Truman Capote's In Cold Blood - New Journalism as an Instrument of Social Criticism

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

28 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents


I. The Rise of New Journalism in the 1960s

II. Truman Capote’s Non-fiction Nove

III. The Non-fiction Novel as an Instrument of Social Criticism
1. The Clutters – Depiction of Ideal American Family Life
2. Dick Hickock and Perry Smith – The American Nightmare
3. A Critical Portrait of the American Bible Belt Society and
the US Judicial system




In 1965, one of America's most controversial authors, Truman Capote, published his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, an account of the 1959 murder of four members of a Kansas farming family. The work does not only give a broad panoramatic description of the world of the victims and their killers but also captures the image of a society standing on the verge of unknown challenges and threats.

The American post-war decade was marked by a stable economy, widespread prosperity, social mobility and conformity. As President Eisenhower pursued the Cold War abroad, American society was concerned with security at home. The young generation of the 1950s conformed to traditional family values; marriage and birth rates reached a record high. Many citizens could now afford to obtain the American dream: a house in the suburbs, at least one car and a television set. The ideal middle class family, as it was epitomized in the media, consisted of a providing father, a cheerful homemaker and mother, and disciplined children.

In the 1960s, a climate of rebellion, confrontation and upheaval altered the consensus which had dominated the nation throughout the Eisenhower era.

The country suddenly found itself in an ongoing crisis. Social reform movements challenged established traditions and moral values. American culture was profoundly transformed as the 1960s created a more open society in which social structures were questioned, trust in the government dispelled, free expression expanded and counter-cultural life styles emerged.

In his novel In Cold Blood, Capote questioned the essence of American society, its judicial system and the way in which crime and criminals are dealt with. He effectively used the non-fiction novel as an instrument of implicit social criticism. By applying literary techniques to non-fictional material, the author looked beyond the surface of given facts and turned the Clutter case into an allegory of American social life. In Cold Blood exposed the fragility of American family values and revealed the ambiguity of the American way of life by contrasting middle class affluence with an economic underworld of deprived Americans.

I. The Rise of New Journalism in the 1960s

Experiencing the incredibility of contemporary reality in the 1960s, many novelists no longer considered realism as an adequate literary form for serious writing. It seemed increasingly difficult to grasp American reality and make it comprehendible: “bourgeois society was breaking up, fragmenting. A novelist could no longer portray a part of that society and hope to capture the Zeitgeist; all he would be left with was one of the broken pieces.”[1] Contemporary fiction writers, e.g. John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, etc., abandoned the idea of a mimetic representation of social life. Before the background of a fragmenting world, the notion of a single universal truth was replaced by the consideration of multiple versions of the truth. Post-modern novelists perceived themselves as constructors of their own version of the world[2] and explored new novelistic forms, e.g. meta-fiction, surrealism, fragmentation, science-fiction, fantasy, etc.

The exhaustion of the realist novel created new possibilities for another group of writers. Instead of turning their backs on realism and a mimetic representation of their contemporary environment, the New Journalists of the 1960s and early 1970s were a fitting match for the social upheavals of the time. As Tom Wolfe wrote later about the 1960s:

The Sixties was one of the most extraordinary decades in American history … when manner and morals, styles of living, attitudes toward the world changed the country more crucially than any political events …This whole side of American life that gushed forth when postwar American affluence finally blew the lid off – all this novelists turned away from … That left a huge gap in American letters, a gap big enough to drive an ungainly Reo rig like the New Journalism through[3]

The post-war rise of television and film production as well as the dramatic social changes of the 1960s caused a renewed interest in factual, documentary material. American readers shifted from traditional fiction to non-fictional forms. Magazine journalism was preferred because of its functional approach to contemporary history and society. Fictional novels and short stories seemed trivial, useless and simply “at odds with a pragmatic, issue-oriented new sensibility”[4].

The 1960s were a decade of artistic innovation and improvisation, in which the style of journalistic reporting underwent major stylistic changes. Novelists and reporters began to create hybrid forms consisting of fictional and non-fictional elements. Through a thoughtful combination and juxtaposition of detailed eyewitness report, autobiography, factual history, and confessional narrative, a “New Journalism” was created to directly confront issues of social reality. It entered the journalistic scene with a remarkable self-proclaimed uniqueness and challenged long-standing journalistic reporting practices. Traditional reporting had been based on objectivity. Journalistic articles were supposed to be lean impersonal prose accounts telling both sides to a story in a “who-what-where-when”-style.

The New Journalists rejected the traditional school of pragmatic journalism.

The ‘new journalists’ . . . were no longer willing to hide their personalities behind gray columns of newspaper print and the customary pose of objectivity; they converted themselves into independent investigators and participants, writing about events from the ‘inside,’ reporting on their innermost feelings and attitudes as a means of better understanding the social conflicts of their age.[5]

Instead of applying quantitative research methods to gather empirical facts, New Journalists preferred a qualitative approach. They wrote in a subjective voice and revealed their personal biases. They sought to reach a higher truth beneath the factual surface of a case. These writers were more interested in probing the consciousness of individuals and examining cultural value concepts beneath the surface facts. Their works were an attempt to morally confront specific cultural issues in order to create a greater understanding of the era. For readers, the major appeal of this genre was its treatment of actual events of the recent past through which it conveyed the chaos of contemporary American social life. In a period of extraordinary events, writers did not see a necessity to invent imaginary plots and characters: “The actuality is constantly undergoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist”[6].

The New Journalists effectively combined in-depth reporting with narrative devices of literary realism, i.e. scene-by-scene construction, third-person narrative perspective and the recording of dialogue in full and status details.

The idea was to give the full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.[7]

The development of New Journalism as a genre can be compared to the rise of the novel in the late 18th and early 19th century. The early novel was considered as a low form of entertainment without any didactical instruction or moral function. It struggled to achieve equal literary recognition next to the high status literary forms of epic poetry and drama. This parallels the situation of non-fictional journalistic writing in the 20th century: Within the literary community, novelists belonged to the literary upper class and were considered “the only literary artists”, while journalists were seen as lower class “day laborers”[8]. The new hybrid form of New Journalism presented a violation of literary class lines because it lifted non-fictional journalism into the realm of art, thus blurring the boundary between high and popular culture.

New Journalism was not a homogeneous school of writing with a single definition or a clear agenda: “Any kind of fact writing that departed from the familiar forms of journalism or recreated events, however slightly, rather than simply describing them came to be called New Journalism.”[9] Non-fiction with a literary purpose has been referred to in many terms, e.g. as documentary narrative, non-fiction novel, literature of fact, etc.

By the end of the decade, New Journalism had reached an enormous popularity. The non-fiction works of writers such as Norman Mailer, Thomas Wolfe, Truman Capote and Joan Didion found a wide readership and achieved high bestselling ranks. New Journalists were celebrated as public personas. They followed the increasing trend towards exhibitionism throughout American culture and the arts. By giving extensive interviews and appearing in television talk shows, writers allowed society to have a glimpse into their private lives, their working habits and their research methods, e.g. the way of collecting material, the conducting of interviews, etc.

II. Truman Capote’s Non-fiction Novel

In 1959, Capote embarked on the most spectacular literary experiment of his career which would lay one of the ground stones for the genre of New Journalism. He attempted to create a “serious new art form”, which he referred to as the “nonfiction novel”.[10] Convinced that non-fictional reporting possessed the same artistic potential as the novel, Capote sought to fuse journalistic reporting and fictional narration. Finding a suitable topic seemed to be one of the most difficult aspects. He had to find material that would not be out of date by the time he finished the novel but remain of perpetual human interest. “The human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.”[11] On the morning of November 16, 1959, while reading the New York Times, Capote found the ideal subject for his non-fictional novel in a short article describing the mysterious murder of Herbert Clutter, a wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two adolescent children in Holcomb, Kansas. Accompanied by his life-long friend Harper Lee, he traveled to Kansas to begin with his intense research on the Clutter case. Over a period of six years, the author compiled over 8,000 pages of relevant material to carefully reconstruct the story of the murder. For this purpose, he conducted hundreds of interviews, collected all sorts of relevant documents and followed the police investigation, the court trial, the killers’ lives on death row and their execution. The result of Capote’s research, his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, was finally published as a four-part series in The New Yorker in September and October 1965 and as a whole in January 1966.

In the “Acknowledgements” preceding the novel, Capote briefly claimed that “all the material in this book not derived from my own observation is either taken from official records or is the result of interviews with the persons directly concerned”.[12] He did not rely on extensive research devices such as footnotes, bibliographies or time-charts to create documentary authenticity. Nevertheless, the effect is achieved through the author’s artful integration of unaltered documents, e.g. letters, diary excerpts from Nancy and Perry, and the psychiatric article on the murderers’ motivations and criminal responsibilities, into the narrative as well as his direct quotation from memorized interviews in the form of monologue and dialogue, which make up half of the novel. By letting the involved persons speak for themselves, Capote appears to present the reader with the true version of the case minus his subjective interpretation.

Narrative perspective shifts between an omniscient narrator giving objective, detailed descriptions of facts and a third person perspective of events through the eyes of different individual characters. Unlike Norman Mailer, Capote does not appear as a narrative persona explicitly commenting on the action within the novel; despite his involvement in the case as a journalist, he remains a non-participate and impartial observer. However, although he is absent from the plot, the author found a possibility of implicitely making his own comment and manipulating the reader through the conscious selection and arrangement of factual material.


[1] Wolfe, Tom. “Why they aren’t writing the Great American Novel anymore”. Esquire 78,

1972. 156.

[2] Cf. Weber, 12.

[3] Wolfe, Tom, Esquire 78, 157.

[4] Weber, Ronald. The Literature of Fact. Athens: Ohio UP, 1980. 8.

[5] Pells, Richard. The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age. Middletown: Wesleyan, 1989. 405

[6] Roth, Philip. “Writing American Fiction”. The American Novel since World War II. Ed.

Marcus Klein. Greenwich: Fawcett, 1964. 144.

[7] Wolfe, The New Journalism, 21.

[8] Wolfe, Esquire, 153.

[9] Weber, 1.

[10] Malin, Irving, ed. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A Critical Handbook. Belmont:

Wadsworth, 1968. 25.

[11] Ibid., 28.

[12] Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood – A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its

Consequences. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


Truman Capote's In Cold Blood - New Journalism as an Instrument of Social Criticism
Free University of Berlin  (JFK)
American Culture of the Sixties
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This paper describes the rise of New Journalism in the 1960s and explains Truman Capote's concept of the Non-Fiction Novel. An indepth-analysis of the novel In Cold Blood shows how Capote effectively used the non-fiction novel as an instrument of implicit social criticism. By applying literary techniques to non-fictional material, Capote transformed the Clutter case into an allegory of American social life.
Truman, Capote, Cold, Blood, Journalism, Instrument, Social, Criticism, American, Culture, Sixties
Quote paper
Natalie Lewis (Author), 2004, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood - New Journalism as an Instrument of Social Criticism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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