Truman Capote and A Road Trip to an Ordinary State: Kansas

The Great American Road Trip

Destination: Kansas

Book and Movie: Book: In Cold Blood:A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences by Truman Capote (1965) and movie, In Cold Blood,  written and directed  by Richard Brooks (1967)

Truman Capote's Kansas
Kansas, Photographer Adam Sparks

The first thing you notice about Kansas is the ordinariness of it. The road rolls over flat land. Ahead a tall rectangle grows larger and larger as you approach a small town with its grain elevator standing sentry along the railroad track–a beat-up red pick-up truck across the street hunkered down in front to the Cafe, paint faded by the uninterrupted wind.

As the grain elevator shrinks in the rear view mirror, another appears on the horizon and your car  counts the rosary of grain elevators as it crosses the state.

That was the view of Kansas that my family and I had each summer as we traveled back and forth across the continent.  To be fair, we did not see some of the prettier parts of the state, and that was in the days before the prairie lands were being restored here and there, but still, Kansas represents “ordinary.”

In 1959, a  flashy, eccentric New York writer, reading about a murder case, saw the irony of a brutal murder in an ordinary American community. Truman Capote wanted to tell the story of the murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas as a true crime story.  He wanted to let the people who knew the family, the local law enforcement officers, and finally the perpetrators to become the characters.

His book, In Cold Blood ,  made as much news as the murder. Truman Capote broke new ground with this non-fiction novel, a form that was adopted by others like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, who became known as New Journalists in the following years. I clearly recall the hubbub around the publication of this book, that I could not wait to read. Since literary non-fiction has become a common genre, younger readers are probably wondering what all the fuss was about, but Capote displayed true genius in combining meticulous reporting, extensive use of direct quotation and the depiction of ordinary lives worthy of Greek tragedy. His art came in the arrangement of the revelations, and he occasionally had to make up some details and decide what to leave out.

However, when interviewed by George Plimpton, Capote denied that he departed from truth. “One doesn’t spend almost six years on a book, the point of which is actual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions.  All of it is reconstructed from the evidence of witnesses.”

Director and Screenwriter Richard Brooks displayed equal genius in converting the book to a black and white “semi-documentary.” He cast actors who physically resembled the real characters. Thank goodness Paul Newman and Robert Redford  were not available. He used relative unknowns Robert Blake as Perry Smith and Scott Wilson as Richard (Dick) Hickcock.

Brooks’ enhanced the reality of the story- telling with music by Quincy Jones, artful cuts that emphasized the parallels in the lives of victims and perpetrators, and judicious use of the most telling details and dialogue from Truman Capote’s book. He is true to Capote’s sympathetic portrayal of the murderers, and we learn more about them than the victims. The main question Capote tried to answer in the book, “How could anyone kill in cold blood?”, reveals emotionally damaged criminals, but also, in the view of the two writers, an ethically questionable state.

Above all, he used light so that it enhances the mood and helps tell the story.  In one scene, Perry Smith, in his cell on death row, remembers his earlier life.   A light comes through the window, illuminating the raindrops rolling down the glass, and reflected on his face. As he tells his story, his whole face seems to weep. Credit for the beautiful lighting goes to cinematographer Conrad Hall.

The movie is set in the actual house, on the roads, in the courthouse, the cafes and the prison where the real scenes took place, and you can see them when you visit Holcomb KS. Even the criminals’ road trip to Mexico and back was filmed on actual locations.

This may not be an example of a movie and a book that make you want to travel, but they do convey the reality of an ordinary state.

Travel Road combined two states in this post recommending road music for Nebraska and Kansas from Music Road. Definitely not as spooky as the sound track for In Cold Blood the movie.  The lovely picture above comes from flicker with a Creative Commons license.

Kansans may not appreciate being labeled “ordinary.”  What are your experiences of Kansas? Were you expecting Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

4 thoughts on “Truman Capote and A Road Trip to an Ordinary State: Kansas

  1. I wouldn’t describe Kansas as ordinary, but then I’m probably biased. I write The Yellow Brick Road Trip, a road trip blog with many stops in Kansas because that is where I currently live. I think Kansas looks ordinary from the road – especially if you are out in Western Kansas, which is all small towns and doesn’t seem to have a hint of civilization for miles. But I think when travelers look closer, they’ll find its a great road trip destination. There are tons of weird roadside attractions – like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine or Prairie Dog Town where you can see the world’s largest prairie dog and live six-legged steers. There are tons of family friendly places to go, like the Wizard of Oz Museum in Wamego.

    Whether you want the freedom of the open planes, the weird kitsch of roadside attractions, or family fun – Kansas isn’t ordinary. It’s awesome.

  2. Kansas, the Tall Grass Prairie, the solace of open space. Stop, listen to the grass, really see the beauty of the big sky. Years ago we drove from Kansas City to Denver and experienced the amazing intensity of the sunflowers facing east in the morning. Off to the south, a lone cowboy was on his horse up on a rise, just looking, looking, looking.
    He sees. Now it is your turn.

  3. Vera,
    do you know the film Badlands? a drama, but based on real life midwestern murder saga of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate,
    was Sissy Spacek’s first major movie role. wonder what you think of it compared to this, if so?

  4. Both the movie – and the book – had an extremely profound effect on me. I can still see that farmhouse and shudder to think of what went on inside. Didn’t realize they used the actual house to film the movie.

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