Soul of a Writer

Jim Thompson found the makings of a new and gritty style working on the Oklahoma State Guide.

HUMANITIES, November/December 2009, Volume 30, Number 6

Legendary crime writer Jim Thompson was many things: hobo, bellhop, roughneck, boozer, factory worker, Marine, devoted father and husband, and, for a brief time, a registered Communist. That last role is rarely mentioned in Thompson’s story as one of America’s most fearless purveyors of pulp-fiction-as-art—in the same league as hard-boiled luminaries like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Chester Himes—decades before Quentin Tarantino made the genre fashionable. Equally buried is Thompson’s tenure as the director of the Oklahoma Federal Writers’ Project in the late 1930s, a New Deal program to put American writers to work that was also a hotbed of radical politics. Yet Thompson’s leftist past may well have set the course for everything that followed in his later career.

I was unaware of the Oklahoman’s passion for populism when I was in film school in the early eighties, watching big-screen adaptations of his books: The Getaway, Pop. 1280 (released as Coup de Torchon), and A Hell of a Woman (released as Série noire); and it didn’t surface during Thompson’s print revival either, with the reissuing of his catalog by Creative Arts/Black Lizard Books in 1981. Watching Thompson on film led me to his novels, most notably the startling first-person crime benders: A Hell of a Woman, Savage Night, and The Killer Inside Me. But onscreen or on the page, Marxism wasn’t part of the equation.

When I entered the movie business a decade later, I had a front-row seat for a new cycle of Thompson films that included The Kill-Off, After Dark, My Sweet, The Grifters, and The Getaway (again), which only seemed to emphasize the fissure between the writer’s unique literary gifts and those filmmakers who would try to bottle it for a new and decidedly hip audience. (The latest attempt is a version of The Killer Inside Me, which just wrapped production in Oklahoma this fall.) Hollywood traffics in happy endings, or at least endings with some resolution, and Thompson’s fiction, built around an unreliable and sociopathic narrator, routinely implodes into the ether. Witness A Hell of a Woman, where the “hero,” Frank “Dolly” Dillon, literally splits into two voices, offering zero hope for any type of redemption. While Hollywood never slavishly followed Thompson’s texts, it now seems remarkable that those movies showed no murmur of his proletarian heart.

In 1995, Robert Polito’s meticulously researched biography, Savage Art, appeared, devoting dozens of pages to Thompson’s leftist awakenings and framing the “Dimestore Dostoevsky” alongside a more overt cadre of socialist writers: Will Durant, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and Ben Hecht among them. But out here in film-land, even that expertly woven social history didn’t change the conversation; Thompson’s years as a Wobbly and a Communist party member, as well as a loyal WPA soldier, remain largely ignored to this day.

The gap is partly understandable. Much of the work from this period was lost, destroyed, or never published. And the novels, from the 1942 debut, Now and On Earth, on through signature fare like Savage Night and The Getaway, do not immediately suggest a writer occupied with radical politics. Many of the stories were written during a two-year flurry in the early 1950s, and they leave a trail of scorched towns and psyches from California to New York to Mexico, not just the Dust Bowl flatlands where Thompson’s populist fires were stoked. Applying our modern filter, it is difficult to connect Thompson’s psychopaths, grifters, drug addicts, and serial murderers with farmhands clapping to Woody Guthrie songs around a campfire.

And yet we have Woody Guthrie to thank for Thompson’s career as a novelist. The men were introduced through the Marxist economics professor and fellow true crime scribe, Bill Cunningham, who was the director of the Oklahoma Federal Writers’ Project before Thompson took over. Cunningham’s sister, Agnes, and her husband, Gordon Friesen, were political musicians of some repute who would later cofound the seminal folk rock publication Broadside Magazine.

“There was a direct line from the group Thompson met [in the Oklahoma WPA] and him coming to New York in 1941 to write Now and on Earth,” Polito recently told me. “Woody Guthrie circulated Thompson’s first novel among leftist publishers in New York until eventually it was taken by Modern Age [Books].”

Polito says the alliance was not surprising, given the writer’s personal history in the oil fields of Texas and his hardscrabble life riding the rails. “In many ways,” he continues, “Thompson’s vision was that of a proletarian literature stripped of economics. After he left the Communist party [in the late 1930s], he no longer believed in the political dialectic and an economic solution. So [for Thompson] those aspects of the proletarian world became aspects of being.”

Two women stare each other down while standing over a man in a hospital bed, who looks at the woman on the right with wide eyes
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Annette Bening, John Cusack, and Anjelica Huston star in the 1990 film version of Thompson’s book The Grifters about con man Roy Dillon and his entangled loyalties to his mother and girlfriend, also grifters. Directed by Stephen Frears, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards.

© CinemaPhoto/Corbis

Soul of a People, the NEH-funded documentary directed and produced by Andrea Kalin and cowritten with David A. Taylor, goes a fair way toward resurrecting Thompson’s populist bent. The movie correctly portrays the Federal Writers’ Project as a lesser known program within FDR’s Works Progress Administration, but one that helped launch the careers of Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston, Anzia Yezierska, and, surprisingly, Jim Thompson.

“He was a late addition to our movie,” Kalin admits, when I asked the documentarian why she chose to include a writer more famous for his sordid tales of sex and violence than for his love of regional folklore. “When the first histories of the Federal Writers’ Project came out, no one was including Jim Thompson in the conversation; Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright. But not Jim Thompson.”

Polito says Thompson’s communism was generational, given that his literary education began in the 1920s at the left-leaning Prairie Schooner (at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and culminated with “the crucible that was the Federal Writers’ Project” a decade later. And thanks to friends like Ben Botkin, a folklore professor at the University of Oklahoma who Federal Writers’ Project national director Henry Alsberg tapped as editor for the Living Histories and Folklore Project, Thompson played a major role in the Southwest Writers Congress.

That occurred in the spring of 1937, where more than 150 regional scribes gathered at the Oklahoma City YMCA to hear the lanky son of Anadarko, OK, exhort his peers about the “writer-as-worker” platform that more famous names (like Hemingway, freshly back from Spain’s civil war) would champion a month later at the American Writers Congress in New York City. Regional voices of that era, like the Daily Oklahoman, used Thompson’s speech as an occasion for Communist-baiting with the headline, “Was Writers’ Meeting Red or Wasn’t It?”

Kalin says the WPA deserves its share of credit in shaping Thompson’s career, noting that, “in many ways, the project was invented for him. He’d just come off a stint as a hobo, and had to support a young family. Directing the Oklahoma office allowed him to explore the stories he collected in the oil fields as a young man. He was clearly fascinated by what [rock critic] Greil Marcus later called, ‘the old, weird America.’”

Take, for example, this passage by Thompson, which is quoted in Soul of a People. It comes from a 1937 anthology of “off-time” work from fifty WPA writers entitled American Stuff. The selection, which is the final portion of a lost and never published hobo novel, Always to Be Blessed, relates the final day of one Lester Cummings, a drifter who bludgeons and eats a live rat, slaughters a family of tenant farmers and then, in turn, is killed by gunfire. Writer Richard Ford reads a snippet of thirties-era Thompson.

Lester Cummings looked back at the tall tower of the derrick. He had a feeling that if he did not look at it frequently, it would vanish and he would be left in this dismal limbo. Down the road came a family of tenant farmers . . . “God damn you. Would you get out of the road and let me by.” This man has snuff dripping from his lips, thought Lester. And look at those two crones, their faces the color of dirty leather. Reason enough for killing them. There is a knife in your pocket . . . you can open it with one hand . . . quickly . . . his throat.

The story’s blend of musings from the bottom of America’s social pyramid and a violently grotesque first-person point of view frightened Thompson’s WPA secretary so much that she stalled sending the work on to Washington.

Nevertheless, once American Stuff appeared, its New York publisher, Viking Press, singled out Thompson’s story as among the “few very best pieces in the collection.” Not only did it merge Thompson’s everyman concerns with his expertise in true crime pulp, it offered a preview of how the writer would blossom decades later in first-person novels like Savage Night.

Here, the alone-against-the-world narrator, Charlie “Little” Bigger, a stunted contract killer who has hit moral and economic ruin, describes his own grisly death by axe blade.

She was swinging wild. My right shoulder was hanging by a thread, and the spouting forearm dangled from it. And my scalp, my scalp and the left side of my face was dangling, and . . . and I didn’t have a nose . . . or a chin . . . or . . .

I went over backwards, then down and down and down, turning so slowly in the air that it seemed that I was hardly moving. I didn’t know it when I hit the bottom. I was simply there, looking up as I’d been looking on the way down.

Kalin describes Thompson’s books as “hovering on the edge” of popular literature and the avant-garde. “If you deconstruct his work,” she continues, “you see that it’s very experimental, with innovative structures. That can all be traced back to the Federal Writers’ Project, specifically because of his emphasis on point of view. Ben Botkin’s influence also can’t be understated, because he championed writing that valued the voice of everyday people, those who had no influence on the course of history.”

Oklahoma; a Guide to the Sooner State was the last of the WPA State Guides to be published, in December 1941, and its only editorial credit belongs to historian Angie Debo, who was directing the Oklahoma office at the time of publication. Thompson had resigned in the summer of 1939, and owing to their political affiliations, neither he nor Bill Cunningham received any acknowledgment.

The storm clouds over Thompson’s directorship had been brewing for some time and led to his resignation, which took effect hours before the Oklahoma City office was handed over from federal to state control. Objections peaked during the preparation of a companion volume to the state guide, The Labor History of Oklahoma, which the University of Oklahoma Press, the future publishers of the Oklahoma State Guide, feared would provoke Oklahoma’s legislature. But Savage Art makes clear that the wispy final version of The Labor History of Oklahoma, 120 pages long and published after Thompson had resigned, was hardly a communist manifesto.

The book marks watershed events in Oklahoma’s labor movement—a coal dust explosion that maimed or killed three hundred miners in 1892; a railway strike two years later where striking workers were seized from their homes by federal troops, loaded onto boxcars and deported to Arkansas; a packing house strike in 1921 where a black strike breaker was lynched; food riots of 1933–34 and other events, like the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, that were watched over by the Communist party in Oklahoma City. But Thompson carefully emasculated the The Labor History’s prose to such an extent that few of the state’s red-baiters, chief among them the project’s fierce anti-communist assistant state director, Zoe Tilghman, who had worked tirelessly to cleanse the Oklahoma office of its Marxist influences, had any quarrel.

So what are modern fans of Thompson’s crime fiction to glean from his leftist past? No bylines appeared in the WPA state guides, and despite the many days he spent combing Oklahoma for stories with his wife, Alberta, it’s hard to fix the entirety of Thompson’s contributions. But as both Soul of a People and Savage Art make clear, his involvement was considerable. Thompson’s voice shines through in the folklore project, though nothing came of it for public consumption. He also compiled A Dictionary of Oklahomaisms for the state guide that included entries like burr-head, crumb-boss, wingie, and Jerusalem Slim, and hired a local Marxist pastor, the Reverend Lawrence Lay, to produce an exhaustive manuscript on the history of African Americans in Oklahoma. Neither work was ever published, but that does little to lessen the impact of Thompson’s years on the front lines of New Deal radicalism, nor his debt to the Oklahoma regionalism nurtured by the WPA.

McQueen, wearing tinted sunglasses and a shirt half-unbuttoned, casually points a gun
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In the first of two film versions based on the novel, Steve McQueen portrays Doc McCoy, an ex-con who runs and kills his way to Mexico with his wife after a botched bank robbery.

© CinemaPhoto/Corbis

“My dad always spoke fondly of that time,” recounts his daughter Sharon Reed, who was born the same year Thompson was hired onto the project. “He and my mom talked about their Oklahoma City home as a gathering spot for other WPA writers, like Louis L’Amour, Joe Paskavan, and Ned DeWitt, who remained one of my dad’s closest friends. My mom would make a huge pot of lima beans and everyone felt lucky to have food on the table [thanks to their WPA paychecks]. Except Louis L’Amour, who complained one time when she didn’t put ham in the lima beans pot!”

Reed says her father was “proud of the Writers’ Project” because he wanted to show the real Oklahoma, as a native-born son who had experienced many of the same hardships of the people he was writing about. “I used to go around saying, ‘I’m an Okie, and proud of it!’” she chuckles. “Of course, I got that from my father.”

Kalin agrees, calling Thompson’s WPA generation of writers, “the last that could point to place” as defining them. She says Alsberg pressured Thompson to make the Oklahoma guide sound more like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. “But Thompson, and the other Oklahoma writers on his team, laughed at that book’s inaccuracies,” adds Kalin.

Savage Art attends to this schism between Washington’s desire to romanticize the plight of the masses and Thompson’s insistence on regional fact and findings. Polito quotes a letter the novelist wrote to Alsberg in 1939:

Concerning your questions on Grapes of Wrath: It is difficult for me to believe, although I am a Steinbeck fan, that the author of the book ever was in Oklahoma. There never were dust storms around Sallisaw. This town is in the Ozark Mountains section. The land of this area, as elsewhere in eastern Oklahoma, suffered greatly from erosion but it was not caused by the wind.

Such exacting detail was typical of how seriously Thompson took his WPA mission in his home state. Polito concurs, calling Thompson’s novels “inconceivable” without the legacy of his Dust Bowl regionalism and the everyman populism born of those experiences.

“He lived in California a long time but it didn’t resonate with him like his years spent growing up in Oklahoma, rural Nebraska, or urban Texas,” the biographer says. “That’s the topography of Thompson’s fiction, those are the spaces he kept coming back to and filled in as powerfully as anyone who ever wrote about them.”

No doubt the thrill of being part of a literary and social mission, the only time in his life Thompson was a public figure, cast long shadows upon the rest of the novelist’s career. The Writers’ Project emphasized oral history and first-person exposition, which together became the foundation of Thompson’s later forays into experimental fiction. His characters begin alienated and severed, much like the lost souls dispossessed during the Great Depression, and often spiral off into a kind of psychosis patterned on society at large. Just like the stories he uncovered, Jim Thompson was rooted in the proletariat’s lot, the blood, sweat, and dirt of people he felt to be the salt of the earth—although his books showed them to be more like vipers in a pit.