As this is a novel-length text, it would be best to divide it up over some weeks.
This text can be approached through a variety of genres; I would primarily call it creative non-fiction, but it’s also a fantastic example of true-crime literature, journalism, mid-20th century American literature, and literary regionalism. Local students may particularly be interested by the regional aspects, as almost all the story’s action takes place in the rural Midwest (primarily Kansas) and Truman Capote devotes a lot of time to painting a picture of the landscape and people.
I haven’t taught this text in its entirety, but I have used excerpts of the opening chapter as a close-reading exercise. Although the instructor may want to use the book as part of a course relating to one of the above themes, I think it’s also worth it to close read Capote’s writing, which often takes on elements of prose poetry (for example, he describes the Bible Belt as “that gospel-haunted strip of American territory in which a man must, if only for business reasons, take his religion with the straightest of faces”).
Topics for Discussion:
Dark Side of Mid-Century Middle America
The depictions of casual bigotry, small-town gossip, and violent get-rich-quick schemes would contribute well to a course about literature of the American Dream, in particular its ugly underside. Biographical information would also be useful here—Capote has some fascinating history, and the details about his relationship with Harper Lee could be interesting to students who are fans of her work.
The “Truth” in Nonfiction
Much space is devoted to a compilation of documents, a la Dracula: there are news articles and radio audio wherein we are transported in time and space to 1950s Kansas and given the bare-bones facts of crime, diary entries, poetry, and letters. Outside of this, Capote has had to imaginatively reconstruct daily lives of all those involved. It is notable that Capote’s narrator is hidden well—there are no “I” or “we” statements, and Capote himself is curiously absent. Despite his own interviews with the killers, and any information gleaned from such conversations is deftly woven into the narrative, rather than set apart in transcript form. Additionally, despite the storytelling Capote performs with many events and people, he does not imagine the murders themselves, and chooses to let the killers give their own (slightly contradictory) accounts of the killings, even when one of the murderers corrects himself with “Wait. I’m not telling it the way it was.” This could make for a fruitful discussion of to what extent we “believe” what we read in works described as nonfiction, and how that affects how we read the text, as well as the role of the unreliable narrator(s) in the book.
In addition to describing the local atmosphere before and after the murders, Capote shows the extent of the manhunt undertaken to find the murderers, as well as detailed information about the court case and the death penalty, including some side vignettes about other killers who were incarcerated. The emphasis on the killers’ personal thoughts and lives could be fruitful for discussion about how we read and write about people are not the heroes or even anti-heroes of their own story. This could also extend to a discussion about who the main character(s) is in the story: The killers? The victims? The police? The town?