A Look at Capital Punishment in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood
“In school we only learn to recognize the words and to spell,” Truman Capote writes in his nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, “But the application of these words to real life is another thing that only life and living can give us.” Capote’s book explores the events leading up to and following the savage murders of four members of the Clutter family by ex-convicts Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. As we learn more about the murderers and the lives they led prior to committing this heinous crime, Capote presses some of the most profound questions about empathy and moral judgment. Specifically, he examines Smith and his tragic upbringing, finding it “possible to look at the man… without anger—with, rather, a measure of sympathy—for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage or another.”
Capote offers no easy answers to the difficult questions In Cold Blood raises. Rather, he lets his layers of exploration speak for itself, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions about the Clutter family, the town of Holcomb, and ultimately, Hickock and Smith. At the time of its publication fifty-five years ago, In Cold Blood was an instant success, mainly because nonfiction had previously never been presented in the form of a novel before, but Capote’s in-depth storytelling helped to pioneer the true crime genre of creative nonfiction. Through extensive research boasting 8,000 pages of notes, a series of personal interviews, and a cleverly interwoven story that includes three distinct narratives, Capote manages to fully present all sides in an eloquent, prose-like manner.
In Cold Blood presents a moving portrayal of the Clutter family and how there has never been “a word against them,” how they were the “least likely to be murdered.” This makes the violence of their death all the more disheartening. In Cold Blood is also a desolate depiction of Holcomb specifically after the murder of the Clutters. At the story’s start, the town was “like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks,” and “drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.” Following the Clutters’ deaths, though, the “congregation of neighbors and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other.” In Cold Blood also exposes Hickock and Smith as not merely villains but also as people with pitiful lives, which eventually led them to make all of the wrong choices. But most importantly, In Cold Blood catapulted the debate of capital punishment to a national level due to Hickock and Smith’s convictions, which carried mandatory death sentences.
Though Capote was widely praised by most of the literary community at the time of the book’s publication, In Cold Blood received its fair share of criticism, with some questioning the narrative’s truthfulness. In particular, it was later revealed, through interviews with certain citizens of Holcomb, that some facts were changed to suit the story, certain scenes were added to embellish the narrative, and a few conversations were made-up for effect. For instance, lead investigator Alvin Dewey mentioned, after In Cold Blood’s publication, that he never went to visit the Clutters’ graves, which is a key scene towards the end of the book. Likewise, Josephine Meier, the undersheriff’s wife, also noted that she never became close to Smith, but Capote highlights their friendship, noting that Meier even held Smith’s hand on occasions when he cried in his cell.
At the time of its publication, the commercial success of the book pushed the public to not want to “discuss anything wrong with a moneymaker like that,” as noted by true crime writer Jack Olsen. As a result, while these discrepancies were noted at the time, no action was taken. In today’s creative nonfiction landscape, a book like In Cold Blood would have been fact-checked more thoroughly in order to preserve the integrity of the nonfiction genre, and it would have been done with greater ease as well, since we are living in a digital age.
Despite these drawbacks, Capote effectively reconstructs the murders through an objective portrayal of the characters. In particular, Capote portrays Hickock and Smith as merely human, and even the townspeople of Holcomb, who harbored feelings of contempt for the murderers, were “amazed to find them humanly shaped.” While a measure of sympathy is felt for Hickock and Smith due to their troubled childhood, it does not, in any way, change the fact that four innocent people were killed. Smith did not feel any remorse, stating that he didn’t “feel anything about it” despite knowing that the Clutters “had experienced prolonged terror,” that “they had suffered”. In fact, he felt “sorry for [himself]… but that’s all.”
This leaves readers with the burning question of whether empathy is “deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy” in the face of such violence. In Cold Blood left me pondering over this for weeks, and rather than arriving at a conclusion of any sort, I am only left with even more questions.
What are the right consequences for those who kill without an ounce of remorse? Will taking the lives of Hickock and Smith remedy the loss of the Clutters’ lives? If not capital punishment, then what is considered “justice” for the Clutter family?
I still do not have any concrete answers, and I do not think I ever will.
Capote uses In Cold Blood to thoroughly examine the death penalty, and though he never outwardly states it in the book, he is against it. However, the debate of capital punishment remains multifaceted because we will never be able to truly understand empathy and forgiveness, or the “application of these words to real life” without knowing how it feels to have our family cruelly ripped apart for no reason, by people who do not regret their actions. Capital punishment can be discussed indefinitely, but there are no right or wrong answers. “Only life and living can give us” the answer we are looking for.