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In Cold Blood | Study Guide

Truman Capote

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In Cold Blood | Context


Rural Kansas

In rural Kansas in the late 1950s, farmers were coping with surpluses and low prices, and corporations were trying to take over small farms. Farmers who couldn't stay in business moved to cities to get jobs, which were scarce. Struggling wheat farmers went to Washington, D.C., to work with legislators, trying to hammer out programs that would allow them to make a decent living nationwide and globally. The National Association of Wheat Growers and the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, two organizations instrumental in lobbying for farmers, had been formed in major part by none other than Herb Clutter, the murdered father of In Cold Blood.

In many ways, the Clutter family represented the ideals of heartland America. The were church-going people who abstained from alcohol and drug use, and they were well respected in the town of Holcomb. Their brutal murders showcased a disruption in this lifestyle as the violent tensions present in other parts of the United States intruded on small-town life. To this point, Holcomb had been somewhat isolated from the violence of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and domestic racial tensions, for example. When Perry and Hickock arrived in Holcomb, they brought with them this trend toward violence, changing Holcomb and its people forever. With the deaths of the Clutters came the symbolic death of a small-town way of life.

Trends in Journalism

The 1950s saw the explosion of television news and the beginning of a decline in newspaper readership. Television advertising portrayed the 1950s family as wholesome and traditional, with clearly defined roles for men and women as breadwinners and housewives, respectively. Sexuality was a taboo subject. Although the birth control pill was created in 1959, it was not marketed until the early 1960s, and many states upheld laws requiring marriage before sex. The Beat Generation rebelled against the squeaky-clean image portrayed on television, and the bad boys of literature, such as Jack Kerouac, were a favorite target of television news. Magazines published shocking stories, including the story of the murder of 14-year-old African American Emmett Till, who had been lynched in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman and whose open-casket photo revealed the horrors of racism.

A Literary Darling

By the time he began covering the Clutter family murder for The New Yorker, Truman Capote was already the darling of the Manhattan elite social set, having charmed his way into every party he could. He loved fame, and when it became clear In Cold Blood was going to be a book rather than just an article or two, Harper Lee took her byline off the article. Although Lee had written a profile of Alvin Dewey for an FBI magazine called The Grapevine, she did not want to take attention away from Capote's project. As did many of Capote's friends, Lee cleared the way for him to get the attention he craved. However, his reputation in Manhattan didn't serve him at first in Holcomb; it took residents time to open up to him about the murders. When the book came out, the people of Holcomb were horrified he had put words in their mouths (he never recorded any interviews, claiming he could remember everything). Many in Holcomb felt Capote used the Clutter tragedy to boost his fame.
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