Plains Folk


For a few days now I’ve been hanging up on a New York writer who keeps calling back to ask questions about life on the plains—getting ready to write another verse of the same old song about the sad state of affairs in a land of dying towns and stoic people. This one is persistent, but I have a personal rule against feeding material to eastern writers. It’s a rule reinforced by a recent viewing of the film, Capote.

You know, Truman Capote, author of what he called in 1965 a “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood, about the murder of four members of the Clutter family near Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. The novel became the film of the same name, featuring Robert Blake as the tortured killer Perry Smith, in 1967. (I remember watching a bemused Johnny Carson, the boy from Nebraska, interviewing the fey Capote and the macho Blake simultaneously, a performance that, in retrospect, carries even more irony now than it did then.)

The scene in the new film that struck me most is when Capote, scanning newspapers, espies an article about the killings in Kansas, clips it, calls his editor at The New Yorker, and tells him he intends to write about the case. It has the sense of Holcomb being targeted for unwelcome attention almost as cold-blooded as that of Duane Hickok when he and Smith targeted the Clutter farm for larceny and, as it turned out, murder.

There is a customary way of speaking about the Clutter murders. It recalls not only the events in Kansas in 1959 but also those in Nebraska and across the northern plains in the previous year, as Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Fugate went on a senseless, ten-day killing spree. Those were the days, we usually say, when people on the plains learned to lock their doors.

The Starkweather case, incidentally, also became a film—Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, 1973. This fall I’ve had some of my students reviewing Badlands, and they don’t much care for it. It’s too “random,” they say. That’s sort of the point, I tell them. They also have been reviewing In Cold Blood, which they find compelling, and Capote, which they find maddening. One of them says as she watched Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor portraying Capote, manipulating and exploiting people for his own ends, she found it difficult not to attack his image on the screen.

Whether or not you have a plainsperson’s vested interest in the subject, I recommend seeing Capote. Sure, Capote comes across as egotistical, manipulative, and unscrupulous, but there is just enough ambivalence in the characterization to make it interesting. You don’t quite know whether Capote is evil or just weak. Too, another of my students points out that the actor to watch is Chris Cooper as Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey, a performance carrying nuance that is easily overlooked in the shadow of the title character.

As I said before, we have customary ways of speaking of such matters as the killings of 1958 and 1959. This year, the fortieth anniversary of the publication of In Cold Blood, the Lawrence Journal-World in Kansas published a remarkable supplement that not only goes over the usual ground but also delves into little-known details about the people involved. Accessible online (, the coverage is worth reading.

I have something rather different to say about the affair, though. To me it is a parable of another sort. It has to do with who tells the stories of the Great Plains, and for whom. Watch the film, and pay attention to Agent Dewey.


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