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The Case of Earl Thompson

Shunned by academic critics, the populist novelist from Wichita, Kansas, Earl Thompson, who published four novels between 1970 and 1981 (three before his death in 1978, the last posthumously), is still in print and continues to be read.

Thompson was a novelist in the tradition of American naturalism who attempted to understand his world and times. In his trilogy of autobiographical novels: A Garden of Sand, Tattoo, and The Devil to Pay, Thompson analyses his people and experience from the point of view of Cat, Jack, or Jarl--the various names given his central character: a thinly disguised Earl. In these novels Thompson relates the story of an incestuous relationship with his mother and his disgust of racism, homophobia, militarism, and imperialism. While A Garden of Sand has some rough spots, in Tattoo, The Devil to Pay, and Caldo Largo--the story of an alienated veteran who becomes a gun runner in the Caribbean--his novelistic skills are fully developed.

Who are Thompson's people? In an interview published in Esquire in 1970, Thompson said:

           My persisting values are those of that class which is trapped
           between poverty that is a personal moral failure and the lure
           of material reward for citizenship they can never achieve. A
           class that is a persistent pain in the ass to all representative
           societies, whatever their ism. People who are so early frightened
           by violence anything short of death is a personal victory. And
           all have been wounded.

Jack, the protagonist of A Garden of Sand, is raised by his maternal grandparents in Wichita after his father's death. His grandfather is a proud, populist farmer on the outskirts of Wichita who loses his farm in the depression of the 1930's and moves into the city. The grandfather, fiercely independent in the spirit of the old west that once prevailed in the city and the region, rails against all politicians and establishments. Not willing to humble himself by working on WPA projects, his family sinks ever lower on the social scale to live in a plywood trailer off an alley in north Wichita, where the old man dies in the early 1950's. The grandmother takes in sewing and works odd jobs to keep the family together.

Jack's mother becomes a prostitute, and for a time, Jack, precocious and old beyond his years, enters into a sexual relationship with her. Although relatively young, she dies of leukemia during Jack's youth. He is emotionally marked by the image of his mother and himself having sex, and the women that Jack loves find him cold and insensitive. In the third novel of the trilogy, he remarks on his inability to experience love, as opposed to lust. When A Garden of Sand and Tattoo were published in 1970 and 1974 respectively, denial that incest ever occurred was the norm. Mother-son sexual relationships, if and when they happened, were strongly repressed, but Earl Thompson had the guts and the nerve to publish his account of sexual abuse at a time when discussion of such relationships was taboo.

At the age of fourteen, in the last months of W.W.II, Jack lies to a recruiting officer and joins the navy. He sees duty in China; the misery and violence he witnesses there will influence his later attitudes concerning racism, militarism, and imperialism. His sexual education continues in China. While a crewman on a hospital ship, he is involved in an orgy with a drunken nurse; on shore he visits prostitutes. At home again a few years later, Jack fails in marriage and work. He is involved with another woman, and his wife leaves him. He doesn't seem to fit in; although he works hard, is the judgment of one of his bosses. Unable to stand life in Wichita, Jack goes to California where he joins the Army. He falls in love with an American woman in Germany, but the affair ends when he is ordered to Korea. Tattoo ends with a scene from the retreat from the Yalu during the Korean War. Jack survives and is home on leave when his grandfather dies. He stays in the army and is promoted to the rank of Master Sergeant. As the youngest top sergeant in the army, Jack is courted by journalists and politicians. He realizes that it is his class, the poor, who are recruited to fight the cold war, and that America has come to depend on a military economy for its apparent prosperity. Deciding he wants an education and to become a journalist, Jack resigns from the army.

The Devil to Pay finds Jack as a student journalist at the University of Missouri; he writes a story about the campus police watching for "queers" behind two-way mirrors in the men's rooms. Censured by the administration, Jack leaves the university in disgust. He pursues journalism and becomes a military analyst for a Chicago area newspaper. There he learns the cold war is taken for a patriotic given and the military-industrial complex is a sacred cow. He opens a small business in Brooklyn and writes part-time. After forty rejections, Jack's first novel is accepted for publication, mainly because his girl-friend is the former lover of an editor. He is against the war in Vietnam and admires the youth who take a stand against it, but feels strangely left out of events and powerless to influence them.

According to the entry for him in Contemporary Authors, "Earl Thompson's first novel was widely praised by critics and earned a National Book Award nomination. Caldo Largo received favorable reviews. Christopher Lehman-Haupt, quoted in Contemporary Authors, said, "he makes his Gulf waters seethe with wildlife, about which he has interesting lore to impart that even Melville forgot to mention." Thompson's social concerns also are noted by this reviewer:

           What saves Caldo Largo from being merely an exciting yarn--
           assuming that it has to be rescued from such a state at all--
           is Mr. Thompson's refreshingly skeptical view of the American
           system, which serves to make entirely plausible the desperate
           pitch of his character's behavior. It is by no means propagandistic
           social realism that Mr. Thompson serves up. He couldn't write
           that drearily even if he set out to.

In the Hudson Review in 1975, William H. Pritchard, in a review essay of some fourteen novels, upholds Jamesian high art and pans Tattoo, although he admits it is "searingly honest." A reviewer of The Devil to Pay, in the Wichita Eagle Beacon, writing in 1982, fails in any meaningful sense to understand the novel: "it is like the fictionalized diary of a writer who appears to have had as much trouble dealing with success as with failure." Actually, this review says more about the reviewer than it does about Thompson, but suggests certain conclusions, too, about the novelist's fine ability as a writer: "When you realize that Cat is white, the novel makes less sense, although it makes more sense if you read A Garden of Sand, an earlier Thompson novel."

In a letter to Fred Whitehead, Meridel Le Sueur places Thompson in the tradition of Dreiser and the midwestern realists. His depiction of sex, violence, and the hypocrisy of American society as he experienced it, contribute to this view. Thompson's depiction of his coming of age in a poor family in Wichita, Kansas, during the 1930's and 40's speaks to the experience of the generation of GI's who struggled for an education and a piece of the American Dream. His realistic treatment of his times is unrelieved by the usual epiphanies that would be understood by middle-class critics. The high points of Thompson's work, as it were, are the scenes in which his grandfather rants against the government and politicians, and where Thompson himself questions post-W.W.II, Madison Avenue driven America.

Several weeks ago I bought a compendium entitled 399 Kansas Characters. It is an interesting work, but in the section, "Authors, Artists, and Composers, there is no mention of Earl Thompson. Meanwhile, the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Published by the University of Indiana Press in 2001, mentions Thompson. What accounts for this local neglect? Was Thompson a Kansan? Was he an important writer? Was he a national writer? The answer to these questions has to be a "yes, but."

As a Kansas writer, Thompson represents the underclass of urban, industrial Kansas. The factories and rail yards of Kansas City, Topeka, and Wichita, and smaller cities such as Pittsburg and Salina, are the Kansas places of his trilogy. The popular image of a bucolic Kansas of kindly farmers (there are very few left), small towns, and quilting bees is totally foreign to Thompson. He never experienced the small town world of a William Allen White and never bought into its mythology. But he does write, and write well, about his Kansas.

Was Thompson an important writer? Certainly he was, but a difficult one for readers with conventional attitudes. He makes them think! Nominated for a National Book Award and selected by the Book of the Month Club, he was difficult, recognized, and popular. Was Thompson a national writer? Yes, but an American writer with an international perspective. Tattoo deals in large part with Asia as seen through the eyes of young Jack. As he attempts to understand its problems, he also learns about imperialism and militarism. For example, when in Korea, Jack "watched an old woman put a dog in a sack and methodically beat it to death to make it tender enough to eat. . . . Jack thought she could have been his grandmother, if she had been Korean."

Earl Thompson died in 1978 at the age of forty-seven after publishing three distinguished novels in eight years. He was a very promising writer who died at the peak of his career. His roots were with his grandfather, a Kansas populist; his experience that of contemporary urban America; his vision that of a better life for the dispossessed. Three of his novels are still in print.

By Earl Thompson:
A Garden of Sand. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1970. Paperback edition:
New York: Carroll & Graf, 1991.
Tattoo. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1974. Paperback edition: New York:
Carroll & Graf, 1991.
Caldo Largo. New York: G. P. Putnam's Son's, 1976. Paperback edition: New
York: Carroll & Graf, 1991.
The Devil to Pay. New York: New American Library, 1982.

This essay appeared in slightly different form in Peoples' Culture, n.s. 22 (1994).


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