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:
persisting values are those of that class which is trapped
poverty that is a personal moral failure and the lure
material reward for citizenship they can never achieve. A
that is a persistent pain in the ass to all representative
whatever their ism. People who are so early frightened
violence anything short of death is a personal victory. And
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:
saves Caldo Largo from being merely an exciting yarn--
that it has to be rescued from such a state at all--
Mr. Thompson's refreshingly skeptical view of the American
which serves to make entirely plausible the desperate
of his character's behavior. It is by no means propagandistic
realism that Mr. Thompson serves up. He couldn't write
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.
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).