In Cold Blood:Both Sensationalistic and Meaningful

In Cold Blood, a journalistic novel, written by Truman Capote in the early 1960’s, captures the murder of a respected family of four and the murder’s impact on an idyllic Kansas town and its residents. Capote takes advantage of his readers’ morbid curiosity, creating suspense within the novel by withholding the gruesome details for as long as possible. While some people, such as Tom Wolfe, have criticized Capote for his exploitation of violent tragedy, Capote actually capitalizes on his readers’ interest in the murders to comment on the way humanity enjoys gawking at tragedies, to force the reader to sympathize with the murderers, and to relate his opinion on capital punishment. Overall the book is more forceful because Capote contrasts this illusion-shattering violence with a calm Americana town and a relatable middle-class family, and because he uses characters and their dialogue to represent his own opinions and overarching truths about mortality.

Writer Tom Wolfe, a well-known member of the “New Journalism” movement, criticized In Cold Blood, in an essay entitled “Porno-violence,” for exploiting the same morbid interest which Capote depicts several times within the book. Wolfe suggests that Capote’s work is a part of a new genre of sensationalistic literature and film that draws in readers with the promise of a cheap thrill. While Capote undoubtedly exploits the audience’s interest in the deaths to make the novel more successful and to heighten suspense, he also explores themes regarding the darker sides of humanity, occasionally even making light of the sensationalism which popularized the book. The universal themes which Capote addresses, albeit addressed partially through the use of graphic scenes, ultimately make In Cold Blood more meaningful than the violent films and flashy headlines which Wolfe disgustedly compares the book to.

Wolfe argues that what makes a work “porno-violence…is that in almost every case the camera angle, therefore the viewer, is with the gun, the fist, the rock (Wolfe, 184).” What Wolfe accusingly points out—about Capote’s unusual use of perspective—actually increases  the impact of the book overall.  Capote intends for the reader to understand the murderers, to see what they saw, to experience their emotions during the murder. While we follow Perry, one of the two murderers, into the house and witness the murder, we also experience Perry’s shame, his lack of intention, and the mental disturbances which caused him to murder the Clutters. Wolfe notes that in this narrative style, “no matter whose side you may be on consciously, you are in fact with the muscle, and it is you who disintegrate all comers, villains, lawmen, women, anybody(Wolfe, 184).” Capote uses this style partially to build suspense but largely to force the readers to empathize with the characters, who might—under the direction of Kansas newspapers and local opinion—usually be considered villains.

In an interview with George Plimpton, Capote admits that he believes “that capital crimes should all be handled by Federal Courts, and that those convicted should be imprisoned in a special Federal prison where, conceivably, a life-sentence could mean, as it does not in state courts, just that.” His opinion on capital punishment, that the death penalty is morally wrong, becomes a theme within the book. For instance, Capote paints Perry as a victim of circumstance, someone to be pitied rather than reviled—an unusual take on developing a murderer’s character—and through Perry’s experiences and dialogue, Capote relates the injustice of capital punishment, a theme present in the dialogue of other characters as well. Perry’s inner dialogue allows the reader to see that he never really intended to murder any of the Clutters, but that as detective Dewey notes, “the crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act,” a fact that induces sympathy for Perry who—in today’s society—might be labeled criminally insane, and would thus be immune from the death penalty (Capote, 245). Capote further builds on the theme of the injustice of capital punishment through the dialogue of one of the townspeople, who points out the hypocrisy of the death penalty. You can practically hear Capote speaking through the words of defense attorney, Harrison Smith who summarizes Capote’s view that “[Capital punishment] is a relic of human barbarism. The law tells us that the taking of human life is wrong, then goes ahead and sets the example. Which is almost as wicked as the crime it punished…[It] merely cheapens human life and gives rise to more murders (Capote, 303 ).” By choosing to elaborate on the diagnosis of a court appointed psychologist near the end of the book, Capote further illustrates the injustice of the process in determining Perry’s sentence to death. Perry demonstrates that he never intended to kill Mr. Clutter, in fact Perry seemed to respect Mr. Clutter until the very moment Perry slit Mr. Clutter’s throat. Instead, both Perry Smith’s mental illness and his turbulent upbringing cause him to murder Mr. Clutter without even realizing what he is doing. Ultimately Capote wants the reader to conclude that,

“Perry wasn’t an evil person, [and that] if he’d had any chance in life, things would have been different. But every illusion he’d ever had, well, they all evaporated, so that on that night he was so full of self-hatred and self-pity that…he would have killed somebody—perhaps not that night, or the next. You can’t go through life without ever getting anything you want, ever (Plimpton, 19).”

Dick Hickock, the other murder, contrasts sharply in personality and background with Perry.  Whereas “Perry Smith’s life had been… an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another,” Dick’s life seems to have contained fewer influences on his criminal history (Capote, 246). Of the two men, Dick is the cold, insensitive one, whereas Perry is delicate, and emotionally vulnerable. Perry grew up in a violent family, which he watched fall apart, and with a father he eventually isolated himself from.  Dick however, had a relatively stable family which he goes to visit on occasion and he grew up with reasonable opportunities. He mentions that while he was tougher than Perry, Perry was mentally unstable enough to kill someone, whereas Dick, under most circumstances, would be unable to actually commit murder.  By contrasting the two men, Capote garners more sympathy for Perry.

One aspect of the book that I found particularly intriguing was Capote’s exploration of the darkness of the human mind, the desire to “see a man get his head blown off,” and to talk endlessly about and relive tragedy (Wolfe, 184).  Capote illustrates this morbid interest by depicting the gossips that gather around the local restaurants greedy for information and the crowd that eagerly waits in the square for the delivery of the two murderers to the jail, awaiting their arrival as if “expecting a parade or attending a political rally (Capote, 247).” The more they discuss the murders, the less real the events seem, and when the crowd finally sees the murderers, it falls “silent, as though amazed to find them humanly shaped (Capote, 248).” While Capote remains more observant than critical about human nature at this point, he does make light of the sensationalistic atmosphere and the resulting headlines which “raised rounds of laughter” among the townspeople due to over-dramatic titles such as “Fear Lynch Mob Awaiting Return of Suspects (Capote, 247).”

Capote explores other themes in the book as well which create lasting impact, unlike works which—to Wolfe’s disdain—momentarily entertain, but are readily forgotten.  Perry’s search for normalcy, his desire to attain something meaningful for the first time, ends in the “collision of two worlds” in which “someone had to pay,” a theme present throughout the book. While Capote suggests in an interview with George Plimpton that many readers thought “of the book as a reflection on American life, this collision between the desperate, ruthless, wandering, savage part of American life, and the other, which is insular and safe(Plimpton, 19).” He believes In Cold Blood “has struck them because there is something so awfully inevitable about what is going to happen: the people in the book are completely beyond their own control (Plimpton, 19).” However, the book has an even greater effect because–although Capote does not admit this in the interview–his audience is Middle America, a group which the iconic Clutter family represents. The book is so striking to most readers because it attacks their sheltered world. It is not so much that the Clutters are out of the readers’ control, but that the readers must realize that their own mortality is beyond their own control as well, a fact that Capote emphasizes several times throughout the book.

Capote writes well throughout the book and uses suspense masterfully, making the book interesting and fast paced. Although some details, such as the scene with Perry carefully watching the two feral cats, seem too convenient, too aptly metaphorical to be completely factual, I believe Capote did his best to remain true to the original story. However, I would consider In Cold Blood more artistic and subjective than objective and journalistic because of the opinion-influenced choices that Capote makes about which details to include and what to include about characters and within dialogue.

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One response to “In Cold Blood:Both Sensationalistic and Meaningful

  1. Bret Schulte

    Interesting. You believe that Capote was himself sickened by prurient interest?It’s nothing I’ve heard him express, but I do know he was an expert self-promoter who understood how to deliver what people wanted.
    –Capote actually capitalizes on his readers’ interest in the murders to comment on the way humanity enjoys gawking at tragedies, to force the reader to sympathize with the murderers, and to relate his opinion on capital punishment.

    certainly that’s the case, but it’s also true that morbid curiosity had been selling books long before Capote came along. Adventuresome tales of mayhem and murder mysteries — basically dime store novels — had always sold well.
    –Wolfe suggests that Capote’s work is a part of a new genre of sensationalistic literature and film that draws in readers with the promise of a cheap thrill.

    ‘that’. ‘which’ always requires a comma:
    –The universal themes which Capote addresses,

    Right. I think Capote’s purpose was to explore the psychology of a killer, therefore we must be on the side of the fist, the gun, the rock. It’s a case study in criminology, to an extent, albeit an unscientific one. Certainly, Capote feels compassion for Perry, and he hopes to make that compassion by convincing by providing Perry’s POV.
    — Capote uses this style partially to build suspense but largely to force the readers to empathize with the characters, who might—under the direction of Kansas newspapers and local opinion—usually be considered villains.

    Also, I don’t know if I agree entirely with Wolfe’s assessment. We spend time in the book with the Cutters, with folks in the community, and with law enforcement. Indeed, if we didn’t, the story would have almost no impact at all. Our time inside the “good” America is what brings this story its drama.

    Good point:
    –You can practically hear Capote speaking through the words of defense attorney, Harrison Smith who summarizes Capote’s view that “[Capital punishment] is a relic of human barbarism. The law tells us that the taking of human life is wrong, then goes ahead and sets the example. Which is almost as wicked as the crime it punished…[It] merely cheapens human life and gives rise to more murders (Capote, 303 ).

    This is true, but we also have to wonder how fair of a shake he gave Dick, who gets far less attention and analysis than Perry. Dick is easily written off as a criminal, but there are clues that he too suffered from mental illness brought on by severe head trauma. But that’s scarcely mentioned in the book. One mention is from the psychologist who obviously considers it a significant factor, but Capote doesn’t follow up.
    –By contrasting the two men, Capote garners more sympathy for Perry

    good:
    –However, the book has an even greater effect because–although Capote does not admit this in the interview–his audience is Middle America, a group which the iconic Clutter family represents. The book is so striking to most readers because it attacks their sheltered world.

    Thanks for the good comments!

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