Teaching In Cold Blood

In_cold_blood99I always include a nonfiction unit in my Introduction to Literature classes. You may have noticed that many anthologies leave out nonfiction as a genre, which is a real shame. There’s so much potential to investigate literary techniques within nonfiction, and including it on the syllabus does some work of legitimizing what’s come to be known as the “fourth genre.” I’ve played around with teaching speeches, letters, and essays in nonfiction units, but this semester I decided to teach a longer work. My class has been working through the nuances of point of view since midsemester and recently we’ve been investigating the masterful use of 3rd person omniscient in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I’ve taught this book in two creative writing classes before, but this is my first time teaching it in a literature course and it’s incited productive and energetic discussions, especially as the end of the semester draws near. In my class we’ve just finished discussing point of view in Nella Larsen’s Passing and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” so point of view in In Cold Blood is a natural step for us.

For the remainder of this post I’ll include some background info about the book, links to resources I’ve used, and exercises I’ve tried out with my classes in case you want to give it a try in your classrooms.


Before diving into the text I give students a brief background on Capote, 100 best novel cold bloodwho, before writing In Cold Blood, was known for his essays, travel writing, and fiction, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which students may have heard of already. In 1959, Capote read a brief newspaper article about the brutal killings of the Clutter family in Kansas and decided to investigate. There is A LOT to know about Capote’s involvement with the investigation, the murderers, and his biases towards the story. However, I’d recommend letting students discover Capote’s bias in the text instead of planting this idea in students’ minds. In previous classes I’d made the mistake of telling them too much too early and it took away some of the debate that can happen if you let that conversation develop naturally.

In Cold Blood was first published serially in four parts in The New Yorker magazine in 1965, and then was released months later as a book. I introduce my students to this idea of serial publishing and have them pay attention to it since the book is segmented into four very different parts. The novel follows the investigation of the Clutter murder, their murderers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, and the sentencing of the murders after trial. At the time of publication, America under President Lyndon Johnson significantly increased its commitment to the Vietnam War. The time period is important to establish upfront, as American society is moving from 1950s culture of conformity into 1960s culture of paranoia, fear, and rebellion. Since the murders take place in 1959 they work as a metaphorical tipping point in American culture.


As Capote would have been happy to tell anyone who would listen, he claimed that he invented an entirely new form of writing with this book, which was the nonfiction novel. I have students think about their expectations for nonfiction and for the novel and how Capote has combined those expectations into the conventions of a single text. As Capote described it, the nonfiction novel is “a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless immaculately factual.”


Steven Avery, convicted for the murder of Teresa Halbach

Students are usually familiar with the True Crime genre, even if they don’t know it by name. On the first day of class we discuss what other True Crime stories they know, and most have watched or listened to the recently popular Serial or Making a Murderer. It’s worthwhile spending time examining our fascination with the alleged murderers of these stories and I also point out criticisms that both series have received: while the alleged murderers are investigated extensively, we often forget about the victims of the crimes. The same thing happens to the Clutter victims in In Cold Blood, and it’s important for students to recognize and analyze the ethical complications that come along with their reading/watching in the true crime genre.


In my reading of the book, point of view is the masterful tool used to disguise Capote’s bias and mask those moments in the book that may not be as “immaculately factual” as he claims. The majority of the book is told in 3rd person omniscient point of view. Since we often refer to this as the “all-knowing” or “God-like” point of view, it’s easy, if you’re not paying attention, to believe everything the narrator is telling you is absolutely true. Because of this, Capote cloaks the narrator in what I call a “veil of invisibility.” He never uses the “I” and there are very few (I think I’ve counted three) places in the novel when he refers to himself as “the journalist” or some other 3rd person term. Other than that, it is as if an omniscient being delves into the heads of the murderers AND the murdered. Students are quick to pick up on the fact that Capote has access into everyone’s minds and they tell me they’re constantly having to remind themselves that the narrator is a person, a real person with all the limitations that accompany that, and that this isn’t a fictional narrator telling the story.

capote_clifton_collins_jrThere are a few times when Capote reverts to a 1st person narration, and these he hands to the most emotional pieces of the narrative. Most crucially, we get the murder confession from Perry Smith’s own mouth, and are taken along with him on his 1st person out of body massacre. The effect is chilling. I’ve also paired the confession with the version of it we get in the film Capote, and ask students to analyze the effect of hearing the Perry Smith in the film tell his own personal account of that night in Holcomb.


perry and dick
Perry Smith (top) and Richard Hickock (bottom)

Characterization is most productive once students are well into Part II of the novel. At this point, they’re starting to feel more sympathetic for Perry than Dick. To figure out why this happens, I’ve borrowed the character comparison exercise in Melissa W. Noel’s article, “A Cold Manipulation of Language.” In pairs or small groups, students track the way Capote characterizes Dick versus Perry and then reflect upon the literary devices he’s used. Towards the end of class we come together and draw some conclusions about our findings. As you can see if you look at Noel’s article, the kinds of language used for Perry’s characterization begins to represent him as a sensitive and troubled man-child. The language Capote uses for Dick is often blunt, less descriptive, and portrays him as calculating and cold-hearted. This is Capote’s subtle bias creeping into the text.


Students typically have a pretty good understanding of what it means to kill someone in cold blood – without motive or reason. Initially when we discuss the title they assume the title refers to Dick and Perry – those who have murdered the Clutters. However, as we move further into the book, especially into Part IV, we reevaluate the title. Whereas there is no motive or design behind the Clutter murder, Capote is making an argument that Dick and Perry are also killed in cold blood by virtue of their death sentences. It’s worthwhile looking at the book’s epigraph if you haven’t done so yet, which is an excerpt from Francois Villon’s “The Ballad of the Hanged Men.” In this poem, the speaker asks for mercy just before hanging. At this point it’s hard to dispute Capote’s anti-death penalty agenda for the book. To discover those intentions were present since the book’s epigraph can be a startling moment for students who assumed this book was going to be about seeking justice for the Clutter murders.


What I like about teaching this book is that it raises many critical ethical and moral questions in the classroom that yield great discussion. I’ve found my students puzzled over the fact that they feel more sympathy for Perry than the Clutters. They also wonder about the importance of the victims being from a white, prosperous, God-fearing Midwestern family. At the end of the book we are left to grapple with whether we believe Dick and Perry are deserving of mercy and, by extension, if those currently on death row are deserving of a mercy Smith and Hickock did not ultimately receive. The book is lengthy, but I’ve found students to be more excited about it than any other book this semester, so it’s worth the few weeks it takes to work through it as a class and is a great example of the heavy lifting that nonfiction can do in the classroom.


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