Fiction Points: Red Dirt Marijuana by Terry Southern

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.

As the globetrotting mass of drug historians have been preparing to make their way to Shanghai for the bi-annual conference over the last few days, I (who am, unfortunately, not attending) had a chance to sit down and read some fiction. I don’t often get a chance to read much fiction. I have a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on a shelf on my desk, and the bookmark has been on page 50 since the day I purchased the book for the trip to Dwight, IL, for the ADHS conference there in 2016.

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The original hardcover edition

But this latest literary indulgence was more directly research-related. Terry Southern’s collection of short stories entitled Red Dirt Marijuana and other Tastes has been on my list following a very productive archive trip to New York City two summers ago. I spent a few days (not nearly enough) in the Henry W and Albert A Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library, checking out the collected papers of a number of Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs and others.

My dissertation research is formulating an argument about a marijuana culture in the United States beyond the Beats, with which it is commonly associated in the period prior to the 1960s. My initial reasoning was simply because this cultural movement has received plenty of coverage by literary figures and historians of the period. But I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to look at the Beat archives during my time at the New York Public Library. Southern’s papers contained drafts of a couple of the stories (including the title work) as well as some correspondence between Southern and other literary and showbiz figures from the fifties through the nineties. (Southern died in 1995.)

Red Dirt Marijuana and other Tastes is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction pieces that were published in various literary journals throughout the late fifties and into the sixties, and published as a collected volume in 1967. Well known as an important cultural figure in the era (technically not a Beat writer, but a fellow traveler), Southern’s book has been described as biting social commentary and recognized (according to the book jacket) as an “underground classic.” At the time, writer and journalist Courtlandt D.B. Bryan wrote a New York Times Review of the book that was a bit less enthusiastic about its literary significance. Beyond a core of about four stories (including “Red Dirt”), the other stories failed to impress: “Despite occasional and rewarding flashes of Mr. Southern’s perception, the stories seemed written long ago, before the author had learned what he wrote best.”

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The 1990 re-release

I purchased the republished edition (right), released in 1990 with an introduction by George Plimpton.  No C.D.B. Bryan myself, I interpreted the work as exploring significant social and cultural themes of the day. The stories run the gamut, mostly poorly-aged subversive literature that is more likely to offend than challenge in the 2010s. In typical beat-style, drugs are an ever present literary prop, but their presence was not central to most of the stories beyond the last one, “The Blood of a Wig,” about a Dexamyl-addicted magazine editor describing his “most outlandish” drug experiences (which included injecting the blood of a schizophrenic patient). Otherwise, drugs are largely relegated to the background, mere accessories for characters travelling through Mexico, hanging out in Parisian jazz clubs, or interviewing Bay of Pigs participants in a camp in Guatemala.

But marijuana takes center-stage in the eponymous opening piece which was originally published in 1960 in Evergreen Review. Harold is a young white kid, twelve, the child of a farmer in rural Texas. The other human character is C.K. a thirty-five (ish) year old African-American farmhand who works for Harold’s father. The story starts with Harold (called “Hal” by C.K.), bringing a pillowcase a third-filled with marijuana that the two had found in a barren field two weeks prior.  They had found the patch of marijuana (“no ordinary loco-weed” according to C.K, “…that there is red-dirt marijuana…mighty fine gage” p.5) on their way to a fishing excursion. They came upon Maybelle, one of the cows on the farm, chewing on some of it and lounging out (“they ain’t nothin’ wrong with this cow… She high, that’s what she is!” p.5).

They spend the duration of the story processing the harvest, preparing it for sale or some other use, with C.K. imparting his knowledge about the process to Harold. They discuss aspects of the plant. (“you got to know you business ‘fore you start foolin’ round with this plant” p.3). They discuss the distinct smell (“That’s the boo-kay of the plant-they ain’t no smell like it” p.3), how to roll a joint, its slang terms, its taste, high and how it differs with age and experience.

The cleaning process involved de-seeding the plant using an innovative process that C.K. knew and employed while Harold sat fascinated. Then C.K. separated the flowering tops from the leaves making a light-gage (flower tops mixed with leaves) and a heavy gage (just flower tops). A brief discussion follows of C.K. explaining proper storage, asking specifically for one of Harold’s mother’s quart fruit-jars (which Harold hesitatingly agrees to pilfer from his mother), and agreeing on a (temporary) secret place for storing the containers.

Harold is most interested in two things: how the drug makes a person feel, and the drug’s legal status. These are the key points of departure in the story as Harold tries to get closer, perhaps hipper, with his friend. C.K. explains that marijuana makes you feel “good” in a way that goes beyond normal good feelings. He’s careful to distinguish the degree of goodness between light (“workin’-hour gage”) and the heavy (“Sunday gage”). (Tragically, C.K. dies in a fight over a craps game some undetermined time later. His death is featured in the next story, “Razor Fight.”)

Harold’s attitude toward the drug changes through the story. Despite his curiosity, in the beginning he’s averse to trying it, recalling an earlier illness caused by its use. But by the end Harold gradually comes around to agreeing to maybe try the drug later. At one point, during a more ambivalent phase, he directly questions the illegality of a drug that was apparently “so all-fired good.” C.K.’s response is what seems to turn the tide for Harold: “Well, now, I use to study ‘bout that myself…I’ll tell you what it is…it’s ‘cause a man see too much when he git high, that’s what. He see right through ever’thing” (13).

I was struck by Southern’s use of two archetypes in the then-ongoing war on marijuana, as seen though his main characters: an otherwise innocent young white male, and an older African-American “expert-in-gage.” While clearly challenging the overarching cultural stereotype that black peddlers posed an existential threat to white youth, the story still adheres to these tropes, though in a different, more subversive way. The two main characters are building a relationship, with the older character passing on knowledge to his young protégé (“Shoot, you got to know you business you workin’ with this plant,” C.K. reiterates, p.10). C.K. isn’t just initiating Harold into drug use; he’s giving Harold information about the plant, the trade, the culture, what intoxication is, and, more importantly, what intoxication means (“Well, a man git high, he see right through all them tricks an’ lies, an’ all that ole bull-crap. He see right through there into the truth of it!” p.13). While still traveling in stereotypes, these characters nonetheless demonstrate how marijuana culture is transmitted. As a culture that we know, as historians, has long been passed on to others through folk teachings like C.K.’s, it is a culture that Southern was a part of, and one that he learned and presumably taught to others, not least through this story.

Though clearly a work of fiction, “Red Dirt Marijuana” is a window into alternative modes of knowledge production that drug historians should be aware of when thinking about the development of drug cultures. While similar to the “official” narrative, this story has a much more benign and frankly believable tenor. Added to the fact that (as discussed in other posts) many of these ascribed modes of transmission were virtual fictions themselves, it demands that historians consider these non-archival sources, including literary fiction, as legitimate supporting bits of evidence in their research on drug cultures and drug users and develop new methodologies to integrate these with more traditional sources. (Should we call it reading parallel to the grain, perhaps?)

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Calling all Rip Torn fans!

Postscript: I’m also looking to the ADHS community for assistance with finding a screenplay adaptation of “Red Dirt Marijuana” and “Razor Fight” that may or may not exist. In the Berg collection, there is some limited and incomplete correspondence regarding a film project in the early seventies involving Michael Portnoy, possibly with Rip Torn directing. The Wikipedia page for “Red Dirt Marijuana” mentions that a film was made (with Philip D. Schuman) and it won a Hugo Award at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1973. (I could not find the film, nor any reference to the award on the website for the Film Festival.) If you know anything about the film, I’d appreciate any information you can give in the comments.