·        English 221 – Survey of American Literature II

·        Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

·        Discussion Questions: In Cold Blood


·        John Hellman, in “Postmodern Journalism,” claims that Americans have private myths by which they make sense of their lives.  How is this true of the characters/families in In Cold Blood?  If you do not know the myths of the American Dream and the Garden of Eden, do some research to become familiar with them.


·        According to Hellman, postmodern journalists mirror the conventions of modern journalism.  The author is “invisible.”  The author’s style is “styleless.”  The point of view is objective.  Is this true of In Cold Blood?  Is the book journalism or is it literature?  Would it be a better text in a sociology class or a psychology class than a literature class?  If it is literature, what literary conventions did you pick up on in the book?


·        Capote uses a quote from Francois Villon as an epigraph for In Cold Blood.  My French isn’t great, but in essence the quote is about “brothers in humanity” and it insists on the intimacy of the relationship between people who may die peacefully in their beds, and those “poor ones” about to be hanged.  We are, in fact, the hanged men’s brothers, and we partake in their humanity.  To determine if the Clutter family and their murderers had anything in common, do the following exercise:  List the Clutter family on one side of your paper—Herbert, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon.  List four or five characteristics of each person that you feel help to define the character.  Do the same thing with Richard Hickock and Perry Smith.  Do you see any parallels?  Are there only differences?


·        Make a list of the ironies in the narrative, e.g., Mr. Clutter takes out a life insurance policy only hours before he is murdered.


·        Why were Hickock and Smith murderers?  This discussion will lead to a discussion of the origin of evil.


·        How did this book affect your attitude toward capital punishment?


·        Research mass murderers in the United States.  Summarize your findings.


·        Research the M’Naghten Rule.  Give a history of the “insanity defense” in the American justice system.


·        After the community learns of the murders, one man in the Hartman’s Café said, “All we’ve got out here are our friends.  There isn’t anything else.  In a way, that’s the worst part of the crime.  What a terrible thing when neighbors can’t look at each other without kind of wondering!  Yes, it’s a hard fact to live with, but if they ever do find out who done it, I’m sure it’ll be a bigger surprise than the murders themselves” (70).  Does this quote reveal anything about America?


·        What did you think of Alvin Dewey’s meeting with Susan Kidwell at the Valley View Cemetery?  What is the effect of this incident on you, the reader?


·        There were many magazine articles written about Truman Capote and his book.  Research two or three of these articles and list what new information you learned from them.  Start with Haskel Frankel’s account of the making of the book in the Saturday Review, January 22, 1966.


·        Two movies have been made on the Clutter murders: In Cold Blood and Capote.  Give the class your reflection of either movie.  What did you learn from either film?