Essay on Capote, Kansans wins prestigious award

KU communications studies professor Dave Tell won an award from the National Communication Association for a research project on Truman Capote's In

Truman Capote, the flamboyant writer whose book “In Cold Blood,” about a quadruple murder in a Kansas farm town became a national sensation, meant different things to different Kansans. And it all depended on where in the state they lived.

At least that’s the theory of Kansas University communications professor Dave Tell, whose essay on Capote and Kansas was recently awarded the National Communication Association’s prestigious Karl R. Wallace Memorial Award for excellence in communication research. “The Meanings of Kansas: Rhetoric, Regions and Counter Regions” came out in June 2012.

Tell said that people in the southwest corner of the state had a different mind-set about Capote’s story than city dwellers from central Kansas: The former favored an eye-for-an-eye justice system, while the latter had a more nuanced viewpoint, allowing for the possibility of mental disorders to explain the killings.

The 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in Holcomb came at a time when psychoanalysis was just starting to gain mainstream acceptance, notably in Topeka, where the famed Menninger clinic was working to integrate psychiatry into the judicial system. Its psychiatrists had also called into question the death penalty, which didn’t play well among residents of the southwest part of the state. “What were their objections to psychiatry? It makes the murderers seem less guilty. It turned them into victims of society,” Tell explained. In southwest Kansas, that was seen as excusing the behavior of the killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who both were hanged for the crime in 1965.

Large central-Kansas communities like Hutchinson, Emporia and Wichita fawned over Capote’s celebrity, seeing him as a gateway to being viewed as modern cities, Tell said. People nearer to Holcomb, meanwhile, had “a very conspicuous anxiety about modernity.”

The reaction to the professor’s essay was largely positive, though he did get a few complaints from people who thought it was insensitive to the victims’ families.

In the end, Capote’s work had a large effect on society and popular culture, Tell asserted: “In Cold Blood” was the first nonfiction novel, in effect helping to spawn reality television, memoirs and our “how do you feel?” culture.

Tell isn’t surprised to see Capote’s work called into question by a recent Wall Street Journal article claiming that some of “In Cold Blood” was fabricated. Capote had a reputation as someone who cared more about getting the story than truth or ethics, the professor said.