Terry Southern and the Capacity to Astonish

David Tully

The Swinging Sade, the Pop Poe, the Lenny Bruce of the printed page and William S. Burroughs's kid brother: Terry Southern was all these things and more, a mercurial talent still not understood—a jazz cat from the mean streets of Dallas who trailed Miles to Paris and scored his biggest hits following a comely coed on the streets of Greenwich Village and two lost hippies on the backroads of America, in the company of most of the key movers and shakers in film, music, and fiction of mid- to late-twentieth century America and Europe. Grotesquely comic, ethereally beautiful, he careened from style to style, genre to genre, form to form, sustained by a single vision and a cohesive plan: to show that reality is what you make it, and is always up for grabs. The purpose of my biography, American Grotesque: Terry Southern and the Capacity to Astonish, is to explore all the facets of this unique talent, within the context of his tumultous life and times.

American Grotesque performs two functions: it is a biography of the American writer Terry Southern, from childhood in Texas to "Quality Lit." fame in Paris and Greenwich Village to jet-setting excess as a highly paid screenwriter in Hollywood and London; it is also a critical analysis of his literary output (novels, short stories, screenplays, journalism, and essays), a large portion of which has never been published. Unlimited access has been granted by Southern's family to his private archives; this study presents a more comprehensive picture of Southern's canon than has yet been offered or even attempted. The acknowledgement of Southern as a major satirist is fairly common, the study of his work in any depth nonexistent.

Southern's writings are examined in the chronological order of their composition and publication, as we follow his career from its beginnings in Texas, through study in Chicago, to wartime experiences in Europe, and postwar study in Paris on the GI Bill. Once in Paris, Southern's career as a writer begins in earnest, as he attends lectures by Sartre at the Sorbonne, also finding time to smoke hashish with Samuel Beckett and Jean Cocteau while helping George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen to start the Paris Review.

American Grotesque follows Southern as he moves from the expatriate scene in Paris to the underground and literary elite of Manhattan, championed by the likes of William Faulkner and Henry Green. Southern's cult celebrity status earns the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who enlists his aid in the production of Dr. Strangelove. The success of this venture leads Southern to abandon literature for Hollywood, where, despite initial success (Easy Rider, Barbarella), he is soon frozen out for a variety of reasons, not least of them being ugly squabbles with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda over authorship of Easy Rider.

The last two decades of his life are spent in diligent writing but, aside from a stint at Saturday Night Live, scant public recognition, his career becoming a series of thwarted projects and bad deals. A chief aim of the latter part of this biographical study is to shed light on these hidden years, exploring possible reasons for the sad fate of a one-time counterculture hero, and also to demonstrate that the voice, though muted, was never stilled.

Reluctant to discuss his writing, Southern did have one stated goal: to "upset complacency." His tales are set in a strange twilight world akin to Hawthorne's, a disorienting realm where naturalism and myth, realism and surrealism blend. For all his grotesquerie, Southern is a serious writer; his grotesque is derived from Poe, Lovecraft, and a childhood immersion in the pulps, but Southern's is a kaleidoscopic talent, presented in a dazzling array of media and styles.

American Grotesque explores the quicksilver philosophy sustained throughout the impressive and bewildering field of his writing, placing Southern in a context of surreal American humor stemming from the Southwest, and a canon of Decadent Romanticism that begins with the violent black humor of Sade. It's likely that Southern's output has eluded critical commentary so far because it is so varied, hard to pin down, and disorienting; American Grotesque offers a comprehensive study that reveals a cohesive vision -- one that should appeal to students and devotees of independent film, New Journalism, post-World War II American fiction, and the countercultural revolution of the 50s and 60s.

The first half of American Grotesque served (in modified form) as my doctoral dissertation at New York University; it concludes with Southern being summoned to London by Kubrick, leaving literature behind for film, and is approximately 250 pages. The second volume, covering his rise and fall in Hollywood and his final years, is also approximately 250 pages.

"American Decadent"
David Tully's Review of Now Dig This in American Book Review

Writing the Counterculture
by Vikki Reilly, University of Edinburgh, Scotland

What I Learned Since I Stopped Worrying and Studied the Movie:
A Teaching Guide to Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove

— a teaching guide by Dan Lindley, professor of political science,
Universtiy of Notre Dame; published in a peer-reviewed academic journal

For a more detailed version of the guide, visit
For reactions and comments on the guide, visit

"Southern Humor: Documenting the American South," from The Encyclopedia of Southern Literature,
University of North Carolia at Chapel Hill