Faulkner, Steinbeck and Capote: What kind of America transpires in their narrative?
As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’ depicts America in the Twenties and the fall of the Southern values (courage, moral strength, purity, chastity…) as a consequence of the economical and social blow brought by the Civil War. In ‘The Sound and the Fury’, the Compson family is dragged into a steadfast decline, and Faulkner highlights their disastrous incapability to relate to each other, to act constructively and to be able to maintain the old glory of the family.
The next novel proposed by Ciriaco was John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Published in 1939, it portrays America in the Thirties, the years of the Great Depression. People who lost their savings became homeless and many of them were forced to live in ‘Hoovervilles’ (named after president Hoover, blamed by many for the Depression): shantytowns made of boxcars, tents, shacks. At the same time, a very serious draught hit the southwestern states: crops withered and the topsoil was picked up by the wind and carried around, creating huge dust storms that blew across the area. This region became known as the ‘Dust Bowl’. The banks, feeling the economic pressure and unable to save the land, forced the farmers off their farms. For many of them, the mirage of salvation was represented by the state of California, a land that promised jobs and valleys of fruits ready to be picked up; a land of plenty, hopes and opportunities. Countless families drove thousands of miles to reach this Promised Land. For the Oklahoman Judd family, protagonist of the novel (as well as for many others), this life journey does not turn out to be exactly as they expected, on the contrary. Their daily struggle to survive is epical. The Judds hardly have the means to survive, the grandparents pass away, one of the sons goes his own way, as well as the daughter’s husband. In California, they find out that the job market is depleted and the locals, who look down on them scornfully- angry at the flood of newcomers that they label ‘Okies’- are ready to exploit them. The members of the Judd family see misery and death, but they continue their journey, unabated. The depiction of their strength, of their capability to love, share and take care of each other and of the people they encounter on their way, is outstanding. This experience will make them poorer and penniless, but definitely ‘richer’ and stronger. They are lead by ‘Ma’ Judd, the materfamilias, who holds the family together and is determined never to give up, even when her own husband seems to be unable to cope with this harshness.
Steinbeck describes in a clear, detailed and effective way the plight of these migrant workers. The message of hope for a future with better working conditions is passed on by Tom Judd, one of the Judd’ sons, who goes thru a major personal transformation that turns him into a very empathetic man. He goes into hiding after killing a man (who ruthlessly murdered his friend), but he is determined to embrace the social cause by organizing the exploited workers into unions. Despite the implicit criticism towards the tough working conditions the migrants have to endure, Steinbeck’s representation of America is also very human. The end of the novel, in all its intensity and strong sense of pietas emerging from the characters, highlights compassion, empathy and selflessness as the basis for a better civil society.
Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ has been written between 1959 and 1964. The non-fiction novel is a detailed description of a Kansas murder case, with subsequent investigation and trial, followed step by step by Truman Capote himself. Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who hope to find a safe with plenty of money in the Clutter’s home, ruthlessly murder four members of this family. These people were successful, respected by their fellow townsfolks and engaged with their community. The Clutter family represents in a way the fulfillment of the ‘American Dream’, an ethos by which freedom gives the opportunity for prosperity and success, and social mobility is achieved through hard work: the right formula for the pursuit of individual happiness. The head of the family, Herb Clutter, is a self-made man who has been working all his way up on the social ladder to become a well-to-do farmer. His son, and his daughter in particular, are role models for their friends, and religion is an important part of their daily life.
The two main characters – whose psychological profiles are completely revealed in Capote’s non-fiction novel – are, on the contrary outcasts, who will never be able to fulfill the American Dream and live a stable life. Perry Smith, crippled by an accident and hunted by memories of a childhood wracked by poverty and abuse, by the lack of a much-desired higher education and by a disgraceful family, cannot achieve a safe middle class existence despite being clever and hard working. And, as he is aware of it, he turns into a life of crime. Dick Hickock is used to take shortcuts in his life (writing bad checks), and despite coming from a relatively stable lower-middle-class family, he turns into a criminal. This murder will represent for both of them the ultimate chance to rescue themselves from mediocrity.
A deeper analysis, as it emerged during our book club session, draws our attention to Capote’s criticism of the American society of the Sixties. The post-war decade in America saw stability in economy, together with prosperity and social mobility. People believed in family values and birth rates increased. But in the 1960s, a climate of rebellion and confrontation challenged the traditional moral values. Society became more open, trust in government was dismissed, free expression expanded and new alternative cultural forms and subcultures appeared. Journalistic reporting underwent stylistic changes as well, and novelist and reporters created hybrid forms of work with fictional and non-fictional elements. Capote’s literary experiment was part of these undergoing changes and he used it as an instrument for his social criticism.
Capote questioned not only the essence of the American society, but also its judicial system and the way criminals were dealt with. The Clutters seem a perfect family, but their fellow citizens become more and more suspicious of each other once the murder has happened, dismantling the apparent harmony of the small community. And despite the ultimate goal is to bring the criminals to justice, even the investigator, Dewey- in witnessing the hanging of the murderers- does not get any ultimate satisfaction for a ‘design justly completed’. Everything unfolds under its real light: ruthless and merciless, ‘in cold blood’.
Beyond the surface of the Clutter case, lay the allegory of American society: the juxtaposition between the affluence of its middle class and the underworld of the deprived citizens. Furthermore, it seems that as Capote felt closer and more intimate with Perry Smith, empathizing with him, he bore some resemblance to his fictional character too: both of them were outsiders, freaks. In Perry, he could probably recognize his dark side and the accumulation of his angers and sufferings.