Is In Cold Blood a Polemic Against Capital Punishment?

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is critically acclaimed as a masterful portrayal of American crime and is known for the introduction of the concept of a “nonfiction novel.” At such crossroads of true events and storytelling, many criticisms can be drawn. For example, many have viewed the book as a polemic against capital punishment. It is easy to argue this is not the case, for surely Capote’s objective descriptive style and lack of opinionated comments do not exemplify what the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “a strong…attack against someone else’s opinions.” However, to ignore the text’s negative connotation towards capital punishment would be just skimming the surface of a book that certainly presents some form of a case against capital punishment, whether what one would refer to as a “polemic” or not. By the end of the book, the reader is not guided to feel any sense of joy or success from the hanging of two criminals, but rather some form of the opposite. Perhaps it does not go as far as to invoke sorrow or grief, but after getting to know the Clutter killers as characters and following along with their lives—from childhood to death row—the reader develops a sense of closeness to them, allowing Capote to craft a subtle argument against capital punishment that is perhaps far more compelling than any direct criticism.

One of Capote’s main tools in developing this argument is describing at length the personality, actions, and lives of the Clutter murderers—Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Especially in terms of Smith, who Capote himself became quite close with, the reader develops an attachment to these characters as one would in a novel, even if not made out to be especially likable. From the start of the story, we are introduced with Perry’s (for the majority of the book, Capote uses their first names) dreams of success as an entertainer and obsessions over the world’s lost treasures left for him to find. Perry’s almost childlike personality is contrasted with Dick’s more practical mindset, and sets the foundation for delving deeper into the relationship between the two criminals as characters. Simply the length and detail of the account of their time while together alone invokes some closeness for the reader just as any story focusing on a character does. In terms of developing sympathy from the reader, while Dick’s affection for his family must be noted, especially compelling are the details of Perry Smith’s life. A “‘childhood marked by brutality’” (296), abuse by orphanage nuns who would “‘hold me under [cold water] till I was blue’” (132) and an army sergeant who wanted him to “roll over,” (134) a “lack of concern on the part of both parents,” (296) and other details give Perry a sense that the world is working against him, allowing the reader to possibly relate, or at least sympathize. This sense continues once the trial is wrapped up, with the murder perfectly understood in the eyes of the law, yet Perry—and indeed, the reader—still face confusion as to what led Perry to kill four people who “‘never hurt me…like people have all my life.’” (302) Perry is often described wondering whether he was trying to prove his worth to Dick or let out a rage against figures in his life, including his sister, whom he on one occasion wished “‘had been in that house.’” (143) When everybody around him is depicted reaching conclusions quicker than Perry, the reader is left wondering whether these conclusions should be enough to warrant the man’s death.

This sentiment is strongly brought out in Capote’s portrayal of the murderers’ trial, now transitioning to a more specific and direct criticism of a legal system that results in capital punishment. The trial is in many ways made to seem biased, and while, again, not directly condemning anything, Capote writes and includes information in a manner that guides the reader to think in a certain way. Evidence is presented that certain jury members—all of whom were from near the location of the murder—held opinions on capital punishment or the Clutters. Statements by psychological analysts are given to the reader but were not allowed to be heard in court due to the “M’Naghten Rule,” which Kansas state abides by, allowing “nothing more than a yes or no reply” to the question of the murderer’s mental state, which Capote describes as a “formula colorblind to any gradations between black and white” (294). The reader is informed such gradations did exist based on the analysis of Dr. Jones, which is included in the text. In the case of Hickock, Jones stresses the importance that the presence of “‘organic brain damage’” be studied more closely, due to his “‘serious head injury,’” and that either way Hickock showed signs of “‘severe character disorder’” (295). In the case of Smith, this is even more apparent; Jones states that “‘Perry Smith shows definite signs of mental illness’” but again calls for “‘more extensive evaluation’” (298). The fact that this further analysis did not happen and was not even allowed to be mentioned in court strongly suggests to the reader the incapability of this trial to determine the life or death of these men. Further opinions from other characters strengthen this view—from a jury member calling the trial “rabble-rousing, brutal,” and execution as “‘pretty goddam cold-blooded too’” to a Reverend claiming that “‘capital punishment is no answer: it doesn’t give the sinner enough time to come to God’” (306). An especially credible opinion—that of a Dr. Satten, a respected authority in psychiatry—identified the murder as one “‘without apparent motive,’” relating to “‘personality disorganization’” (299) and understood that Smith was “‘deep inside a schizophrenic darkness’” (302) while killing Mr. Clutter. This again shows the additional attention Capote thought this case should have had, considering it put these two men to death, and led the reader to agree.

Finally, Capote draws closer to the topic of controversy itself, and spends the next section of the book creating a sense that capital punishment is very arbitrary, yet always results in the same brutal ending for a human life. He discusses the inconsistent bureaucracy behind the death penalty, as well as its variance from state to state, including Kansas, where “‘juries hand it out like they were giving candy to kids’” (322). A point he focuses on is the time prisoners spend on death row, the variance of which he says “depends little on luck and a great deal on the extent of litigation” (330). For example, he contrasts a Texas robber killed a month after his conviction with a pair of Louisiana rapists waiting 12 years. Capote also brings up the point that while all the other members of death row in Kansas State Penitentiary were murderers, Hickock had technically “‘never touched a hair on a human head.’” Once again, none of this is direct criticism, but through such details Capote is able to establish an impression that a system so varied and arbitrary may not be trustworthy when it comes to human lives, no matter their crime. The book’s inevitable ending, Smith and Hickock’s execution, is Capote’s final subtle criticism of capital punishment. The reader is presented the event through the perspective of Al Dewey, another character the reader has gotten to know quite well over the course of the book. No more pleasant than the description of the Clutters’ murder, the hanging is depicted in detail, and then, through Dewey’s eyes are described “the same childish feet, tilted, dangling,” of the “dwarfish boy” he had first met in a Las Vegas interrogation room (341). One would think that if anyone, Dewey, who had worked so hard to solve this murder, would be satisfied with their death. But instead the reader is surprised to find that even he, who was “certain capital punishment is a deterrent to violent crime,” found no “sense of climax” or “design justly completed” by watching the execution (340). If not even the head of the investigation resulting in the death of the two men felt satisfaction from it, Capote makes it hard for the reader to feel any better about this case and capital punishment as a whole.

Some may argue, as many have, that Capote makes no clear arguments and wrote In Cold Blood in a strictly objective manner. Whatever his personal views may have been, it is apparent to many that a book including a strong description of a savage murder, details of Hickock and Smith’s other crimes, Hickock’s pedophilia (including that he “‘was going to rape [Nancy Clutter]’” (286) ), extensive evidence supporting the justness of the trial, and ultimately no strong assertions of Capote’s own opinion on anything, could not be considered a “polemic” or argument of any kind against capital punishment. Nevertheless, to ignore the subtext Capote creates would be an incomplete analysis of the text. Capote’s argument is subtle and deeply embedded within his writing style but is certainly present. And perhaps this argument is more convincing just because he includes such details as a vivid description of the murder. That a reader can be faced with such brutality, and yet still find some sympathy towards those who caused it, speaks volumes about human nature, and certainly Capote’s expert ability to guide it. Surely, this aspect of the book is what has made In Cold Blood such a success. Capote is able to use his portrayal of the murders as characters, creating some level of sympathy, as well as more logical, yet indirect, criticism of the trial and capital punishment as a whole, to guide the reader’s opinion with information while not imposing his own. If this was not the case, so many critics would not call the book a “polemic,” and considering that, as subtle as it seems while reading, Capote’s argument is criticised so heatedly, it must in some way be quite a strong one. Therefore, however one names it, Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood presents a subtle yet powerful argument against capital punishment.

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