- Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood by Ralph F. Voss
In what is a highly readable, engaging study of Truman Capote’s important novel In Cold Blood, Ralph F. Voss offers a wide-ranging study of Capote’s work that will appeal to Capote scholars as well as to general readers interested in Capote’s novel, its roots in Capote’s own colorful life, and its ongoing importance to American culture in the intervening half century. Voss’s book proves especially strong as he offers a contrarian view to the prevailing sense of Capote as originator of “the nonfiction novel,” suggesting that Capote’s work more importantly draws on other currents in the writing of historical novels and of true crime fiction rather than innovating a new subgenre in its own right. Finally, Voss offers an interesting and, for Capote scholars, indispensable update to what he calls Capote’s “legacy in Kansas” as he tracks the continued effects in the present day of In Cold Blood on the lives of the Kansans-turned-characters in Capote’s pages.
For Voss, any understanding of Capote’s In Cold Blood necessarily roots itself in what he calls “Capote’s ruinous celebrity” (14), and Voss’s work retraces with aplomb the now-familiar narratives of Capote’s troubled life as a youth, his emergence into the circles of New York literati and of the gay subcultures of the city, his meteoric rise to fame in print and in the film adaptations of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, and his gradual but flashy decline as a writer through travel, excess, and increasing personal and artistic turmoil. In depicting these phases of Capote’s life and career, Voss acknowledges his obvious debt to Gerald Clarke’s Capote (1988), considered the landmark biography of Capote, and to George Plimpton’s Too Brief a Treat (2004), and it is true that he draws heavily on these two writers in the initial pages of his book. Still, Voss demonstrates very successfully how In Cold Blood was enabled and emboldened in its scope and ambition by the very courting of celebrity that defined Capote’s life and ultimately destroyed it.
Once Voss moves more solidly into his own contentions about Capote’s style and in particular to his assertion that Capote’s much-heralded “invention” of the nonfiction novel “represents a kind of evolution or, more accurately, a kind of reinvention” (99) of the older forms of the historical novel and of true crime fiction, Voss’s argument gathers particular strength, bolstered by his own copious research of the New York Public Library’s Truman Capote Papers. For Voss, In Cold Blood derives in large part from Capote’s grounding in the Southern Gothic tradition of writing, an attribute only accentuated by Capote’s collaboration with Harper Lee during the research and writing of his novel, especially given the Southern Gothic characteristics so prominently on display in Lee’s own novel To Kill a Mockingbird. For Voss, Capote’s treatment of Holcomb, Kansas, as a sleepy town thrust abruptly and irrevocably into the modern sense of malaise that accompanies such a grisly murder—here, a killing not just of the Clutter family but of a whole community’s (perhaps false) sense of security—cannot be separated from the Southern Gothic’s own frequent recourse to the sometimes-violent “crumbling and decay of antebellum culture” and its “lingering romantic nostalgia” (47). In this sense, Voss argues that Capote inevitably sees rural Kansas through the lens of his own years in Monroeville, Alabama, where he and Harper Lee (“Nelle” to Capote and her other friends) found their own idyll compromised by the intrusions of an ever-encroaching outside world and finally destroyed by Capote’s fractured family life and his parentally-imposed exile to the boarding schools of Connecticut and New York City.
Where Voss’s work reaches its argumentative apogee, however, is his culminating discussion of the legacy of In Cold Blood in the lives of those Kansans...