Longform

Southern Discomfort

Page 5 of 8

Some of what exists in the archives will never get past a researcher's sight. Other pieces will perhaps surface some day in one of myriad collections of Terry's work Nile hopes to get published. A few of these might be taken from the autobiography Terry never finished--or, to be more exact, never really started. The White Rock Lake piece--excerpted from three manuscript pages that Terry titled "The Footman" and that bear the note to "change to the 3rd pers."--likely comes from the "auto-bio," as Nile and Terry referred to it.

Nile--along with Carol Southern, Terry's first wife (and Nile's mother), and his second wife, Gail Gerber--would like to get these boxes into the hands of an academic institution that would cherish the never-seen writings of this man of letters. But Nile has had no such luck.

In 1996, Willis Van Devanter, a Maryland-based appraiser of rare books and manuscripts, estimated that Southern's archives were worth $200,000--not an unreasonable figure for such a collection. (Jack Kerouac's estate, still the subject of litigation, is valued at $10 million.) In his assessment of the collection, Van Devanter wrote that the material "represents a comprehensive history of American literature of its period" and concluded that "literary historians now, more than ever, recognize the importance of Southern as an influential and groundbreaking author and screenwriter [and] in my opinion, his stock will continue to rise." Van Devanter insisted that the acquisition of the archives "would be a major coup for any institution."

Yet there have been no takers. Bill Morgan, acting as broker for the Southern estate, has contacted eighteen libraries about buying the archives, and each has passed. Among those institutions that have rejected the archives are the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Texas at Austin, the Smithsonian, even Southern's old alma mater, Northwestern University. (SMU has not been approached.)

In 1996, the Library of Congress did express some interest. James Hutson, chief of the manuscript division, wrote a letter to the estate insisting that Southern's papers would fit in nicely alongside the early works of Truman Capote, William Styron and Philip Roth. Hutson also thought the film scripts would make "rich research sources" for film students. "With the film Dr. Strangelove on the National Film Registry," Hutson wrote, "it is most appropriate that the script drafts and correspondence also be available here."

There was only one stipulation: The Library of Congress wanted the estate to donate Terry's works--to make it a "gift," as Hutson called it.

Nile, of course, balked at the idea. He needs money.
"I have visited several of the libraries personally to talk to the librarians about the archive," Morgan wrote in a letter to Nile on March 24, 1998. "And each time, I have had the feeling that they did not consider Terry Southern a 'serious' enough writer to warrant such a large expenditure." Morgan said so many rejections were starting to look bad.

And they've left Nile feeling a little bitter. It is like being told, Your father wasn't important enough.

"They won't even go beyond the popular-culture aspect of Terry," says Nile. "He was a writer. He set out to be a writer when he was thirteen, in Texas. He knew that's how he could really get a rise out of people, and he never stopped doing it. But when these institutions look at him...maybe he's just too threatening for them."

So Nile has taken it upon himself to reclaim his father's rightful place in literary history: In 1996 he worked a deal with Grove Press to reissue Flash and Filigree, Candy, The Magic Christian and Blue Movie.

In the next few weeks, Nile hopes to sign a deal with Grove-Atlantic for a Terry Southern reader, likely to be called The Quality Lit of Terry Southern--so named for his father's sneering term for "serious writing." Assisting him in sorting through and paring down his father's letters, screenplays and short stories is Josh Alan Friedman, whose father, novelist Bruce Jay Friedman, was friends with Southern during the 1960s, when both men lived on Long Island, New York. The younger Friedman, now a Dallas-based writer, published some of Southern's work during his editing tenure at High Times magazine in the late 1970s. They remained close friends until Southern's death.

"I love his work--I love him," Friedman says of Terry. "I wish that sensibility and what he stands for were known by more millions of people, because I think it would be a better world."

One of the future projects Nile feels most optimistic about is a cinematic version of Terry's final book, 1991's Texas Summer, the coming-of-age tale about twelve-year-old Harold Stevens and 23-year-old C.K., the black farmhand on his daddy's ranch. The book--which features chapters lifted wholesale from Southern's 1967 Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tales, a sadly out-of-print anthology illuminating some of his journalism and fiction--wasn't really a "new" novel when it was published. Rather, it was culled from pieces in the archives.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky