When Hunter S. Thompson died a couple of years back it felt like the end of era just because of what he represented as an icon of the anti-establishment movement of the America in the 1960s. Since his death I've also come to the realization of what else his passing has meant to the world of literature. He represented one of the last of the larger-than-life literary figures who seemed so abundant in the 20th century, but who now have gone the way of the dinosaur. When you add the death of Irving Layton last year to the Grim Reaper's harvest, it becomes even harder to think of any great characters left in the field of letters.
These were men and women (but primarily men – the world being what it was in those days) who, through dint of personality as well as talent, were able to capture people's imaginations in ways today's bestsellers couldn't hope to accomplish. John Grisham may sell millions of books, but do you truly think he could inspire anybody to become a writer?
I'm not saying there aren't great writers out there right now. There are some truly amazing authors whose writings are not just illuminating, but also luminescent as well, but where are the personalities to capture our imaginations? Where are the characters that added mystique to the writer's art?
Perhaps Paris post-World War One and Morocco post -World War Two and all the writers associated with those cities and their associated movements are unique in the history of the written word. There have been very few other occasions when such diverse groups of talent were gathered together in a single place.
There were other pockets: the Bloomsbury group of artists headed up Virginia Wolfe and her husband Leonard made their abode London and its environs. Greenwich Village in New York City and parts of San Francesco came later and were more part of the Beat movement out of Morocco than anything else.
Paris in between the wars was a favoured destination for writers, painters, dancers, and all the hangers-on that go with an artistic scene. Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Morley Callahan, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hart Crane, Henry Miller, and Anis Nin were all to be found among the tables and chairs of Paris cafes in the day and her salons and bars at night.
Perhaps it was the whole circumstance that lent itself to creating the Romantic image of the writer that came out of that period, but the absence of any one of the above-mentioned figures would have surely diminished the impact. Paris in the twenties without Hemmingway or Joyce doesn't even seem conceivable as they represent the two poles of personality and expression, boisterous emotion and cool intellect respectively.
For it was not only content that these wonderful writers wrangled with, but also form as well. Joyce, and Wolfe in England, experimenting with writing as the mind worked. Leaping from thought to thought and letting a "story" develop from those thoughts. Similarly, poets like Crane and e. e. cummings were taking apart the formal structures and producing new forms of poetry
At the other end of the spectrum was Hemingway, with his big and bold emotional stories about war and life, and his big and bold emotional approach to his own life. The boxing match with Callahan, which he lost, was the only blemish on an otherwise spotless record for coming out a winner for most of this life. It was only when he started to lose his creative powers that the depression that killed him set in, but even that adds to his mystique.
Even in death they were figures of romance to emulate for the young writers who were to follow them in the post-World War Two Beat movement. The Beats were probably the first, almost uniquely American literary movement, in that not only were its members predominately American, they also represented the best and worst aspects of the triumph of the individual.
From the selfishness of addictions to the brilliance of independent thought and free spirited action, they epitomized individuality. The Beats and their contemporaries shattered conventions about morality, sexuality, and the other symbols of the staid and stable middle class to ignite a flame of passionate creativity.
William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allan Ginsberg were at the centre of the movement that opened the way for people like Ken Keasy , Charles Bukowski, Richard Farina, and Thomas Pynchom. They also became the touchstone for whatever rebellion against convention that occurred in North America in the 1960s.
Who has there been since to inspire or excite people in that way about literature? Yes, there are individuals who people want to read and whose books provide pleasure to millions, which is a great thing in and of its own, but there is no one person or group of people out there who seem to have caught the public's imagination like any of those other authors did during their heyday.
Maybe they still have the ability to inspire new generations of authors years after their passing. I know they provided me with the desire to create, but how long can the force of their personalities endure? Where will the next great group of literary lions come from to inspire creativity and genius? Is it even possible for these types of people to achieve the acclaim they did in years gone by?
Will our formulaic and conservative publishing industry even allow for such original and creative individuals to flourish, or has the environment changed so radically that we will never see those days again? Perhaps I'm overly romanticizing days gone by because of my own personal biases, so take the thoughts expressed here with as many grains of salt as you wish, but without an infusion of some sort of energy soon, the contemporary North American novel seems destined to continue to obtain the heights of mediocrity at best.