Literature attempts to shape or reflect society, and oftentimes literature reveals truths and provides insight into the condition of that society. The American Dream is a dominant theme in American literature, and in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the idealistic dream is critically evaluated. In this paper, I will explain the context of the work, and then I will compare and contrast Dick any Perry (the murderers) with the Clutter family (the murdered) in relation to the theme of the fragility of the American Dream.
Capote wrote what he considered to be the first nonfiction novel. Simply defined a nonfiction novel is one in which an event is reported using traditional literary and rhetorical conventions to expose broader truths concerning humanity as a whole without going astray from the truth (“Nonfiction Novel”). Capote had long felt that journalism could expose broader truths concerning the human condition that fiction could not, as Capote explains in this excerpt from Inge’s Truman Capote: Conversations:
I’ve always had the theory that reportage is the great unexplored art form. I mean, most good writers, good literary craftsmen, seldom use this métier…I’ve had this theory that a factual piece of work could explore whole new dimensions in writing that would have a double effect fiction does not have—the every fact of its being true, every word of it’s true, would add a double contribution of strength and impact. (40)
With the belief that nonfiction provides more impact than fiction, Capote utilizes the literary technique of montage to create a comparison and contrast between two separate beliefs. Helen Garason (143-44) asserts that Capote made this structural decision for maximum suspense and impact in order to drive home his themes: violence in America, the failure of the American dream, and the psychology of death-obsessed criminals. Capote utilizes this technique to document the events occurring before, during, and after the seemingly motiveless November 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Jake Silverstien, a writer for Texas Monthly, states that “All murders begin as mysteries…In most cases the mystery has now been drained from the murder: answers have been supplied, experts have testified, evidence has been produced… a narrative has emerged from the wreckage” (16). That is exactly what Capote’s In Cold Blood does: it presents the answers, testimony, and evidence putting together the narrative of the Clutter family murders in its entirety—including what led the murderers, specifically Perry, to murder. In doing so, Capote criticizes the traditionally held belief that in America all things are possible, regardless of circumstances—that is, he criticizes the American Dream.
At the time which In Cold Blood was written, and during which the Clutter murders occurred, belief in the American dream was at one of its highest points in history. Henry Luce’s 1941 essay The American Century, as quoted by Eric Foner (863),...