David Tully: Terry Southern and the American Grotesque

May, 2010

— Introduction —

After my father died in 1995, I inherited forty boxes of papers and his bewildering legacy. The fact that Terry’s reputation had morphed at some point from disciplined writer to popular culture ‘pied-piper’ hadn’t helped him during his lifetime, and wasn’t helping me keep him in bookstores, either. Through the publication of a new anthology, Now Dig This; The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern 1950-1995, and the letters-driven The CANDY Men; The Rollicking Life and Times of the Notorious Novel, Candy, my efforts to draw attention to the wide range and serious nature of much of my father’s work was critically well-received, but did not resolve the unstated underlying puzzle: ‘Who was Terry Southern?’ Rather, they bolstered the accepted axiom that Terry was a man who could write just about anything, and had been everywhere that mattered. David Tully takes us beyond the awe-struck, which is where most Terry Southern observers, including myself, have been, and casts us into the hagiography of his soul—where Terry Southern’s life and oeuvre meet in a place uniquely determined by his times.

As Tully brilliantly reveals, what my father left behind was an extraordinary body of work reflecting a seriousness, depth, and world-view whose lineage of high-level Decadence, Grotesquery, and Satire has historically been marginalized—precisely because it is, at its sharpest, culturally critical, and, as former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham observes, “a tragic view of human nature…that simply does not sell.” As Terry’s Executor, what mystified me most was not just the seemingly instant academic bias against the “pop-culture” successes of Candy and his film work—as if that somehow made him less of an artist than his novel-writing compatriots who didn’t achieve such pop-art breakthroughs—but the fact that Terry didn’t fit into any neat categories that institutions typically need to amplify or fill in their collections: ‘novelist’, ‘essayist’, ‘screenwriter,’ ‘journalist,’ ‘humorist.’ Terry fulfilled each of these categories with confidence and a style all his own, but because of that, I suspect, he fell through the cracks—as he continues to do today. Rather than identify Terry Southern as a ‘keystone species’ of American Studies and post-war American Lit—my father tends to be mentioned as an eccentric literary adjunct to the Beat Generation, the Gonzos, or the ‘literary outlaw’ of the Paris Review set. To me, and to those who have long taken his work seriously, he’s the bridge between the Beats and the Beatles; the link between Poe and Kubrick. It’s a sad reflection on our times that such fluidity for a writer should be considered a detriment—as opposed to a model for the hybridized new media scribes of today.

David Tully contacted me in the late 1990s—hoping to gain access to Terry’s archive and begin work on his Ph.D. thesis on my father’s work, work that he found extraordinary and underappreciated. At the time, Terry’s archive, now safely housed at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, was stuffed into a small locker at the Chelsea Mini-Storage facility in New York City. The archive contained over forty boxes of handwritten and typescript material, a good deal of it unpublished at the time. It took twenty minutes and great upper-back strength just to unload the archive from its roost at the beginning and end of each day. Countless hours were spent pouring through material that spanned Terry’s writing life from 1948 to 1995, items that included novels, short stories, plays, financial records, legal documents, journals, essays, contracts, fragments and ephemera. Tully created his own dense resource guide, compiling a massive amount of previously uncollected and in many cases unknown writings, along with Terry’s well-known works. Tully’s investigation remains one of the highlights for researchers of the Southern archive—for he donated his five-volumes of bound materials to the Collection—a perfect starting point for any researcher setting out to navigate the deep waters of Terry Southern.

The idea of someone getting a degree in Terry Southern was certainly appealing—but besides his dissertation topic, what impressed me most about this young man and his enthusiastic, forthright nature was something Terry would have appreciated: a private inscrutability, tempered by conspiratorial gleam. ‘A veritable Feelix Treevly,’ I thought (one of Terry’s great characters from his first novel, Flash and Filigree), and clearly someone who would uncover the deeper meaning to my father’s life and work. Armed with notebook computer and portable scanner (a high-tech novelty even today), he was one of the few stable components in the posthumous world of Terry Southern.

Tully understood that Terry’s great impulse to write came from his exposure at an early age to the elaborate prose of E.A. Poe. He reveals how Poe became Terry’s key technical strategist—for he had cracked the code between seemingly authentic reportage (where credibility is paramount), and the timeless terrain of the ‘far-out’ tale. My father was smitten by Poe’s ability “to render as real the most weird.” How appropriate, then, that David Tully’s thesis advisor is one of the foremost Poe scholars, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kenneth Silverman.

Tully does not linger on Poe, nor on Hawthorne, another literary antecedent for the young writer, for as Terry develops, his influences encompass a broad range of styles and tones. Most compelling to me was Tully’s previously unexplored assertion that Terry was influenced equally not only by Hawthorne, but by the “chtonic” (David Tully’s aptly chosen word) Natural world and the “terrible beauty” he experienced in his rural boyhood in Texas, and later in the fields of Connecticut. The philosophical idea that Nature will always trump contrivance was, as Tully points out, a constant theme of Terry’s, weaving throughout even his most unnatural settings, from Flash and Filigree’s sterile waiting rooms, to Guy Grand’s ever-shifting metropolis. Another unexplored idea put forth by Tully places Terry as a practicing student of the Surrealists and Situationists. After David showed me some of Terry’s early surrealist texts, such as C’est Toi Alors, his thesis was further confirmed by a recent discovery: a treasure trove of reel-to-reel audio tapes that my father recorded in his apartment in Greenwich Village in the early ‘50s.

The radio-show routines, some of which are in French, captured much of the vibe and intensity that still resonated from his life spent in Paris between 1949 and 1954. These recordings (soon to be released) are like an audio odyssey into what Tully calls “the quicksilver philosophy” of Terry’s Existential world: a place where dreams and absurdist invention puncture the ubiquitously growing and ever-crass commercial culture. On one of the tracks, Terry’s sounds a bit like William Burroughs from his own 1950s tape-recorded experiment, Nothing Here Now But the Recordings. Terry’s voice, reading Tristan Tzara’s 1918 Dada Manifesto, captures the pure state where hipster persona meets mad-cap Bunuelian intensifier. Embodying the surrealist impulse, the voice is dreamy, provocative and eerily defiant:

I am writing a proclamation, and I want nothing. Yet, I say certain things. And I am against proclamations, as a matter of principle, as I am also against principles. I write this proclamation to show that one may perform opposed actions together, in a single, fresh respiration. I am against action, for continual contradiction. For affirmation also. I am neither for, nor against. I do not explain, because I hate good sense—but there exists an art which does not reach the voracious mob.

In some ways, Terry’s haunting pronouncement came true. For as Tully reminds us, Terry’s role as the musical genius side-man, blowing note-perfect riffs on now-classic film dialogue, is often how he’s remembered—at the expense of his written work. The best-selling Candy reached the “voracious mob,” however, and many of Terry’s most far out ideas (space burial, media pranks, diving for dollars, A-list erotic films) are current cultural phenomena. More importantly, Tully reminds us that in Terry’s literary output his true brilliance and originality endures; a capacity to astonish, hard and precise as a diamond. For the first time, David Tully shines a bright and penetrating light on the profound aspects of Terry’s oeuvre, showing us a writer who, though he threw in his lot with Film, had a bedrock existential praxis, combined with a magic ear for dialogue, and a fine, filigreed prose style that gives his written work a powerful, skeptical, scouring truth—unachievable in film. David Tully’s book may finally lay to the rest the “party boy” image of Terry Southern—and confirm him as an accomplished artist of moral strength who found “beauty in every form,” and never lost sight of the powerful impulse to make it hot for them.

— Nile Southern, 2008