverted
mechanic and felon
PERRY EDWARD SMITH, a short, misshapen and introverted psychopath
HERBERT CLUTTER, a prosperous wheat and cattle farmer in Holcomb,Kansas
BONNIE CLUTTER, his neurasthenic wife
NANCY CLUTTER, their sixteen-year-old daughter
KENYON CLUTTER, their fifteen-year-old son
BOBBY RUPP, Nancy's boyfriend
ALVIN DEWEY, the agent from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation in charge
of the case
FLOYD WELLS, Hickock's former prison cellmate
WILLIE JAY, Smith's prison mentor
Form and Content
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 Consequences. In Cold Blood was published in January, 1966, less than nine months after Smith and Hickock were hanged. The following year, it was adapted for film by director Richard Brooks. Capote's book became an enormous commercial and critical success, remaining on the best-seller list for more than a year and inspiring the devotion of scholars and imitators, who hailed it as a classic in a new hybrid genre of narrative (later labeled "New Journalism" by Tom Wolfe) that joined the formal satisfactions of fiction with the urgency of actuality. It remains Capote's major achievement as a writer.
In Cold Blood begins by setting the stage on the high, bare plains of western Kansas. Almost in the manner of Greek tragedy, it crosscuts between the activities of the Clutters and of the two parolees until they converge, inevitably and violently. The book is organized into four sections: "The Last to See Them Alive" recounts the crime itself; "Persons Unknown" juxtaposes the frustrated investigators and the extensive travels of the murderers across the United States and into Mexico; "Answer" relates how Smith and Hickock are finally apprehended; and "The Corner," which functions as a narrative coda, summarizes the trial, imprisonment, and execution of the two killers. While it offers the shape and textures of a nineteenth century naturalistic novel, In Cold Blood presents itself with the authority of a "true account," susceptible to verification by sources outside the author's fertile imagination.
In Cold Blood is a romance of the ordinary, a narrative that proceeds from the premise that truth is more compelling than fiction. Capote shows the Clutters to be an exemplary American family—devout Methodists, members of the 4-H Club, happy, productive citizens. He immerses his readers in their quotidian world by crowding his text with details—facts about what Herbert has for breakfast, the configuration of the house, the inventory of crops. Herbert is widely and justifiably respected as an industrious and honest man, and his pretty daughter Nancy would seem to be the perfect high school sweetheart. Perhaps the only element belying the Clutters' unexceptional wholesomeness is the unaccountable depression from which Herbert's wife, Bonnie, has suffered over the years.
Holcomb and the Clutters are a challenge to the fanciful and flamboyant Capote, who became famous as the author of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) and who had become the pet of high society. Any writer must confront the impossibility of translating experience into language, but Capote's task was compounded by how alien his banal raw materials seemed to his worldly, baroque sensibility. In Cold Blood is an inevitably flawed exercise in self-effacement. Its title refers as much to the novelist's efforts at being a taxidermist of reality as to the carnage of the Clutters' murder. "Most of my ideas for stories, I get them out of the newspapers," says Larry Hendricks, an aspiring writer new to Kansas, and he expresses Capote's own ambivalence regarding literary invention.
If the subject of In Cold Blood is apprehension—of an unknown horror threatening the normality of Holcomb, of the vagrant malefactors, of the intractable truth—its principal characters are Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. The two had met at the Kansas State Penitentiary, and later it is an urgent message from Hickock to Smith summoning him to a "score" that sets the mechanism of murder into motion. Hickock had learned about Herbert Clutter's wealth from Floyd Wells, a cellmate who had worked on his River Valley farm, and he dreamed of robbing Clutter when he got out of prison. Hickock was unaware that Clutter paid his bills with checks and never kept cash in the house, so that Hickock and Smith end up with very little booty for all of their bloody business.
Hickock and Smith are approximately the same age—twenty-eight and thirty, respectively—and both are seasoned veterans of scrapes with the law and of incarceration. Close scrutiny, however, reveals differences between the two so dramatic that much of the appeal of In Cold Blood is a study of complimentary and polar personalities. Despite, or because of, barely suppressed lust for pubescent girls, Hickock is preoccupied with appearing "normal." He comes from a relatively stable and supportive family and has been married twice. Hickock does not seem to suffer from the excruciating self-consciousness that plagues the effeminate Smith. To Smith's admiring eyes, Hickock is extroverted, resourceful, and "manly." "Dick's literalness," the reader is told, "his pragmatic approach to every subject, was the primary reason Perry had been attracted to him, for it made Dick seem, compared to himself, so authentically tough, invulnerable, ætotally masculine.'"
Hickock recruits Smith as a companion in crime because he recognizes in the other man the kind of ruthless killer he could never be. Smith is the victim of a loveless, broken home, of painful experiences in an orphanage, and of a motorcycle accident that has left him clumsy and disfigured. Smith is a social misfit diagnosed by a court-appointed psychiatrist as a paranoid schizophrenic. Hickock, a skilled auto mechanic, prides himself on his practicality, while Smith is a dreamer who fantasizes about prospecting for gold in the Sierra Madre.
Capote appears more sympathetic to Smith than to Hickock, perhaps because he recognizes a kindred spirit in the diminutive outcast with an ornate vocabulary (Smith is, for example, fond of the word "ineffable"). Hickock mocks Smith's lavish experiments in music and poetry, but Capote records them solicitously. Yet In Cold Blood, which purges Capote's manneristic style of its usual embellishments, seems to identify utilitarian prose with truth and poetry with contrivance. The "nonfiction novel" derives much of its power from the tension between Hickock and Smith and from corollary dichotomies between reality and fantasy, masculine and feminine, plain and gaudy.
Asked by one of the arresting officers why he has fallen back into a life of crime, Hickock replies: "That would make a book." The lengthy and meticulous research that Capote undertook in order to put together that book also makes him alter ego to Alvin Dewey, the leader of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation team assembled to solve the homicides. A friend of Herbert Clutter and, like the slain man, an exemplary Midwestern citizen, Dewey becomes obsessed with solving the puzzle of who killed the Clutters and why. He returns alone again and again to the empty Clutter house to ponder the mystery. He patiently sifts through a vast amount of information until he, like Capote, is able to construct a coherent narrative. A major break comes with a tip from Floyd Wells, who, while still in prison, hears of the Clutter atrocities and informs the warden of his conversations with Hickock. Dewey's team tracks down Hickock and Smith, who have been crisscrossing the country on a spree of petty crime, and brings them back to Garden City, Kansas, for trial.
Capote assimilates court transcripts, interviews, newspaper accounts, and his own observations, constructing an account of the Holcomb massacres that seems innocent of construction, merely "a true account." It is a powerful story of inexorable crime and punishment, even more powerful for underscoring the reader's awareness that this is reality, not literature. Clearly, however, though he pretends to enter the minds of his characters and to deny his own presence, the author is always there, all the way to the final lines: The case is now closed, and fifty-one-year-old Dewey is walking pensively through the cemetery where the Clutter family is buried. In an echo of its opening paragraphs, which had described the enigmatic austerity of the bleak Midwestern plains, a landscape that is intriguing to the flamboyant author from New York, In Cold Blood concludes with a reference to "the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat." The reader might note the alliteration and the carefully balanced cadences, but he is also convinced that that is the way it was.
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.
Steven G. KellmanSources for Further Study
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography, 1988.
Garson, Helen S. Truman Capote, 1980.
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, 1968.
Nance, William L. The Worlds of Truman Capote, 1970.
Reed, Kenneth T. Truman Capote, 1981.
Zavarzadeh, Mas'ud. The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel, 1976.
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