“Just remember: If one bird carried every grain of sand, grain by grain, across the ocean, by the time he got them all on the other side, that would only be the beginning of eternity.”
On November 16th, 1959, Truman Capote, a hopeful up-and-coming member of the literati elite, skimmed an article in The New York Times reporting on the deaths of one Kansas farmer and his three family members. By January of the following year, he was on his way back to New York after visiting Holcomb, KS during a grisly Christmas season to delve into what would become his most prized work. In Cold Blood became both a household name, catapulting Capote to international fame, and also the extension of a nightmarish incident for the townspeople of Holcomb County who knew the family subjected to Capote’s aggressive enthusiasm.
They were the Clutter family: Herb, the father, Bonnie, the mother, and their two children, Nancy and Kenyon. What exactly struck Capote’s interest in the brief detailing of this family’s deaths is uncertain, but what he awoke in audiences through this meticulously researched and detailed mass of narrative reportage was something both awe-striking and sinister. What emerged from Capote’s pilgrimage to Kansas was not the righteous recognition of one family’s tragic end but the morbid curiosity of how it came to be in the first place. With an intimate eye on the killers responsible for the Clutters’ murders, Capote exposed a weakness in America’s 1950s class system that nauseated the American Dream and unveiled a fascination with its demise.
The townspeople of Holcomb, KS were notably incensed by Capote’s portrayal of the Clutter family, which lasts only long enough for him to steer the focus onto how they came to die—through brutal shotgun shootings carried out by Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. The languid early narrative of the family’s daily routines, their warm and pristine standing within their community, fades quietly and is replaced with an FBI investigation and disorganized criminal evasion.
Capote trims the various layers of his characters’ involvement into a synchronized scope that was at times fictional, but gorgeously written. Which becomes so obviously the point he tried to maintain amid Holcomb’s dissatisfaction with his portrayal of events. They wanted to read a literary monument to their fellow townspeople, where Capote wanted to disassemble their assailants. He didn’t want to write an elegy, he wanted to experiment with form, to push the boundaries of narrative nonfiction, and to strip people down to their bones—essentially, the elements of a person or character’s humanity that make for a good story.
In order to unveil that story, Capote had to go beyond the Clutter family into the minds of the murderers, to a place where these men were as human as the ones they’d killed. He followed them all the way to their executions in 1965, showing an evident preference for Smith, whose background is more delicately honed, and whose demeanor he offers a considerable amount of empathy in contrast to Hickock’s. Being the first of its kind, In Cold Blood reads both like a novel and news report. It was serialized in The New Yorker before being published in full by Random House in 1966.
Most notable of its fame is the part To Kill a Mockingbird author, Harper Lee, played in the interviewing and research. Whether or not she did any of the writing is still a point of contention, but she is reported as having an immediate role in greasing the townspeople for information more easily than Capote. Less well-known is his fact-checking aid from The New Yorker, Sandy Campbell, and the questionable part he played in verifying the information that Capote collected for the project. It is where the book takes on its fictional qualities—or unverifiable facts—that the reader may see where exactly Capote’s reporting had to end and his imagination take over. It was that imaginative thinking that generated the intense marketing campaign he had already begun to build through The New Yorker that is reported to have been the reason why Hickock’s own memoir was squelched. Capote had much more at stake, and couldn’t have one of the actual murderers counteracting his portrayal of events.
This is how the family and townspeople came to abhor his handling of the Clutter’s story, and how literary reportage as we know it today still wrestles with the question of narrative in a nonfiction setting. Especially considering the differences in how one obtains facts and how that information is reviewed being much different now than it was in the 1960s. As he writes in describing a robbery of the Holcomb postmistress, “Imagination, of course, can open any door—turn the key and let terror walk right in.” Perhaps, to the townspeople of Holcomb, terror came in the form of not only Smith and Hickock, but Capote himself.
“A Century On” by Ed Pilkington in The Guardian
“Cold Blooded” by Amelia McDonell-Parry in Rolling Stone
“Truman Capote’s Achievement and Undoing” by Medea Giordano in The New York Times
“Truman Capote is dead at 59, novelist of style and clarity” by Albin Krebs in The New York Times
“Fact Checking ‘In Cold Blood’” by Ben Yagoda in Slate
“Killer’s Lost Memoir: What We Know” by Bryn Lovitt in Rolling Stone