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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Transcript of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Murder of the Clutter Family
& the nonfiction novel
"No one will ever know what 'In Cold Blood' took out of me. It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me.
I think, in a way, it did kill me."
Truman Capote, birth name Truman Streckfus Persons, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1924. During his teenage years, he attended private schools in both Connecticut and New York. Capote’s formal education ended at seventeen, when he took an entry-level job at The
New Yorker magazine.
Capote was 35 when he began research for In Cold Blood. By then, he had achieved success with other books: Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), The Grass Harp (1951), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). In a January 1966 New York Times commentary about In Cold Blood, writer Conrad Knickerbocker states, “The very forms of novel and short story seemed to [Capote] increasingly inadequate to the weird dynamics of the age.” What inspired Capote to write the book was a desire to explore a form he invented and called
“the nonfiction novel,”
a genre that uses the techniques of a journalist to gather information, but the techniques of a novelist to tell the story.
Capote recalled that he was reading the New York Times in November of 1959 when he stumbled upon a headline buried deep in the paper that reported the slaying of a wealthy Kansas farmer, his wife, and their two kids. Capote found this article to be the perfect story for his new literary form. He told the New York Times in January 16, 1966,
“after reading the story it suddenly struck me that a crime, the study of one such, might provide the broad scope I needed to write the kind of book I wanted to write. Moreover, the human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.”
The book, In Cold Blood, is told from the perspective of a third person narrator; Capote is not a character and does not personally narrate the book.
He believed the nonfiction novel would be successful only if the reader could not detect the presence of the reporter and could focus on the story itself.
In Cold Blood follows the lives of the Clutter family before their murder, the thoughts and actions of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith before, during, and after the crime, and the impact the crime had on the people of the greater Holcomb community.
“In Cold Blood” began, as the story goes, when Truman Capote came across a 300-word article in the back of the
New York Times
describing the unexplained murder of a family of four in rural Kansas.
“Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15  — A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged … There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut.”
Herbert Clutter was a successful farmer and community leader, a man known for his fairness, his loyalty to his invalid wife and his aversion to dealing in cash. (That was a fact that, had it been known to his future assailants, might have kept all four Clutters alive.) The family is almost too much of a 1950s fantasy to be believed. Nancy, a straight-A student and award-winning pie-maker, was dating a high school basketball star.
Kenyon, the bookish youngest Clutter, was building a cedar chest to give to his oldest sister, Beverly, on her wedding. They were regular churchgoers, active in the 4-H.
As Holcomb residents would later tell detectives, there was no one who didn’t like the Clutters.
Sunday, November 15, 1959
Vol XCIII, No. 311
Capote & his opinion of capital punishment
The Clutter Family Brutally Murdered
Richard "Dick" Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith
Truman Capote learned about the Clutter murders when the New York Times reported the killings in their November 16, 1959 issue. Capote was immediately fascinated by the case, particularly because such a brutal slaying was extremely uncommon in a quiet, rural, middle-class town like Holcomb, Kansas. Once in Kansas, Capote carefully researched the case, frequently talking to police and investigators and interviewing the residents of Holcomb. Capote personally interrogated Hickock and Smith in their prison cells several times prior to their executions. Capote was at the Kansas State Penitentiary when Hickock and Smith were put to death. His first edition of In Cold Blood was released in 1966, just months after the executions.
Truman Capote chose the following epigraph to open his famous non-fiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood:
Freres humains qui après nous vivez,
N’ayez les cuers contre nous endurcis,
Car, se pitié de nous povres avez,
Dieu en aura plus tost de vous mercis.
This translates into English as:
Brothers, men who live after us,
Let not your hearts be hardened against us,
Because, if you have pity for us poor men,
God will have more mercy toward you.
The name of the piece by Francois Villon is “Ballade des pendus” which translates into “Ballad of the Hanged Man”.
How do you think this quote reflects the way Capote wants the reader to view the murderers?
Their killers came from as different a world as you could find in rural America at the time. Perry Smith’s family was broken and violent. He’d lost two siblings to suicide, and a parent to alcoholism. Half-Cherokee, half-Irish, Smith had a “runty” build, thanks to a motorcycle accident that left him with disfigured legs and an addiction to aspirin and glorified daydreams. It was one of those daydreams that sent him out to the Clutter place: Perry’s favorite movie was “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and he was certain that if he could only get to Mexico, he’d find treasure of his own there.
Dick Hickock’s ambitions were slightly less delusional; he just wanted to take the money and run off somewhere he wouldn’t be found. Hickock was also scarred; a car accident had put an unnerving asymmetry into his otherwise handsome face. Hickock’s family was poor but relatively stable. He had a penchant for passing bad checks, but the Clutter murders left his family confounded. Where did such an ordinary boy muster up so much evil?
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Why do you think Capote wanted to explore the nonfiction novel genre?
How can the perspective of both journalist and novelist impact a story like this?
"I got this idea of doing a really serious big work-it would be precisely like a novel, with a single difference: Every word of it would be true from beginning to end."
Truman Capote, author of the best selling book
In Cold Blood
, the story of the mass murder of a family of four in Kansas, is shown as he appeared before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee.
Capote told the group that the crime never would have been solved without a confession.
In literature, juxtaposition is a useful device for writers to portray their characters in great detail to create suspense and achieve a rhetorical effect. It is a human quality to comprehend one thing easily by comparing it to another. Therefore, a writer can make readers sense “goodness” in a particular character by placing him or her side by side to a character that is predominantly “evil”. Consequently, goodness in one character is highlighted by evil in the other character. Juxtaposition in this case is useful in the development of characters.
Writers employ the literary technique of juxtaposition in order to surprise their readers and evoke their interest by means of developing a comparison between two dissimilar things by placing them side by side. The comparison drawn adds vividness to a given image, controls pacing of poem or a narrative and provides a logical connection between two various vague concepts.
Juxtaposition is a literary technique in which two or more
ideas, places, characters and their actions
are placed side by side in a narrative or a poem
for the purpose of developing
comparisons and contrasts