AWP2015: Mr. Capote’s Nonfiction Novel: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective of In Cold Blood

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMOn Thursday of AWP, I attended the panel celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s classic. It is widely to be considered to be the first creative nonfiction novel. The panelists were Bob Cowser, Dinah Lenney, Joe Mackall, Kelly Grey Carlisle, and Ned Stuckey-French. Each panelist came up and talked about their thoughts on the novel.

Carlisle gave an introduction to the novel, talking about its history and noting its many accomplishments. In November of 1959, Capote happened to come across a small article in the new York Times about the murder of the Clutter family. He then set out to write a four piece series about the circumstances of the murder, but ended up being consumed by the work. He followed through until the very end and could not finish the piece until after the execution of the murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. After she spoke, Cowser elaborated a bit on the history of the novel and the effect it had on Capote, saying “writing the novel made him throw up every morning.”

Lenney discussed some of the ethics of the book. She had a unique perspective–she’s written a novel about the murder of her own father. She questioned how accurate Capote’s accounts of the murder and the following events were, although he stated numerous times that every single thing he wrote down is factual.

Mackall expanded upon her discussion, slamming Capote’s treatment of the Clutter family. He particularly talked about how Capote dotes over Hickock and Smith, while creating a nearly fake picture of the Clutter family. He says Nancy had a life that tragically ended when “two losers blew [her] away with a shotgun,” and that the focus of the novel should not be an empathetic look at the murderers. He notes that Capote paints the Clutter family as nearly perfect.

Carlisle, who clearly loves the book, was also critical of the portrayal of the Clutter family. They seem “too good to be true.” Their characters are unbelieveable–Herb is the perfect family man and a good Christian. Bonnie suffers from depression, but is still a good mother and Herb takes care of her lovingly. Kenyon, the son, is quiet but a good kid. Nancy is the cherry on top. A great student, a mentor to the younger girls in the town, and in a good, steady relationship with a nice boy. However, according to Harper Lee’s notes, (who accompanied Capote to Holcomb) the Clutter family seemed broken. The religious imagery in the house was overwhelming (In Lee’s words, “modern religious crap”) and Herb seemed like a man who needed to constantly control his family. Carlisle also brought up the fact that the Clutter’s other children think Capote misrepresented their family. However, could any representation of a family that was brutally murdered suffice?

Finally, Stuckey-French spoke up. Offering a completely different perspective on the book, he argued that is was a “queer book about a gay man written by a gay man.” While I hadn’t yet thought of the novel in this light, it was an interesting thought. He pointed out that Capote spends a lot of the novel fawning over Smith, describing him in great detail, making the reader feel empathetic for his struggles. When there was time left over for questions, I directed mine at Stuckey-French, noting that I had a more psychological view on the book (probably due to my field of study) and didn’t notice the LGBTQ undertones. I asked about specific instances in which he felt Capote addressed homosexuality and he gave me a long answer, noting Hickock playing with Smith’s emotions, and Smith’s scorn towards Hickock’s perversions. Furthermore, he noted that this queer presence in the novel starts on page 15. I am now home and have been able to look at that page. Here, Capote starts to introduce the trust issues in Hickock and Smith’s relationship and shows Smith’s desperate attempts to keep Perry around. I am looking forward to re-reading the book and looking for themes I may have missed the first time through.

Melissa Adkins is an editorial assistant with Assay.


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One comment

  1. Thanks for this helpful summary of our panel. Pleased that my answer to your question is leading you back to the book, Melissa.


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