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Aspen Literature: Ten Great Books putting Aspen on the American Literary Map

Brandon Wenerd's picture

For decades devoted bookworms and “Dead Poets Society” quoting high school English teachers have flocked to Hemingway’s Key West, Tennessee Williams' New Orleans, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s New York, Steinbeck’s Monterey, Ginsberg’s and Kerouac’s San Francisco, Faulkner’s Mississippi, and Robert Frost’s New England on their summer vacations to celebrate the authors who worked there and assess the creative muses inspiring the great works of American literature associated with these locales. Yet, for whatever reason, well-read literati and travel list arbiters have never ranked Aspen, Colorado on the lists of great American literary destinations. This is understandable, to a degree, because of the exhaustive litany of cities, towns, and regions worthy of such lists.

Here in the remote alpine resort town of Aspen, a confluence of factors like astronomical real estate prices, short attention spans, and an inflated cost of living makes the town – for better or worst – unpractical for prize-winning authors or best-selling novelists looking to establish and settle down in a comfortable stomping ground. Even degree-holding newspaper writers are pigeonholed into employee-mandated housing because of sky-high rents. Nonetheless, the river of literary tradition and cultural significance in our quirky mountain community of 6,000 runs wide and deep – perhaps just as deep as any significant college town chockablock with erudite scholars, a research library, and bookish intellectuals with bombastic vocabularies.

The prestigious Aspen Institute, currently led by best-selling historian Walter Isaacson, certainly heightens and highlights the town’s literary appeal by hosting scholars, book talks, symposiums, forums, luncheons, and seminars on subjects like Russian Romanticism, film auteur theory, Shakespearian interpretation, and emerging minority voices in world literature, along with an assortment of environmental, economic, and socio-political events. In fact, the Institute was conceptualized during a milestone literary convocation celebrating the bicentennial of German poet, novelist, and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1949. The event brought Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer to Aspen for his only lecture in the United States.

Though literary tradition may not be as apparent to the rest of the world as tourist pursuits like skiing and gourmet dining, this once-Wild West mining town retains an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity and boheme idiosyncrasy, making for an idyllic hideaway for literature to flourish. The Aspen Writers’ Foundation – the oldest literary center in Colorado – wines, dines, and host lectures for eminent authors like Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ishmael Beah, and David Davidar during its five-day summer literary festival, writing retreat, and popular Winter Words lecture series, dubbed “après ski for the mind.” In the 70s, a literary journal titled “The Aspen Anthology” published book excerpts, poems, and short stories by locals. It boasted a circulation of 1000. The nearest Barnes and Noble may be nearly 95 miles away in Grand Junction, but the cozy Explore Bookstore on Main Street keeps independent bookstore tradition alive in an era when homegrown sellers are becoming either an anomaly or a nostalgic relic of the past. Even a casual browser at the Aspen Thrift Shop will discover a highbrow and sophisticated collection of used volumes ranging from Sylvia Plath to Edward Abbey between the pulpy stacks of Janet Evanovich mystery thrillers and John Grisham bestsellers.

It’s difficult to imagine another mountain town anywhere in the United States of Aspen’s size and scope carrying as much literary weight or output – in setting, theme, or as a writer’s home. Vail, Keystone, Breckenridge, Jackson Hole, Park City? As far as I know, neither can claim novelist James Salter and Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson nor a namesake think tank with offices in Washington D.C and New York.

A compelling argument could be made for Aspen’s much-deserved place in the annals of American letters – as a town and an idea. Those who love the smell of pages, pulp, and, print should discover plenty of appeal on a bookworm pilgrimage to Aspen. With summer just around the corner and plenty of time to lounge outside with a book during vacation in the pristine freshness of thin Rocky Mountain air, I’ve rounded up some of the best books arguing my thesis for why Aspen could – and should - be heralded as a great American literary destination.

Ten Great Books to put Aspen on the American Literary Map


Aspen Pulp
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By Patrick Hasburgh

Just because Aspen actively touts itself as a sophisticated enclave for the jet set doesn’t mean the town lacks a fascinating flirtation with hedonism. In fact, many – some from rival ski towns - would argue our trashy flirtation with a self-indulgent lifestyle is more of an unhealthy obsession. Perhaps even a borderline addiction. Hasburgh’s boozy merry-go-round ride of a mystery novel is a comical take on life in Aspen during the chaos of ski season, despite being based on clichés and generalizations about the people who live, work, and play around town.


"Remember when this town was a drug-free workplace?" Herman asked.

The Swiss expat slammed back a shot of tequila and then flinched as if the smelly yellow liquid had ignited a cerebral aneurysm.

“If you can remember those days, you weren’t here,” I said.


Music in the Mountains: The First Fifty Years of the Aspen Music Festival
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by Bruce Berger

Aspen has long been a summer retreat for the best of the best in the classical music world, attracting superstars like Aaron Copeland, Phillip Glass, Itzhak Perlman, Arthur Rubinstein, and Igor Stravinsky. Now a storied summer tradition 60 years in the making, Berger weaves a compelling narrative documenting the vibrant history and importance of the Aspen Music Tent and Festival, an annual festival evolving from Walter Paepcke’s successful Goethe celebration in 1949. Berger currently lives in Aspen.

So synonymous have music and Aspen become that after fifty summers the Music Festival seems more a product of nature than natural design. Successive tents have swelled, subsided, breathed like living creatures. Shadows of aspens toss a spangled calligraphy onto the sides while the magpies streak overhead, changing shape in the folds like birds of shifting thought. The summer festival has steeped so long in sagebrush and canvas that, as one resident put it, the music tent is as much a symbol of Aspen as the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of Paris.


Aspen: The Quiet Years
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By Kathleen Krieger Daily and Gaylord T. Guenin

After the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed 1893, Aspen’s economy went belly up for almost a half-century before the era of skiing, glitz, and glamour began after World war II. Kathleen Krieger Daily and Gaylord T. Guenin document the years in between, colloquially referred to by locals as “The Quiet Years.” Weaving historical narrative and events with oral history from those living through the Quiet Years, Daily and Guenin portray Aspen as a uniquely Wild West town of brawling saloons, frustrated miners, residents in frantic exodus from the Roaring Fork Valley, and ramshackle ghost towns. The mammoth historiography records colorful and fascinating anecdotes about unique Aspen characters like Chicken Bill, Crazy Bill of Ashcroft, Cat Kelly, Gary Cooper, and the Whispering Swedes. Gaylord T. Guenin is a columnist for the Aspen Times and lives in Lenado.


Dizzying Heights: The Aspen Novel
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By Bruce Ducker

Whether its from the altitude sickness, middle age ladies prancing on Galena Street in fur coats, or from imbibing too many chemicals on vacation, there is definitely something dizzying about Aspen. Lawyer and novelist Bruce Ducker presents a comical and peculiar cast of scam artists, oil heiresses, coke addicts, and trust fund babies residing in Aspen and living an indulgent life of privilege. The good guys and the bad guys emerge when a controversial real estate development scheme is revealed (a perennial theme… surprise!) Ducker lives in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Waddy Bush steered his car onto the Cement Curl to Rainwater Software and knew from the slight rush of G-forces as he rounded the bend that he was atrack the perfect life. Beyond his windshield the Olympic Mountains shone under a recently washed sky, the pavement traced a measured and satisfying six-degree arc, and light from a rare April sun glinted off the window of his very work station. Corridor F, Third Floor, East. A yellow beam that spot lit his arrival, exactly as Jimmy Cricket highlighted the substantiation of Pinocchio from wood to flesh.


The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson
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by Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis

How many other counties in the United States can boast a beloved majority-elected sheriff who moonlights as an author? Although I’m sure they’re out there, it is difficult to think of any others off the top of my head. In the recent years since Hunter Thompson checked out, there has been a deluge of oral histories, documentaries, and memoirs recounting memories with Dr. Gonzo - the “king of fun” and one of America’s sharpest journalistic and literary voices. Anita Thompson’s The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson elaborates on Hunter’s idiosyncratic brilliance, patriotism, and anti-authoritarian stance for rugged American individualism. Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson collects memories of Hunter through the lens of his high profile tribe in an oral history format. The Kitchen Readings has a distinct Aspen- centric voice and tone, recalling anecdotes based on decades of friendship and interaction with Hunter at Owl Farm, his home in Woody Creek, far from the gaze of Hollywood or publishing circles in New York. Other compiled stories take place in iconic Aspen institutions like the J-bar and the Woody Creek Tavern. Bob Braudis has been the sheriff of Pitkin County for the last 20 years and Michael Cleverly is a columnist for the Aspen Times Weekly.

If Thomas Edison had not invented the light bulb, someone else would have gotten to it eventually. The same goes for many of our finest inventions. But only Hunter Thompson could have invented shotgun golf. Only Hunter, with the physique and the hand-eye coordination of a natural athlete, would have found the similarities between golf and skeet shooting so obvious. There were many things about Hunter that the country club golfing crowd didn’t approve of, but the sight of a butt of a twelve-gage sticking out of his bag filled them with a kind of unease they could scarcely comprehend.