In describing the genesis of a successful work, a writer often will say that he stumbled across his idea, giving the impression that it was purely a matter of luck, like finding a hundred-dollar bill on the sidewalk. The truth, as Henry James observed, is usually different: "His discoveries are, like those of the navigator, the chemist, the biologist, scarce more than alert recognitions. He comes upon the interesting thing as Columbus came upon the isle of San Salvador, because he had moved in the right direction for it."
So it was that Truman, who had been moving in the right direction for several years, came across his San Salvador, his interesting thing, in that brief account of cruel death in far-off Kansas: he had been looking for it, or something very much like it. For no apparent reason, four people had been slain: Herbert Clutter; his wife, Bonnie; and two of their four children, Nancy, sixteen, and Kenyon, fifteen. As he read and reread those Spartan paragraphs [an account of the killings on a back page of the New York Times], Truman realized that a crime of such horrifying dimensions was a subject that was indeed beyond him, a truth he could not change. Even the location, a part of the country as alien to him as the steppes of Russia, had a perverse appeal. "Everything would seem freshly minted," he later explained, reconstructing his thinking at that time. "The people, their accents and attitude, the landscape, its contours, the weather. All this, it seemed to me, could only sharpen my eye and quicken my ear." Finally he said to himself, "Well, why not this crime? The Clutter case. Why not pack up and go to Kansas and see what happens?"
When he appeared at The New Yorker to show Mr. Shawn [William Shawn, the magazine's editor] the clipping, the identity of the killer, or killers, was still unknown, and might never be know. But that, as he made clear to Shawn, was beside the point, or at least the point he wanted to make. What excited his curiosity was not the murders, but their effect on that small and isolated community. "As he originally conceived it, the murders could have remained a mystery," said Shawn, who once again gave his enthusiastic approval. "He was going to do a piece about the town and the family—what their lives had been. I thought that it could make some long and wonderful piece of writing."
Truman asked Andrew Lyndon to go with him, but Andrew was otherwise engaged. Then he turned to Nelle Harper Lee. Nelle, whose own book, To Kill a Mockingbird, was finished but not yet published agreed immediately. "He said it would be a tremendously involved job and would take two people," she said. "The crime intrigued him, and I'm intrigued with crime—and, boy, I wanted to go. It was deep calling to deep." Watching with some amusement as the two amateur sleuths nervously made their plans, Jack [Jack Dunphy, Capote's longtime companion] wrote his sister: "Did you read about the murder of the Clutter family out in Kansas? Truman's going out there to write a piece on it. The murder is unsolved!! He's taking Nelle Harper Lee, an old childhood friend, out with him to play his girl Friday, or his Della Street (Perry Mason's sec't.). I hope he'll be all right. I told him curiosity killed the cat, and he looked scared—till I added that satisfaction brought it back."
He also enlisted the aid of Bennett Cerf [his book publisher], who, he correctly assumed, had well-placed acquaintances in every state of the union. "I don't know a soul in the whole state of Kansas," he told Bennett. "You've got to introduce me to some people out there." By coincidence, Bennett had recently spoken at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and had made a friend of its president, James McCain. By further coincidence, McCain had known the murdered Clutter family, as he did nearly everyone else in Finney County. He would give Truman all necessary introductions, he told Bennett, if, in exchange, Truman would stop first at the university to speak to the English faculty. "I accept for Truman right now," Bennett responded. "Great!"
Thus assured, in mid-December Truman boarded a train for the Midwest, with Nelle at his side and a footlocker stuffed with provisions in his luggage. "He was afraid that there wouldn't be anything to eat out there," said Nelle. After a day and a night in Manhattan, where the Kansas State English faculty gave him a party, they rented a Chevrolet and drove the remaining 270 miles to Garden City, the Finney County seat. They arrived at twilight, a month to the day after he had come upon his interesting thing in the back pages of the Times. But if he had realized then what the future held, Truman said afterward, he never would have stopped. "I would have driven straight on. Like a bat out of hell."
© 2006 Gerald Clarke
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