Check out our New Aspen Local Directory

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
Buy Aspen Pulp from
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
Buy Music in the Mountains: The First Fifty Years of the Aspen Music Festival from
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
Buy Aspen: The Quiet Years from
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
Buy Dizzying Heights: The Aspen Novel from
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
Buy The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson from
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.
[ pagebreak ]


Whiteout: Lost in Aspen
Buy Whiteout: Lost in Aspen from
by Ted Conover

Ted Conover has carved an authorial niche by taking on quirky jobs in the name of journalism and then writing captivating books about the experience. For his book Newjack, Conover analyzed the criminal justice system by becoming a New York State corrections officer in the notorious Sing Sing maximum-security prison. In Rolling Nowhere, he rides the rails across America with modern hobos. Whiteout details his experience driving cab around Aspen for two years in the 1980s. The book captures the weird mixture of people drawn to Aspen: New Agers, those looking to party, miners, the rich, and celebrities commonly associated with the town like John Denver and Hunter S. Thompson. Whiteout is a thoughtful sociological examination of Aspen in the 80s with excellent storytelling.

The snow fell. The wind blew. Gust from over the frozen hedge carried the sound of people having fun and the smell of a hot tub. Young men made jokes; young women laughed. All I could see over the hedge was steam rising through a spotlight. But I could imagine them, naked, surrounded by bubbles, perspiration on their foreheads , warm except for the wind on their faces and the beer in their hands.


Humboldt’s Gift
Buy Humboldt's Gift from
By Saul Bellow

In April 2005, shortly after Saul Bellows death, Aspen resident Jeremy Bernstein wrote a heartfelt remembrance of the celebrated novelist in an Aspen Times letter to the editor. Bernstein’s letter reminded the town about critically acclaimed author’s connection to Colorado. Before he won both the Pulitzer and Noble Prize for Literature in 1976 for Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow summered in Aspen as an artist-in-residence with the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in the early 1970s. Bernstein’s letter recalls a memorable hike with Bellow and a group of ladies to Cathedral Lake . Robert McNamara hiked past the group and Bellow ridiculed the controversial former Secretary of Defense who oversaw the beginnings of the Vietnam War by calling him “a shit” when he was within earshot. In Peggy Clifford’s book, To Aspen and Back, she quotes Bellow as calling Aspen “a pleasure slum.” He was also known to be a dinner guest of Aspen novelist James Salter.

Though it possesses no tangible aesthetic relation to Aspen, Humboldt’s Gift is a literary tour de force and critique of American culture through the perspective of a failed poet, a successful screenwriter, and mobsters in the Chicago gangland. Funny at times, Bellow presents a spectrum of human emotions coping with an automated and materialistic society.

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father.


A Sport and a Pastime
Buy A Sport and a Pastime from
By James Salter

In his memoir Burn The Days, James Salter describes writing his third book, the critically acclaimed novel A Sport and a Pastime. “I had written a third book, some of it during a summer in Colorado, some in the Village, fragments of it scribbled on the empty passenger seat while driving to one place or another reciting to myself, rehearing. It was not a maiden book…The title was partly ironic, A Sport and a Pastime, a phrase from the Koran that expressed what the life of this world was meant to be as against the greater life to come.”

Born in New York, Salter has owned a home in the West End of Aspen since the late 1960s. A West Point graduate and a fighter pilot with the Air Force in the Korean War, Salter’s life is one of the ultimate literary romantic: quixotic and full of gusto while being introspective and woefully poignant. He has expatriated in Europe and wined and dined in some of the world’s most exotic locales while on a continuous hopscotch between New York, Aspen, and Nyack on Long Island. Between the globe trotting, life unraveled. Salter found time to publish prolifically and rub elbows with literary titans like George Plimpton, the legendary editor of the Paris Review.

Salter described literary life in Aspen to Stewart Oksenhorn in a 2007 Aspen Times profile: " ‘We're at one end, Hunter S. Thompson is at the other end,’ said Salter, speaking for himself and Kay, his wife of nearly 30 years. ‘His end is an utter dissolution, chaos, excess. That's not where we are. Not to say people haven't gotten drunk here’ - now referring to the house in Aspen's West End that he bought in the early '70s and lives in half the year. ‘Hunter Thompson did. But we've never set fire to a couch, never threw furniture out the window.’"

A Sport and a Pastime is an intimate glimpse into a passionate affair between Phillip Dean and his young lover Anne-Marie as they frolic through pastoral villages in the French countryside. Artistic and lyrically crafted, the novel realistically captures the intense vortex of personal desire and eroticism. First published in 1968, the novel is now included in the Modern Library and is heralded by many as a modern masterpiece.

Jonathan Bastian, a former journalist at the Aspen Daily News, once wrote in an arts and entertainment feature: “It will be unforgivable shame if the town of Aspen - in particular the younger generation of Aspenites - forgets or never learn about the work of James Salter. He is a pillar of our artistic heritage. He is too uniquely talented to be forgotten… To put it bluntly: His writing is so goddamn good that it gives me the chills when I read it. He makes other writers look like children just learning the language.”

Four in the afternoon. The trees along the street, the upper branches, are catching the last, full light. The stadium is quiet, some bicycles leaning against the outer wall. I read the schedule once again and then go in, turning down towards the stands which are almost empty. Far away, the players are streaming across the soft grass. There seem to be no cries, no shouting, only the faint thud of kicks.


Fear and Loathing in America
Buy Fear and Loathing in America from
By Hunter S. Thompson

It’s no secret that literary outlaw and famed Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson lived and worked at his homebase in Woody Creek for the majority of his formative writing years. Though the good Doctor is gone now, his larger-than-life legacy lives throughout Aspen. Vintage “Thompson for Sheriff” posters by Thomas Benton hang in law offices and bars around town, commemorating his run for Pitkin County Sheriff in 1970 on the Freak Power ticket, when he vowed to pave Aspen’s streets and rename the town “Fat City.” Though no longer owned by comrade in arms and fellow Woody Creature George Stranahan, The Woody Creek Tavern still has Thompson memorabilia scattered in almost every nook and cranny. Even the Explore Bookstore has an entire section dedicated to Hunter’s literary output and books compiled about him. Almost anyone who lived in Aspen or the Roaring Fork Valley between 1968 and 2005 has at least one Hunter Thompson story, of which they will probably be willingly to share if probed.

Thompson’s lives on in the American imagination for a literary canon that includes Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Last Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, The Great Shark Hunt, Kingdom of Fear, Hey Rube, and The Rum Diary, which is currently being made into a movie by Johnny Depp. Here in Aspen, his magnanimous appeal was one filled with local lore. An astute observer of people and politics, Thompson coined the term “politics is the art of controlling your environment,” and fought tirelessly to protect all that was good about Aspen and his beloved Woody Creek, including the constant threat of “greedhead” developers looking to ruin paradise in pursuit of fast cash.

Books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels have been inducted into the Modern Library and are considered modern classics. These books certainly could be considered worthy for this list. However, perhaps no book resonates with Aspen and Pitkin County like his second collection of letters, Fear and Loathing in America. The compilation brilliantly crafted correspondence to friends, editors, allies, and the occasional adversary between 1968 and 1976. The collection of letters contains his dispatches on the McGovern vs, Nixon campaign trail in 1972, the political scheming behind his revolutionary campaign for Pitkin County Sheriff on the Freak Power ticket in 1970, his legendary trip to Las Vegas with Oscar Zeta Acosta in search of the American Dream, and his doomed trip to Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, when Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner pulled the story and canceled his health insurance while enroute across the Pacific. Many of the letters were filed from Owl Farm, his fortified compound in Woody Creek in the wee hours of the morning. Thompson reveals his complex working process and inner-machinery behind Gonzo journalism while demonstrating his uncanny ability to write with vicious, razor sharp teeth and brandish the powerful cultural voice of a two-ton sledgehammer.

My main luxury in those years - a necessary luxury, in fact - was the ability to work in and out of my home-base fortress in Woody Creek. It was a very important psychic anchor for me, a crucial grounding point where I always knew I had love, friends, & good neighbors. It was like my personal Lighthouse that I could see from anywhere in the world - no matter where I was, or how weird & crazy & dangerous it got, everything would be okay if I could just make it home. When I made that hairpin turn up the hill onto Woody Creek Road, I knew I was safe."


To Aspen and Back: An American Journey
Buy To Aspen and Back: An American Journey from
By Peggy Clifford

Former Aspen Times managing editor and founder of a daily startup newspaper, The Aspen Flyer, Peggy Clifford brilliantly parallels the history of modern Aspen with the dawn of social change in post-War America. Clifford provides a detailed account of how Walter Paepcke moved into town to create a skiing Camelot – a dream perhaps fully realized when the Kennedy’s began skiing Aspen in the late 60s. She vividly documents the Cinderella-like emergence of a sleepy mining and ranching town to a world-class resort of affluence, exclusivity, tourism, and unregulated – albeit controversial - real estate and condo development. Clifford discusses the evolution of Aspen’s notoriously brutal small town politics and the various power plays of influential aristocracy like Paepcke, Shorty Pabst, Claudine Longet, Fritz Benedict, Ned Vare, Bob Anderson, and – of course – Hunter S. Thompson. Clifford’s voice is eloquent and her message is woeful. Like many, she eventually leaves Aspen for good, frustrated with what Aspen had become. To Aspen and Back reads like a breath of cool, fresh air for anyone fascinated with the American Dream and Aspen as both a place and the idea. Most editions in circulation include an introduction by Hunter S. Thompson

American fantasies start in places like Aspen. They are shown on television and described in magazine articles. They are believed by more and more people and finally accepted as facts. In places like Aspen, someone declares nature to be not only superior o man but separate from him; someone else says that growth is destructive; and someone else says that the basic laws are not laws but clichés. In places like Aspen, people make up new rules for the old, old game, and their bravado is taken as proof tat they are right. But fantasies are ephemeral at best. They fade and leave us face to face with the facts.