Although the term “American dream” was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams in The Epic Of America, the ideology behind the American dream started back in the sixteenth-century when Western European settlers came to this land at great risk to build a better life for themselves. In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the American dream is at the heart of the novel as the book is mainly based in Kansas- the heartland of America. As a whole, the American dream consists of the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity to be held for every American. Different perspectives from all the characters in the novel show how deceptive the American dream can prove to be.
As “the master of River Valley Farm” (5) and a self-made man, Herb Clutter and his model family of four are a prime example of a stereotypical American family. The Clutter’s simple lifestyle of owning farmland and providing for themselves make them a cliché successful American family in the Midwest. However, Capote has a pessimistic perspective on the American dream, as in his eyes it leads to nowhere except the confines of death. Capote provides a journalistic approach to his writing and a deep analysis of some of the characters. Capote interviews Perry Smith and Dick Hickock endlessly. Readers come to realize that Perry’s lonely and disorganized childhood, in addition to Dick’s loving background but poor decision-making ability, are justified reasons for their criminal behavior.
A version of the American dream- of safety, security, and the ability to determine one’s fate- is undermined and twisted on the day of the Clutter family murder in November 1959. Dick and Perry both strive to provide for themselves in one way or another, just like the Clutter family, but in a more criminal fashion. The American dream becomes twisted whenever criminal ways of living are used to be successful. While Herb Clutter would be busy working at River Valley Farm, “by sundown, when the stores were closing, [Dick and Perry’s] pockets were filled with cash and the car was heaped with saleable, pawnable wears” (95). The work ethic of Dick and Perry is actually somewhat admirable, but what their careers actually consist of makes them non-respectable, as it does not pay well either. The victimization of the Clutter family by these two men makes the traditional American dream whole-heartedly reversed whenever they decide to abuse their guaranteed freedom and do something to harm society. In this case, the murder of an entire family was the outcome. A separate theme of the book, tying into the concept of the American dream, is financial stability. The Clutter family has it, but Dick and Perry crave it. These two poor, embittered, and rootless people do not have the right mindset for the proper outcome of the American dream. They both started as poor kids, looking to work their way up and become self-started, successful men.
However, both Dick and Perry made various poor decisions throughout their lives, met each other in jail, and their lives together thus ensued. They never try to find honest ways to make money, rather they spend all their time scheming and violating others in order to get money. Their methods ultimately fail every time and they always find themselves broke shortly after scamming someone. Capote, throughout his writing, develops a personal connection with both murderers through his interviews and causes the reader to share a similar connection with them. In Cold Blood turns the traditional view of the American dream on its head by describing the corrupt nature of some American people and how not all success stories are for the good of humanity.
Capote’s storytelling, using a journalistic mindset, conveys how fragile the American dream can be and how certain people can distort the whole ideology of the concept. Whenever the Clutter family was murdered, people did not immediately know who committed the crime; everybody in the Holcomb community felt unsafe and insecure until the killers were revealed. The actions of two young men can change the whole outlook of both a community and the entire concept of the American dream itself.