Commentary Magazine

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

But is it Good for Literature?

In Cold Blood.
by Truman Capote.
Random House. 343 pp. $5.95.

Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is a cross between a detective story and a crime documentary. It cannot be considered in any meaningful sense a novel, though it invites criticism as a novel by pretending somehow to be one and by using the machinery of fiction. (On most bestseller lists, In Cold Blood is listed as non-fiction, though of course newspapers do not recognize any ultra-modern category between fiction and non-fiction.) Perhaps I can best sum up my response to the book by saying that when I finished it I thought it was good in its own way, but that the question remained—as in the old Jewish joke—whether In Cold Blood was good for literature. By this I do not mean that the book does not measure up to some fancy or sacred or strict notion of literature or of the novel. Nor am I denying its qualities: qualities that are appropriate to its own genre, such as the fact that it is a good story, competently though too mechanically told, its smooth, standardized prose and somewhat contrived shifting of scenes giving off an aura of fictional skill and urbanity and imaginative re-creation. In Cold Blood reads like high-class journalism, the kind of journalism one expects of a novelist.

Some people have been spreading the notion, promoted by Capote himself, that In Cold Blood represents a new literary genre, the non-fiction novel. Now the idea of a non- or anti-fiction is quite chic and fits in with fashionable attitudes about modern forms, and with attitudes about novelty in general. Capote's book, however, has nothing to do with these catchy—and saleable—hints of a literary breakthrough. It is almost reassuringly old-fashioned in its straightforward rendition of a “true story.” For the use of real events is as old as fiction or storytelling itself. And if we are looking for more immediate examples, there is of course An American Tragedy, based largely on actual happenings, or works like The Possessed, or Sons and Lovers, or Proust's great novel, all of which took off from occurrences either in or outside the lives of the authors. But even the most naturalistic works were not chained to the facts; in all of them, the art of the novel was to transform the original experience. In Truman Capote's book, what stands out is not Capote's inventiveness but his fidelity to the “facts.” The emphasis is on the fact, not on the fiction, on re-creation, not creation. Capote's aim seemed to be to preserve the picture of the place and of the events before, during, and after the murder, in the way it appeared to everyone involved or as it might appear to an all-seeing, objective observer—like God, who is clearly not a novelist.

There is no need to retell the story, since so many reviewers have showed off their narrative gifts in stylish summaries of the action, with a few side-effects and fringe insights thrown in. But one is struck by the fact that many of the reviewers as well as the author himself (particularly when he was interviewed in the New York Times) put so much emphasis on the importance of the plot. No doubt the appearance of a good, juicy, easily readable tale that lent itself to a kind of instant, homemade symbolism was bound to be welcomed by readers and reviewers fed up with the more complex forms of modern writing in which the so-called story is only an aspect, and a highly stylized one, of the total vision of the novel. Here in this seemingly normal chronicle was the answer to all the distorted and morbid and tortured recreations of experience, going by the name of modernism, that simply do not look like what is commonly assumed to be the shape of experience. The standardized notions of experience are of course themselves fabrications, but they are soothing ones, deriving from popular myths and outworn beliefs, perpetuated by journalism and by the mass media, particularly by television and Broadway. (Though, recently, shocking and outrageous things have been passed off as original.) In self-defense, modern literature—like modern art—had to free itself of the clichés of naturalism in popular storytelling, where the orderly plot reduces everything to a consensus of feelings about life, and affirms an orderly view of existence.


In Cold Blood does involve some such consensus of feeling. No doubt Capote was originally drawn to the murder, despite his statements expressing a purely professional interest in the story, because it touched something very personal inside himself. But except for some hints and echoes, In Cold Blood sounds as though it need not have been written by Capote. The popular strains of Americana, the mystique of Kansas and the Midwest, the folksy philosophy and style of most of the characters, the attempt to understand but not to forgive the murderers in the best tradition of benevolent psychiatry and criminology—those things which give the book its wholesomeness are not attitudes or views normally associated with Capote. The impression one gets from this book is that of a clever synthesis of American prejudices and American wisdom. It is almost as though everything were seen through the eyes of the mythic American: the fabled kind and strong man of the midland who knows nothing and understands everything. All the characters, including the murderers, are conceived of as generalizations of themselves. And the murdered family, as so many reviewers proudly observed, represented a composite of everything decent and ordinary in American life—the very combination of these elements being a triumph of the American character. Also the moral symbolism, which seemed to delight most of the reviewers, is actually a moral resumé, a rehash of all the lessons we have ever been taught. The good guys, who include everyone except the murderers, illustrate the enlightened idea that man is a mixture of good and evil, say about 60-40 in favor of good, while the bad guys, the murderers, simply reverse the proportion. And in the last analysis, everyone is a victim of circumstance, thus preserving the faith, the hope, and the belief in social sanity that our ideals of advancement depend on. As everyone has said, the crime itself is so awful it is painful to think about. Yet the book as a whole is made palatable by the fact that its horrors are part of the order of things and are soluble in criminology, psychology, sociology—the disciplines which stabilize the meaning of crime and punishment.

A kind of catharsis might be said to be effected by the typicality of the people and events of the book. The judge, the cops, the Clutter family, the murderers, are so thoroughly stereotyped that their motives and their behavior scarcely belong to them. They belong to all of us, and since they are so broad and so general they sweep up our free-floating feelings of guilt and terror and desire—which, I suppose, is the secret of the detective story's success. Who are the leading characters? Herbert Clutter is the legendary rugged individualist, the American Gothic who inevitably is conjured up when you try to picture the average middle-class citizen, the man whose life and opinions explain why the country thinks and acts as it does at any given time. Mrs. Clutter is faded, depressed, but a good woman, the soft underbelly of the American dream. Their children, Nancy and Kenyon, round out the family: Nancy is the embodiment of every father's fantasy; Kenyon, that dreamy combination of shyness and strength, is nothing less than American youth. And so on: Judge Tate mixes his prejudices and his duties in the austere tradition of frontier justice; the jailers are simple and warmhearted; the detectives are plain and self-righteous, doing a job that fortunately puts them on the side of right against wrong.


The killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, are more complex and more interesting. And in conceiving them, Capote almost achieves the true novelist's lack of objectivity. For one thing, Capote spends much more time digging into the characters of the killers. Obviously he was strongly drawn to them, and not only because the narrative required that he focus on them. His re-creation of their lives suggests more than the standard liberal conception of their pathology. It suggests a feeling, not entirely detached, for that pathology, particularly for Perry Smith, the more twisted of the two. Hence Capote does succeed in giving a sense of the psychopathic haze in which the impulses outlawed by society are mixed up with so-called normal—or conventional—thinking. Clinically, the distorting factors are thought to be some lack of guilt, weak superego, and affectlessness; and Capote does suggest some such psychological picture. But these are only medical categories, and whatever power is generated in portraying the killers comes from Capote's need to humanize the criminal mind, to connect it with the most ordinary, often legitimate, sometimes appealing acts and feelings. If Smith and Hickock come alive at all, it is because Capote has tried to see them as whole men, so that their sexual habits, their feeling toward their friends and families, their sense of themselves—all appear to be of a piece. Sometimes it almost seems as though Capote identifies himself with the killers, particularly when he makes their most perverse desires look plausible and ordinary, the way we like to think of our own desires.

Usually, though, Capote hangs back from putting himself into the killers or—what amounts to the same thing—putting the killers into himself. Instead, he generalizes them, blowing them up into case histories which, as we know, are interchangeable, equally morbid, seductive, meaningful.

Only in the portrait of Perry Smith does Capote come close to drawing a truly novelistic figure, someone who is more than a composite of everything we know about him. Stunted, childish, and savage, like an underdeveloped pirate, Perry Smith lives constantly on the edge of frenzy. But there is very little difference between his “normal” way of thinking and the state he is in when he is about to steal something from a supermarket or cut someone's throat. In this respect he is, by the norms of our imagination, a monster. (One is reminded of Eichmann, whose normalities and abnormalities were often indistinguishable, though in Nazi Germany his behavior was more socially acceptable.) And to re-create Smith as a monster, Capote would have had to stretch him out of shape—a shape people find disturbing but still comfortably familiar—to push to the extreme some of his traits instead of underplaying them. Thus, Perry would have had to become possible rather than just reasonable. But to effect this, Capote would have had to stock Perry with some of his own obsessions. As for Dick Hickock, he is less of a monster, more of a typical con man. But to be realized, he, too, would have had to be carried away by some morbid idea, superimposed on him by Capote; and such a fusion of the author with his character would have endowed Hickock with a novelistic personality.

Perhaps the key to Capote's failure is his muting of the homosexual theme. I don't mean to suggest that he should have made overt the homosexuality constantly hinted at in each of the killers and in their quibbling, jealous, dependent relationship, like that of a very old or very young couple. That would have been even more banal, just another psychological package. But Capote could have exploited the homosexual theme by transposing it or connecting it with other life styles, as, for example, Proust and Genet have done, and thus might have been able to lift the killers out of the pettiness of their lives and their crimes. If their crimes are to be seen as extensions of their lives, their lives must be seen in more monstrous and more seductive—really in more absolute, terms.

A comparison with writers like Gide and Camus, who found the proper means for handling similar themes, is not unfair if we take seriously the claims for In Cold Blood. Gide's and Camus's ideas invaded their characters, and each character enacts the meaning, not just the events, of his life. Gide's immoralists act out their own moral logic, and their seemingly unmotivated acts exemplify the illogic of existence. And Camus's Meursault is an ordinary man, a nobody, who becomes a killer because one thing leads to another. But in refusing to connect himself with his crime, Meursault holds on till the very end to his idea of himself, and in so doing exemplifies Camus's idea that moral will is the content of freedom. Capote's murderers, on the other hand, are simply reconstituted.

Literary questions of the kind raised by Capote's new book often appear more sharply in a generational form. And, in fact, In Cold Blood seems to have very little appeal for younger people. I do not think that one is necessarily joining the youth brigade in suggesting that younger people, brought up on more adventurous kinds of writing, do not take to a fairly conventional, almost sentimental, portrait of the psychopath as a little man. Still, one need not be under thirty to tell the difference between a fictionalized crime story and a new kind of fiction.

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