On this day in 1959, the entire Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, was murdered in their own home. The murders drew the attention of novelist Truman Capote, who investigated the case for his much-publicized “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. Reviewing the book in The Nation in February of 1966—and it’s hard not to see the title of this review, “Sob-Sister Gothic,” as homophobic—Sol Yurick, author of the novel The Warriors, delivered a mixed verdict of the result.
In Cold Blood is not a bad book. It is better than the usual police reportage, fast moving, melodramatic, suspenseful in the way of its genre, even a little artful. But it is impossible to dissociate In Cold Blood from the claims its author and publisher are making for it: that it is a new art form and, as such, represents a higher objectivity…. It turns out that what we are really witnessing is a kind of morality play: the conversion of Truman Capote, who, turning asway from the sinful, the decadent, the tumid prose pathologic, comes into the clear and healthful air of the world of objectivity and, at the same time, throws open new markets of opportunity by the example of his redemption. He also manages to save the moribund novel which has priced itself out of the market with too much exotic experimentation….
It is the middle class which is responsive to and outraged by that violent dislocation, by that apparent unmotivation of certain acts which it is stylish to call irrationality or absurdity in literature. The very words argue the exception that tests a pervasive condition, an everyday state of being. And, after all, it is the middle class which has created a social medium whose very nature is shored up by an ideology that stresses personal volition, cause-effect, reason, logic, historicism. Anything that appears to violate this order is shattering, outrageous, deserving of the death penalty; the very presentation, the very special pleading, of In Cold Blood implies the unusualness of the murderer’s act and so becomes diversion, entertainment in case history, and tries to persuade us that what are in fact common patterns of behavior are aberrations. But the poor, for instance, live in a world of violent and criminal dislocations, casual unmotivated brutality which no police force tries seriously to stop, so long as it doesn’t spill over. It is a world whose inhabitants are not too strongly programmed in the ethics of cause-effect, and kill without much feeling, who do not find such behavior absurd, but expected. How few Capotes put their obsessed talents to dramatizing such worlds.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.