Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood
Ralph F. Voss
Narrated by Ellery Truesdell
Approximately 11 hours
Book published by The University of Alabama Press
Ralph F. Voss was a high school junior in Plainville, Kansas in mid-November of 1959 when four members of the Herbert Clutter family were murdered in Holcomb, Kansas, by “four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives,” an unimaginable horror in a quiet farm community during the Eisenhower years. No one in Kansas or elsewhere could then have foreseen the emergence of Capote’s book–which has never gone out of print, has twice been made into a major motion picture, remains required reading in criminology, American Studies, sociology, and English classes, and has been the source of two recent biographical films.
Voss examines Capote and In Cold Blood from many perspectives, not only as the crowning achievement of Capote’s career, but also as a story in itself, focusing on Capote’s artfully composed text, his extravagant claims for it as reportage, and its larger status in American popular culture.
Voss argues that Capote’s publication of In Cold Blood in 1966 forever transcended his reputation as a first-rate stylist but second-rate writer of “Southern gothic” fiction; that In Cold Blood actually is a gothic novel, a sophisticated culmination of Capote’s artistic development and interest in lurid regionalism, but one that nonetheless eclipsed him both personally and artistically. He also explores Capote’s famous claim that he created a genre called the “non-fiction novel,” and its status as a foundational work of “true crime” writing as practiced by authors ranging from Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer to James Ellroy, Joe McGinniss, and John Berendt.
Voss also examines Capote’s artful manipulation of the story’s facts and circumstances: his masking of crucial homoerotic elements to enhance its marketability; his need for the killers to remain alive long enough to get the story, and then his need for them to die so that he could complete it; and Capote’s style, his shaping of the narrative, and his selection of details–why it served him to include this and not that, and the effects of such choices—all despite confident declarations that “every word is true.”
Though it’s been nearly 50 years since the Clutter murders and far more gruesome crimes have been documented, In Cold Blood continues to resonate deeply in popular culture. Beyond questions of artistic selection and claims of truth, beyond questions about capital punishment and Capote’s own post-publication dissolution, In Cold Blood’s ongoing relevance stems, argues Voss, from its unmatched role as a touchstone for enduring issues of truth, exploitation, victimization, and the power of narrative.
Ralph F. Voss is a retired professor of English from the University of Alabama. He is the author of A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph, editor of Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams.
“In emphasizing legacies, [Voss] spotlights Capote’s great achievement in producing the novel, despite the gossip surrounding its creation. The most damning of the legacies was celebrity, i.e., Capote’s need for it.... Well documented with endnotes, black-and-white photographs, and a thorough bibliography. Recommended.”
“A new book by Ralph L. Voss, Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood, draws on previous literary forensics and his own scholarship to demonstrate Capote’s shocking faithlessness to the truth.”
“The most useful volume yet written on this remarkable cultural intersection of American literary genius and real-life prairie horror. Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood is the best companion volume imaginable for Capote's astonishing book.”
“Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood is a riveting, finely written psychological/literary analysis, combined with meticulous historical research, by a Kansas native. Ralph Voss’s subject is the context, creation, and impact of Capote’s book. Voss’s approach is an honest investigation into the very processes of investigation—by law enforcement in Kansas and by Capote the writer—as well as the creative processes of those influenced by In Cold Blood to contribute to American popular culture.”
—Claudia Durst Johnson, author of Understanding To Kill A Mockingbird
“The book is especially well written. Perhaps no other work of modern literary journalism has received as much critical attention as In Cold Blood, so I found it interesting that this book provided an entertaining view of the subject and a thorough review of the materials.”
—Norman Sims, author of True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism and Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century
“As we have just passed the forty-fifth anniversary of the publication of In Cold Blood, readers continue to be fascinated by Truman Capote and his self-avowed masterpiece. Now Ralph Voss has written the first full-length critical treatment of the book, focusing on the methods Capote employed in writing it, on the continuing questions about its genre and themes, and on the tremendous effect the book has had in Kansas and beyond. Combining the skills of an accomplished cultural and literary critic with an intimate knowledge of the Kansas setting of the book, Voss shows us how this book paradoxically represents both the pinnacle of Capote’s literary career and the beginning of a tragic period of artistic and personal failure. Voss’s excellent study will undoubtedly take its place alongside other essential books on Capote. ”
—Norman McMillan, author of Against a Copper Sky, a play about Truman Capote
“Ralph Voss skillfully captures the fascination Kansas and the nation have for acts of senseless violence, good detective stories, the meting out of justice, and the writers who venture into ‘true crime.’ In this book, Voss not only examines, but substantially contributes to, the legacy of Capote and In Cold Blood.”
—Thomas Fox Averill, author of Ordinary Genius
“In reading Voss’ work, I found a story so compelling that it reads like a mystery novel. Fictive elements provide a strong sense of place, emotion, character development, realistic dialogue. The text is interspersed with black and white photographs and contains a plethora of chapter notes. Voss takes time to tell the story of Capote’s life, his Alabama roots, and the impact of his writing on the literary world.”
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