The 20th century, perhaps uniquely in history, produced at least two distinct periods when artists and writers felt emboldened to declare that anything is possible, and everything is permitted. The first of these was at the turn of the century in Europe, as hidebound moral constraints collapsed and the avant garde energies of surrealism, Dadaism and other modernisms were released. The most recent, at mid-century in the US, injected an intensely repressive, scare-mongering period of Cold War paranoia with a surge of creative release that still astounds today, or should. The Beats: Ginsberg, Kerouac, et al., and novelists like Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, and William S. Burroughs, produced a string of literary firecrackers aimed at shooing the demons conjured by the nightmare imaginations of Puritanically repressed authorities possessed of nuclear weapons. It’s arguable that the times themselves made it possible for those writers to produce their best work, making it urgent and essential and widely popular, whatever its widely varying level of craft. And also, in many cases, wildly funny.
Less cited now, but no less worthy of mention in this company, was Terry Southern (1924-1995). He produced a trove of freewheeling satirical (and some excellent non-satirical) pieces in a variety of genres: journalism, novels, short stories, screenplays, reviews, letters, and pre-postmodern unclassifiable mélanges of fact and fiction.
As Evelyn Waugh or Noel Coward concocted artful versions of the stylized cadences of high society England between the world wars, Terry Southern gave unmistakable literary voice(s) to the world of his time, the mid-20th century US. He had an unparalleled ear for the disharmonious sounds of the Big Cold War Freak-Out, from ultra-hip Greenwich Village to congenially racist backwoods Mississippi, paranoid, gun-totin’ Texas, and beyond.
Probably his best-known work is “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” that classic Cold War farce-majeur of nuclear annihilation. Director Stanley Kubrick is Strangelove’s originating genius, of course, but Southern collaborated with him on its unforgettable screenplay. The extent of his contribution is apparently still contentious, and this may be an indication of why his career path led him to greater obscurity than many of his peers. The movies have been a cruel medium for many writers, and Southern’s later writing was almost entirely in screenplay collaborations.
But if you read any of his prose, you’ll see that his high style is there throughout the film. It revels in depicting the buffoonishness and deadly “preversity” (his preferred rendering of this term) of the powerful. You can bet that signature dialogue from each of its indelible cast of characters, and possibly their monikers themselves: General Buck Turgidson, Colonel “Bat” Guano (“If that really is your name,” as Peter Sellers’ Captain Mandrake remarks tellingly during a crucial exchange), and Jack D. Ripper, come from Southern. And personally I would hazard that General Ripper’s obsession with Russian infiltration of “our precious bodily fluids” through the monstrous Commie plot of fluoridation, which initiates the whole chain of events that ends in Armageddon, is a Southern contribution as well. And many equally brilliant touches in one of the world’s great satirical works, in any medium, of any age or land.
Another Southern collaboration, with dilettante poet and hopeless heroin addict Mason Hoffenberg (they met in post-war Paris), produced the novel Candy, in which Voltaire’s iconic innocent Candide is reconceived as a dim but preternaturally sexy small town girl who travels far (and wide) and finds her ultimate happiness in a very preverse manner. Candy is uneven, intentionally clownish shtup-shtick, but its timing gave it a role as significant as Joyce’s Ulysses in breaking down the censorship wall those nuclear Puritans had erected around the chaste body of the USA.
On his own, Southern is perhaps best known for the novel The Magic Christian, an intermittently brilliant lampoon of human greed. Both books became not-so-great movies, their imaginativeness stunted by a medium that Southern possibly had too much confidence in, after experiencing it at its best with Kubrick. Later interviews indicate that he saw the film world to which he’d hitched his fortunes with a very jaded eye.
That’s why, most of all, you need to read his short stories. These, whether satirical and “serious,” are distinguished by prose mastery, subtlety and a truly mind-blowing range of genre and subject matter, possibly unique in US fiction, from the magic realism avant la lettre of a Texas dirt farmer battling a mythical sea-monster in his melon patch, through the minutely examined lives of tragically hip young expats in Paris, and bafflingly insider views of the French working class, to the anomie and casual sadism of disaffected young boys. Whether the boys in question live in the heart of Texas (where Southern grew up) or on New York’s mean streets, the dialogue is always pitch perfect and the milieu is coolly exact.
Most of his best stories were collected in the superb 1967 anthology Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes, along with some classic pieces of reportage, such as “Twirling at Ole Miss,” from 1962. Tom Wolfe considered this a foundational work of New Journalism. Here Southern reports on a baton-twirling competition at the eponymous deep South university, full of creamy white pubescent girls in drill team fetish attire, at the height of the dogs-and-firehoses period of the Civil Rights movement. His voice is deadpan and his eye for the telling detail is dead on. There is an exemplary moment in his visit to the college library, when he opens a first edition copy of William Faulkner’s Light in August and finds it raggedly inscribed with “Ni**er-Lover” on the title page.
Southern’s most creative period was spent toiling in what he dubbed the “Quality Lit Game,” the smug and self-serving world of New York magazine publishing. Unlike the advertising milieu brought to hyperrealist life in “Mad Men,” with which it shared the steel and glass towers of Madison Avenue, the “quality lit” world can only be barely imagined today. Not because it’s gotten any less smug and self-serving, but because it’s so utterly diminished in cultural and economic power. But through those then-ascendant, smoke-filled corridors, Southern rambled in a drug-enhanced state of ribald bemusement. He gives us an inside look in completely crazy-ass pieces like “Blood of a Wig,” whose fantastical sequence of events still grounds itself in a kind of realism with fly-on-the-wall boardroom dialogue, in the form of editors who make pronouncements like let’s stroke this one for a while and see if we get any jism out of it.
Like his contemporary Lenny Bruce, Southern was fascinated with our night-selves, the unexpurgated utterers of all that language that fervent ideologues tend to fear and despise. This marks him as a spirit out of synch with our times, but quintessential in his own. The stuff he dredged up out of the mid-20th century psyche has by now seen the light of day many times over. Concupiscence and degradation among the powerful and repressed have lost the power to shock most of us, as it becomes increasingly clear there’s no limit to how low humans will go in certain circumstances. Incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, coprophagy, whatever: it’s all a commonplace of 24-7 news feeds. And thanks to the endless proliferation of media platforms of expression, it’s long past the time when satirical use of racist or homophobic epithets could be seen as a brave and necessary cleansing of pus from a social wound.
And yet, in some way because his times demanded it, Terry Southern made his own uniquely delicious froth out of all that hyperbolated Id-speak, that’s still surprisingly tasty today. And still radical, even if it doesn’t shock. (The two qualities are often confused.) Why? Because he forces us to permit ourselves to imagine anything, and his wild, abundant humor shows us what a pleasurable act such free imagining can be.
His fecund sexual fantasies are always so absurdly over the top as to be self-satirizing—which this feminist critic at least would say is quite an apt way of looking at bourgeois male heterosexuality. For a slightly different take on gender relations, there is his gleefully mock-outraged letter to Ms. Magazine in the posthumous collection edited by his son Nile, Now Dig This! (which contains a whole section dedicated to his father’s spoof complaint letters). He admonishes the editors that if women wish to be taken seriously as full citizens in modern society, they will have to stop acting like “rutting [. . .] wildcat[s],” during sex: “moaning, sobbing, writhing, scratching, biting,” and so forth (Southern’s italicized list of shocking female copulatory behaviors is much longer). There is an unusual generosity of spirit here—often lacking in satirists from Jonathan Swift onward—that is the antithesis of misogyny or misanthropy.
I haven’t even begun to talk about his boundless love of drugs. You’ll have to experience that for yourself. Suffice it to say that avid consumer doesn’t do justice to it, and that Southern’s reality is always somehow like a drug experience, even when no drugs are involved. Now Dig This! contains a hilarious transcript of a conversation with Burrows, as he and Southern go through a bag of pharmaceutical samples Terry has acquired in a mostly futile quest for the real thing. Terry’s exclamation-pointed enthusiasm for the trial-and-error method of drug testing is dryly riposted by the world-weary Burrows. It’s an overlooked classic of drug literature.
Terry Southern paid for that exuberance with his health of course, in later life, as everybody does. How drearily real.
Almost regrettably for those of us who savor the power of words alone to move and enlighten, Southern was not a quality lit snob: he basically left fiction behind because he saw film’s potential to tell the stories he wanted to tell in a powerful way. And so we have Dr. Strangelove, thank God. And of lesser brilliance but still worthy: “The Loved One,” “Barbarella,” “Easy Rider” and “The Magic Christian.” He even took a stab at writing for Saturday Night Live, but it was way too tame for him by the early 1980s, when it was largely considered to have gone seriously bad anyway.
The times had been a-changin’, you see. The historical moment from and to which Southern spoke most eloquently, when “All Power to the Imagination” was not an empty slogan, was utterly gone. (His amazing eyewitness report “Groovin’ in Chi,” about the 1968 Democratic National Convention, suggests that that hope-slaughtering horror show may have been precisely when and where it died.) Our lives have continued to be coldly revolutionized by technology in the ensuing decades, but there has been far too much failure of the social imagination since that statement was made for it to resonate in the same way with us now.
Nile Southern has been a loyal guardian of his father’s legacy since his passing. He wrote a biography called The Candy Men centering on the writing and publication of Candy, and the deteriorating and finally wrecked friendship between Terry and Mason, which produced that work and was killed by it. It leaves the reader with a sense that both men’s lives, like others of their generation, followed a great postwar rising arc – reveling in limitless possibility until they smashed into the ruined hopes of the 1970s, burned out, and faded not-so-gently into the not-so-good night of the End of the Century.
This is not to make a plea for handkerchief-waving cultural nostalgia for a period that in no way deserves it. The Age of Consequences will produce, and is already producing, age-worthy cultural artifacts: new voices wielding new and old media alike. They are rising to the occasion as the Cold War generation rose to its, and they are multivalent, and full of possibility of a different kind. Nothing About Us Without Us is as bold and right a challenge to today’s status quo as was All Power to the Imagination. But it shows awareness of a global reality that is radically different from the classical polarities of that earlier generation. Terry’s world is receding quickly over the horizon. Time to catch a glimpse to see what difference a few decades make.
Now Nile has released a collection of his father’s letters: Yours in Haste and Adoration (Antibookclub, 2015). There is that voice again, unique and unmistakable as Coward’s: gossipy, sex-and-drug-obsessed, fabulistic, droll, forever turning hazy fact into jazzy legend. And unlike the rest of Terry’s creative output, the letters never slack off; the voice never loses its freshness, delight in absurdity, verve. It’s like finding a favorite candy from your childhood perfectly preserved in an old icebox. This book may only be for the most dyed-in-the-wool Terry Southern fanboys and girls – it ain’t Henry James’s letters, that’s for sure. But I dare you to read Red Dirt Marijuana or Now Dig This! and not become a full-on fan. Terry Southern needs to be read by anyone today who wants to understand that once upon a time, in the distant world of the last century, under a shadow of complete annihilation that has not yet lifted, some humans believed that anything was possible and everything was permitted.
Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes, by Terry Southern
The Magic Christian, by Terry Southern (film directed by Joseph McGrath)
Now Dig This! The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern, 1950-1995, edited by Nile Southern and Josh Alan Friedman
The Candy Men, by Nile Southern
Yours in Haste and Adoration, edited by Nile Southern and Brooke Allen