Published on November 30th, 2013 | by Thompson0
The Nonfiction Novel: In Cold Blood a Not-So-Cold-Blooded Account of Murderers
The nonfiction novel came into its own in 1965, when both Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson undertook the task of writing the seminal works In Cold Blood and Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Ironically, both nonfiction novels featured outlaw protagonists. This was no accident.
Capote and Thompson were taking advantage of an American audience that had been obsessed with outlaws since John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson became celebrities for robbing banks in the ’30s. The newspaper industry certainly appreciated the work of outlaws then and still does today. Hell, America’s obsession with outlaws even goes back to the late 1800’s when dime novels shared the fantastic stories of Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp.
Capote and Thompson were both playing off the idea that outlaws were not just interesting because of their actions, but for the reasons for their actions. At a time when psychology was being more widely accepted by scientists and readers, Capote and Thompson allowed the protagonists in their nonfiction novels to convey the interesting psyche of the outlaw, and how the mind, not the man, can be responsible for actions unbecoming of society.
Perry Smith, Capote’s most interesting protagonist (and possibly a lover of Capote’s) has a most interesting mind. Capote portrays Smith as a victim of circumstances, which he very much is. Smith’s life is referred to as “pathetic” by Detective Dewey, but there’s something about the man that sticks with you, which is why he makes such a great protagonist.
“Smith, though he was the true murderer, aroused another response, for Perry possessed a quality, the aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded, that the detective could not disregard” (341).
These are the characters that had widely been ignored by novelists – the villains – and Truman Capote found one of the most villainized Americans in recent history. In the early ’60s, and especially in the South, psychology wasn’t being considered in courtrooms or in the communities. If you killed somebody and you clearly had intent and knew you had done something wrong, you were guilty. Perry’s sister, Barbara, makes this clear in her letter.
“What you have done, whether right or wrong, is your own doing. From what I personally know, you have lived your life exactly as you pleased without regard to circumstances or persons who loved you–who might be hurt. Whether you realize it or not–your present confinement is embarrassing to me as well as Dad–not because of what you did but the fact that you don’t show me any signs of SINCERE regret and seem to show no respect for any laws, people or anything” (140-141).
What Barbara doesn’t understand is Perry cannot show remorse because, to him, he is not responsible for the crime – civilization is. He was put in this situation. He did not put himself there. His sister goes on preaching advice, but it falls on deaf ears.
“As far as responsibility goes, no one really wants it–but all of us are responsible to the community we live in & its laws. When the time comes to assume the responsibility of a home and children or business, this is the seeding of the boys from the Men–for surely you can realize what a mess the world would be if everyone in it said, ‘I want to be an individual, without responsibilities, & be able to speak my mind freely & do as I alone will.’ We are all free to speak & do as we individually will–providing this ‘freedom’ of Speech & Deed are not injurious to our fellow-man” (142).
If Perry is supposed to be responsible to his community, why won’t the community take responsibility for creating him? That’s what goes through a mind like Perry Smith’s. He feels the community should be punished for the way he was treated by his mother and during his time in juvenile correctional facilities. Instead, he’s facing the death penalty for a crime that was “predisposed to gross lapses in reality contact and extreme weakness in impulse control during periods of heightened tension and disorganization” (301). In other words, the murder was an out-of-body experience for Perry. It was an unreal, unconscious, violent reaction to a very real situation.
Capote challenges capital punishment using psychology as his reason. It happens to be a pretty good reason, as varying degrees of insanity had been discovered due to psychological research. Dick serves as a sort of spokesperson for Capote. Though he says he isn’t against capital punishment, Dick likens it to revenge.
“Revenge is all it is, but what’s wrong with revenge? It’s very important. If I was kin to the Clutters, or any of the parties York and Latham dispensed with, I couldn’t rest in peace till the ones responsible had taken that ride on the Big Swing” (335).
You’d think a Christian nation would strive to be forgiving rather than vengeful, but that’s absolutely not the case. People need closure, and Dick recognizes this.
In Cold Blood humanizes both Perry and Dick, and although Capote was criticized for altering actual events, changing dialog, and creating new events, the “nonfiction” novel allows an audience to understand the reasons for their actions – even if Capote worked a little harder to make the murderers more likable. Their psyches remain unchanged, and though we may not agree with them, it’s hard to deny that they are most interesting characters.
Visit in a few days for a review of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.