On November 19, 1959, Truman Capote and Harper Lee visited Kansas State, initiating a connection between Capote and the university we can trace through the archives. As a 2011 news release about K-State Libraries’s Special Collections explains, “Capote visited K-State several times while writing for the New Yorker magazine on the Clutter family murders in Holcomb, Kan. […] The letters were to then K-State President James McCain. Later letters demonstrated McCain and Capote developed a familiar and cordial friendship. A copy of ‘In Cold Blood,’ Capote later signed for McCain, is also a part of the collection.” Tony Crawford, retired University Archivist, documented “The Truman Capote Connection” (2006) for K-State Libraries’ blog, “Talking in the Library” (2006-2013), collected now in K-State Keepsakes (2015). On the 50th anniversary of Capote and Lee’s visit to K-State, Peter Williams (MA ’18) reflects on that visit and the hybrid genre that Capote created following his visit to Kansas.
— Karin Westman, Department Head
On the night of November 15th, 1959 in the town of Holcomb, KS, some seventy miles from the Colorado border, a family of four was murdered. Less than a week later, Truman Capote flew into Kansas City with his dear childhood friend, Harper Lee, and they drove the one hundred and twenty miles to Manhattan. Capote would go on to write the “non-fiction novel” (his term, at the time), In Cold Blood, from his research and correspondence with the murderers.
After reading the report of the murders in his Brooklyn Heights home, Capote came up with the idea to write about the incident. Like any savvy networker used to the happenings of the east coast literary establishment, Capote sought to make connections. But unlike the East Coast literary establishment, the agricultural circles of Kansas did not offer so many accessible or interested contacts. Luckily, Bennett Cerf, Capote’s editor and the co-founder of Random House, had recently given a lecture at Kansas State University where he had sparked a friendship with then president, Jim McCain.
McCain, a close personal friend of the deceased Herb Clutter, offered his help in establishing western Kansas contacts for Capote. But in return, McCain asked that Capote meet with the university’s English faculty. So, only four days after the murders, Truman Capote and Harper Lee shared a luncheon with the agricultural department where Herb Clutter had once been a faculty member. Then that night, as promised, the two writers attended a dinner in the Union Ballroom with the English Department faculty where the intention was to hold a discussion about the novel. In attendance was Head of the Department and Dickens scholar Professor Earle Davis, Henry James scholar Professor Alwyn Berland, and Mark Twain scholar Professor Paul Schmidt.
In a 1984 Arts and Sciences feature for the Manhattan Mercury, Earle Davis would later recount Capote’s visit. He was initially anxious upon Capote’s arrival by account of the author’s famous drinking habit and, indeed, Davis found out that Capote had packed several bottles of bourbon for the trip because the author feared he wouldn’t be able to buy any alcohol in Kansas. Davis found Capote to be a more than suitable dinner companion, calling him “blond and attractive and peculiar.” But, despite his admiration for Capote’s social skills, he calls the nonfiction novel “a stunt,” and doubts the author’s claim to accuracy, asking if “he just put down what he remembered after the fact, then dressed it up the way all novelists do?”
In the course of their discussion, the English Head asked the famous author what the distinction was between Capote’s “non-fiction novel” and competent journalism. The author simply responded that is was all “in the ordering of the material.”
On the fifty-year anniversary of Capote and Lee’s visit, I don’t think we’ve moved the conversation much further. The distinction between fiction and journalism has only grown blurrier. But I remember reading the book as a teenager when I had no interest in the genre debate and I knew as much about western Kansas as I did about Brooklyn Heights. The strength of the book, to me, came from Capote’s keen ability to depict a real place and then to feed the reader’s imagination. That a book could communicate the gravity of a moment in place and time through an event that actually happened was something I had never encountered or processed before. Now it’s something I encounter and process on a daily basis. That Capote’s research was made possible by his brief stay in Manhattan makes me grateful for the farmers and the scholars of this land-grant institution who supported the creation of innovative and important art.
— Peter Williams (MA ’18) is currently an MFA candidate at The University of Kentucky.