On the night of November 14, 1959, a sleepy Kansas town was rudely awakened by the mass murder of the Clutters, a local farming family. “A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home.” The New York Times reported. “They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged…There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut.” The Clutter murder attracted the attention of a young, ambitious, and exceptionally creative writer named Truman Capote. Capote convinced his editors at The New Yorker to let him cover the story, and set off for Kansas. The rest is history In Cold Blood became an instant best seller when it was published in 1965. It launched Capote into the first ranks of American writers. And it marked the invention of a new, singularly significant genre: the nonfiction novel.
Since then, some of America’s sharpest, most innovative authors have been practitioners of narrative nonfiction, a style that melds fact and fiction and that requires writers to be both expert researchers and compelling narrators. In this course, we will watch this unusual and unlikely genre evolve, asking why the nonfiction novel emerged when it did, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how it manages to hover between two seemingly opposed styles: imaginative storytelling and objective journalism. Our concern throughout will be to discover how—and whether—such a paradoxically conceived genre works, while at the same time making it the basis for a broader investigation of what narrative is.
In addition to In Cold Blood, readings will most likely include Norman Mailer’s story of a murderer’s execution in Utah, The Executioner’s Song; Jonathan Krakauer’s account of a young man’s disastrous attempt to survive alone in the Alaskan wilderness, Into the Wild; Mark Bowden’s reconstruction of the Battle of Mogadishu, Black Hawk Dow; and Susan Orlean’s tale of a manic Florida man who spends his days traversing swamps in search of rare and elusive flowers, The Orchid Thief. We will supplement these readings with essays by Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, and others.
Requirements: regular attendance, weekly weblog postings, two formal papers, and an in-class presentation.